The Rock and Roll Crystal Ball
I love radio. I was hooked on it from the earliest times. I was one of the weird kids who called the request line hoping the DJ would answer it and play my request. I even won something - once. It was a haircut.
When I started listening to the radio in 1965, there were only a few formats: the ubiquitous TOP 40 (I have used that phrase now and will never use it again.); Country was "twang-a-licious". (These days when I listen to Country I'm not really sure if it's country or the logical derivative of the old west coast southern californica folk rock sound.); Easy Listening played "Ol' Blue Eyes" and "Dean-o" and getting real alternative with that Beatles song "Michelle"; Beautiful Music (which got it's name because it was usually "full-on" orchestral string arrangements of pop songs.) which was probably very therapeutic for stroke patients. In the really big cities a few other formats existed. Jazz, Classical, Rhythm and Blues, News Talk - all of them had their niche.
Then something wonderful happened, from my point of view here at album oriented KPRI-FM. On April 7, 1967, a San Francisco DJ named Tom Donahue accidentally revolutionized radio. His first radio job was during the late 1940s as a DJ in West Virginia. By the mid-60s, Donahue was already legendary. He had been in the record business hiring Sly Stone as a producer. He'd been in the concert business hiring the Beatles for their last public concert.
KMPX radio in San Francisco hired Donahue to host their 8 to 12midnight show. Donahue's deal allowed him to play album tracks, play bands live in the studio, refuse to air certain commercials and make statements of a political nature. It was chance to restore radio back to the people. He was going to form a community of listeners who had music as a commonality. Moreover, it worked. Flying in the face of all the "corporate highly produced boss-radio stations of the day", KMPX with Donahue sounded like the inmates were running the asylum by today's standards. An immediate ratings success in San Francisco, listeners had a station that they could belong too. Under Donahue's guiding hand, the radio station dealt with real issues and the lifestyles of late-60s San Francisco.
Then something happened that surprised the KMPX management. The ratings improved. And when the ratings improved, management made KMPX the first full-time ALBUM ORIENTED ROCK station in the United States. This UNDERGROUND format was a breath of fresh air.
That is when things got rocky. Some of the advertisers complained that they liked the ratings but did not like the political messages coming off the KMPX broadcast. Unlike many businesses, radio has two main customers. The listener group who get the product free and the advertisers who get to interrupt the music at regular intervals and sell their products to the listening audience. When the ratings improved, advertisers complained about what they heard on KMPX. Sometimes advertisers are a rather sensitive lot. It is their money. They can always find another media outlet to take their cash.
Asked to change their ways on the air, pretty much the entire KMPX staff jumped ship and went to another San Francisco station across the street on the FM band. That station was KSAN-FM. And the management left Tom and his band of merry men/women alone. It was a smart move on their part. KSAN-FM became the dominant radio station of the underground movement in the Bay Area.
There was a reason to go back in time for this article. First, the anniversary of album rock radio is coming up on April 7. The other reason is that sometime, to go forward, you have to go backward.
Where is the new MUSIC Underground?
That is hard to say. For sure, the new underground is a lot more fragmented. The youth of today aren't out demonstrating, wearing flowers in their hair or radically concerned with changing the world. All the same, they have grown up in a world where video games are the new way to hear the cool tracks.
Here's a thought about the success of "your friendly neighborhood punk-rock band" Green Day. The title track to their Grammy winning album "Green Day presents American Idiot" was launched in the Madden Football 2005 video game created by Electronic Arts. The first week the video game was available, it sold 1.35 million units. The song rotates about once every hour, so during the first week of the video game's release, more people heard "American Idiot" than would hear the song on the radio in two months.
Madden 2005 isn't the only game to realize this trend. Tony Hawk Pro-Skater is another series that once upon a recent past paid record companies for the rights to music tracks. Low have the mighty fallen. The game-developers now receive payment from record labels for "Music Product Placement." Grand Theft Auto (the maker, RockStar has a division in San Diego) allows one to change radio stations while you drive around the city wreaking havoc.
Television is another "new frontier". Television producers are looking for "virgin" songs that have a chance of breaking traditional barriers. There is no Ed Sullivan show today. However, "The OC" does connect with a substantial group of young rock and rollers.
Are television and video games the new underground? The elements are there. Each has a point of view, commitment to a lifestyle, a sense of community and taps the latest technology.
However, don't count radio out. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and say No - not yet. Somewhere out there, another Tom Donahue exists. He or she is eighteen years old, a music junkie, and calling the local DJ to win a hair cut. In addition, despite the nose ring and the tribal tattoo, they will be there performing mouth to mouth on some radio station someday and breathe new life into the whole business.