Sharon Tohline, one of Alexandria’s newest residents, pens an open letter to the disc jockeys of Central Louisiana.

By the way, I’d be remiss not to mention that Sharon’s previous post was the 1,000th post on CenLamar, which means this is the 1,001st post.

An open letter to Central Louisiana Radio Stations:

Dear Disc Jockeys,

I want to preface the words I am about to utter by informing you that I’m not a music snob.  I spent four years in California, central headquarters of music snobbery.  I have seen two grown men come to blows over the relative worth of “noise music” versus “ambient music.”  I don’t need obscure music to make me happy.  I do like to have a reliable radio station to tune into, though.  I am a dedicated but open-minded music lover who considers radio a vital format even in the era of iPods and Sirius.  Radio has the power to take the pop cultural pulse of its audience, to form an image of the moods and attitudes of an entire population.

D.J.’s of Cenla, I do not think you are living up to the mission of radio.  Your choices confound me.  I had always understood radio stations to be something organized by theme.  I grant that these themes are generally vague.  “Classic rock” stations can get away with playing 70’s cock rock right alongside 80’s hard rock.  But they still behave in a fairly predictable manner.  They will never throw Madonna into the mix, or anything featuring Sid Vicious.  R&B stations do not suddenly break out a Johnny Cash record or something by the Rolling Stones.

Arguments can be made in favor of genre-bending D.J.’s.  Someone who normally plays contemporary hip-hop might feature a track by Beck, or maybe something by the Beatles. If they did, this would be an unspeakably cool move.  It would seem self-aware and interesting.  It might even spark some discussion about the relationship of those artists to a rainbow of genres.

Frankly, Cenla D.J.’s,  I don’t think you’re participating in either of these schools of thought.  I think, in fact, that most of you are tossing CD’s at random into a disc-changer and hitting “play.”  Yesterday on 93.1, a station that seems to play almost exclusively Top 40 hip-hop and rap, I heard a contemporary country song.  Last weekend I swear  I heard Phil Collins fade in directly after a Guns N Roses tune.  Have you no ability to discern your own audience?  I cannot think of any single person who listens to both Flo Rida and Trace Adkins.  And I cannot even begin to imagine a heavy metal fan’s commentary on “Sussudio.”

As far as I can tell, the radio stations that come through my stereo are divided into three categories: Old Music, New Music, and Religious.  Is this the problem?  Is it that you’re having trouble competing with the preachers?  There are certainly a lot of them, I’ll grant you.  Baton Rouge has these stations.  Ditto New Orleans.  But as far as I know, there are only a couple, and they are most prominent on Sundays.  Here you can listen to preaching pretty much any day of the year, from a variety of voices.  At some point I’d like to undertake a closer study to discover which denomination dominates the airwaves.  (Does congregation B’nai Israel get a station?  Or is that too much to ask?)

Sometimes I enjoy the grab bag quality of my radio.  Driving home from Wal-Mart one day, worried about my high grocery bill and my relatively low income, I happened upon “Red, Red Wine” by way of UB-40, the UK band who, according to VH1’s Pop-Up Video, are named after the federal form Brits had to fill out to go on unemployment.  This seemed like great stage timing.  I sang along cheesily as they promised that red, red wine would keep me rocking all of the time, despite my financial woes.

But I’m not always so amused.  If random playlists could encourage listeners to broaden their horizons and appreciate new types of music, I would be all in favor of your methods.  But I’m just not sure that’s ever going to happen.  Music is generally something people are passionate about.  When I hear the high-octave piano tinkling in the background of an Arcade Fire song, I want to grab the collar of the nearest person and force them to listen, to feel the energy I feel when I hear “Neighborhood #1”.  We deserve the right to love our favorite styles and to pan the ones that just don’t suit us.  But when a station isn’t excited or considerate about its own playlists, how can it expect its listeners to grant it any dedication?

The CD player in my car is broken, and the device I purchased to play my iPod through my radio can’t find a clear station to broadcast on.  I listen to a lot of radio in my car, and there’s one thing I’ve learned:  if a song comes on that doesn’t suit me, I’m likely to just change the station.  I don’t need obscure music all the time.  I don’t have to have a college radio D.J. droning along in an un-inflected manner.  But I do need to know which stations are my enemies and which are my friends.  You’re about to drive me to the preachers, Cenla.  At least they get excited about their content.

15 thoughts

  1. The DJ’s of Central Louisiana are mindless zombies hired off the streets to fill a chair in each respective radio station’s control room and punch an occasional random button or slide a control volume.
    Oh… and once in a while they say something like 76 rocks. Most of them have not a clue as to what you have written about…

  2. I have but four words for ya – Sirius-XM Satelite Radio. I got it last summer and love it. Worth it not to hear the goobers on the air in Alex.

  3. Dear Sharon,

    I’m trying to figure out exactly what you find so irksome about Alexandria’s DJs. Is it that the specific, yet random (non-radio-station-themed) songs that occasionally play on 93.1 stink, or do you just dislike the fact that the DJs insert a random song, regardless of the specific song?

    I can only speak from my experience listening to 93.1 (something that was exceedingly rare after 1988). During the 90s I remember a random playing of The Clash while riding in my father’s car on some afternoon. I was very excited to hear it. I also remember hearing a Talking Heads song, totally out of place in the set that had been playing before. I thought for once the radio station was playing music that I like. (In other words, I was excited to think to myself: “Yay! I’m part of the mainstream!” or “Yay! The mainstream finally caught up with me!) By no means an easy feat, because my tastes are pretty eclectic.

    While I grant you that FM/AM radio is a wasteland these days, I find it hard to be sympathetic to the strict thematization of stations that you appear to favor in your post (and hence, why I asked the question at the start of this reply). I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but I do feel strongly that the strict thematization of radio since the 1980s, and really taking hold of the entire FM band for the last 15 years, is what makes radio so terrible today. This is what was so clearly awful about Clear Channel radio. DJs had perhaps 100-150 songs they could play on the station. This was the product of marketing and commercial practices that concluded people should feel overwhelmingly safe when choosing to listen to a radio station. The listeners, presumably, wouldn’t want to change the channel because, for whatever weird logic, they enjoyed being pegged into a narrow category of music. Radio became insipid, uninspired, and above all, safe.

    While I do not disagree with you or the previous poster about the lack of on-air talent playing the music in Cenla, I do long for the days when DJs truly mattered. Radio is a powerful medium, that when used by creative people can be more provocative, entertaining, and informative than television, newspapers, magazines, or movies. Listen to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and read the news reports following its original broadcast for the effect of radio in truly great hands. Or, for another example, have you ever listened to an NPR story, only to arrive at home before you finish listening to it, but rather than get out of the car and go inside the house, you choose to stay in the car for another five minutes to hear the story all the way to the end?

    Ok, so these aren’t examples of music, but my point is broader: radio has a lot of potential power. All I’m asking is for someone behind the mic who has a little knowledge and intellect to make the music interesting and the overall listening experience enjoyable. What I’m talking about is close to what you had in mind when you mentioned and dismissed the “college radio station DJ.” In the interest of full disclosure, I was a college radio DJ. You’re right, there are plenty of bad college radio announcers, but this is because of a lack of critical discipline. What I mean by this is college DJs tend to be so enthusiastic about their musical tastes and interests that they often forget they’re hosting a radio program. Announcing on the radio is as much an “art” as the music being played. Too often, in the case of many bad college DJs and especially on commercial radio, we find announcers who fail to appreciate the creative opportunity a mic can offer. Some of the better DJs I knew in college didn’t have to use the mic, but could create mind-blowing playlists. Others were as witty on the air as they were clever in putting together a song set. One thing was common to both of them, they could always make the radio interesting and occasionally exciting.

    My advice to the radio stations would be to open up the music catalog. If it’s a “themed” radio station, playing rock-n-roll from the 1970s and 1980s, fine, there are plenty of songs to choose. But let the DJ have liberty on the air, and hire DJs who have the talent, originality, and knowledge necessary to making good radio. Meanwhile, we listeners must resist the desire by the stations to shoehorn us into neat categories only able to digest one kind of pop confection.

    I’ll leave this post with this nugget from Elvis Costello regarding the radio: “I want to bite the hand that feeds me. I want to bite that hand so badly. I want to wish they’d never seen me.”

  4. Oops, a typo in the quotation from Elvis Costello. It should have read: “I want to bite the hand the hand that feeds me. I want to bite that hand so badly. I want to MAKE THEM wish they’d never seen me.”

  5. And yet again! For the last time, the right quote, typed in properly: “I want to bite the hand that feeds me. I want to bite that hand so badly. I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” Elvis Costello, “Radio Radio”

  6. Chronos,
    I’ll forgive your typos if you forgive mine. I’m typing on my phone’s keypad and I don’t really trust my fingers!
    I think that you and I are actually after some of the same things. The kind of passion you express is exactly the sort that could save radio and there are still some great talents out there. My frustration isn’t with the idea of genre-bending. I believe there are all types of wonderful music that deserve to be explored. My complaint is more with what I see as the haphazard quality ofthe sequences I’m hearing. I agree that beautiful moments can come from the appearance of an unexpected song on the dial – a beauty you touch on in your story about hearing the Clash on a mainstream station. What I’m arguing is that those moments only happen when the songs are arranged with carr and artistry. The random selections I’ve heard have seemed more like the kind of market- sedating radio you mention in your comment. They’re random selections of top forty market-tested music. In other words, it seems like the only requirement for a song to get played is that it once have been a mainstream hit.
    I think of d.j.’ing a bit like writing. A good writer can throw together seemingly disparate ideas because be has the craft to illuminate the way those ideas fit together. But a bad writer can make even closely related thoughts appear disconnected. What I was referencing in the post is randomness without craft – a new idea introduced in the wrong paragraph, without context. Another example might be if you were listening to NPR and suddenly, without warning, heard Sean Hannity’s voice coming through the speakers.
    I’m all for talented d.j.’s who can mix the most unexpected set lists. Bit if those mixes are made without care, they’re more likely to alienate the listener than introduce him to new ideas.
    You sound like you would be up to the challenge, though. What’s your ideal random playlist for a genre-bending show?

  7. God, thank you so much for sending our community someone who can tell us just how backwards ass we are around here. Also, thank you for giving us Lamar’s blog so she has a forum to present us our inadequacies.

  8. HAHA Welcome to the Radio Hell that is Cenla Sharon!

    In all fairness, Red 104 is a MASSIVE improvement to the previous monotony we had around here.

    There are a few good spots though. On a good day you can pick up KBON and 92.1. They’re definitely eclectic, but fun.

    As for Q93…you should have heard them a few years ago. They used to remix EVERYTHING! Even commercials were played in a resampled order! Seriously it was ridiculous!

  9. I don’t listen to the radio. I hate hearing the same ten to twenty songs or so repeat themselves every 2 hours. To me, personally, it seems as if the DJ’s don’t keep track of what they played. Completely lacking imagination.

  10. Having worked for one of the conglomerates that assembled a group of stations only to sell out to Clear Channel I’ll add my two cents. Consolidation and “super jocks” are what has killed local radio. During the period I worked in radio, we had jocks live and as I used to say via “memorex” (for those of you old enough to remember that commercial) occasionally on two stations at the same time. It never bothered management because their costs were driven down.

    Computers and WANs (wide access networks) changed radio into what we as listeners have to suffer through today. To find a true local station is almost impossible. Programming decisions are no longer made locally. Their made by some guy in a much larger city, programming 10-20-30 or more stations at one time. Jocks like Bob & Tom and others are broadcasting on just as many at the same time, all the while trying to keep it “feeling local.”

    I’ve managed to find a few open bands to plug my ipod into in order to hear what I want, without commercials and without having to pay a subscription fee. Keep playing with the dial, you’ll find them too.

  11. Bird has drawn back the bow and hit the target dead center. It started in the early 80’s. Then spread like a cancer infecting large, medium and small market stations. It began with “radio consultants”

  12. Hi All,

    First off, I apprecite all the info on the way radio consolidation actually works. I heard stirrings about this problem when I lived in California, but L.A. is stil saturated enough with hipsters, etc. that they have some thriving local stations. I suppose the major difference between here and my other places of residence is that there isn’t a college station, so I end up listening to mass-market radio a bit more than usual.

    I wish that there were a way for a community to run its own station – something funded by listeners, much the way NPR is. Granted, it would be without the government funding that NPR receives, but a large portion of their funding still comes from listeners/members.

    Trey – As with any genre, I’m guessing that definitions of “cock rock” vary slightly, but the best example I can give is music that’s loud, guitar-heavy, sexually charged stuff that came from bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. It was what came before the metal bands of the 80’s like Motley Crue, Posion, etc. If you’re at all interested in these sorts of bands, there’s a great music writer named Chuck Klosterman who wrote a whole book on metal music called Fargo Rock City. (He’s the one I take the term “cock rock” from, so I’m defining it the way he does.)

  13. Actually, here’s a follow-up question regarding community-based radio:

    How is it that we have so many religious stations here, but we don’t have any local music stations? Is this a funding issue? Is it that the churches have large enough coffers to dip into that buying airtime is easy? Because I’ve never lived in a place with so many religious networks – not even in Dallas, which is bursting at the seams with mega-churches.

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