The architecture of radio: Failing or fun? 

click to enlarge View from the hotel window. - JEFF SPEVAK
  • JEFF SPEVAK
  • View from the hotel window.
When he travels on business, my old high-school pal Mike always takes photos from his hotel room window. Great idea. An unfiltered view of America.

So here’s my photo, from a couple of weeks ago. A view from the eighth floor of a Philadelphia hotel. Just like Mike’s photos, it’s a vast expanse of tarpaper. Bulky rooftop air-conditioning units. Ladders to nowhere. An unimaginative flatness.

City rooftops are where American architecture fails.

Also, there was no radio in my hotel room. And here I was, at a radio convention.

As a failing, flailing, late-season call-up to the radio profession – having been kicked out of print journalism just in time to preserve my sanity – the NON-COMMvention has been a part of my catch-up game the last few years. Such gatherings are, as they say, “Where non-commercial radio stations uncover the best new music.”

Of course, that doesn’t explain the festival’s evening concerts with War, Natalie Merchant and Josh Ritter.

There may be two reasons for a new-music convention to book War. One is that, as I looked around the room, many of us radio folk appeared to have aged out of radio’s desired demographic of ages 25 to 54. So the people who program these four-day gatherings of radio strategists with furrowed brows bring in something the guests will remember. And like.

War remains relevant, in that way you say “gee, after all these years, nothing’s changed.” As in, “The world is a ghetto…” I knew all the old songs, so I remain relevant.
click to enlarge War plays at the NON-COMMvention in Philadelphia. - JEFF SPEVAK
  • JEFF SPEVAK
  • War plays at the NON-COMMvention in Philadelphia.
Josh Ritter was beaming like this was the greatest evening of his career, proclaiming, “I’m happy for the first time in a long time.” Still relevant, at age 46.

Natalie Merchant seemed delightfully loose onstage as she presented music from her first new album in 12 years. She was relatable. Relevant. No longer spinning in alien circles, as she did in her 10,000 Maniacs days, singing “What’s the Matter Here?”

I did a phone interview with Merchant years ago. After the call ended, the phone rang. It was Merchant, calling back. Of the thousands of phone interviews I’ve done in more than three decades of interviewing musicians, she is the only one to ever call back.

“I forgot to talk about the old-growth forest,” she said. I knew nothing about what she was talking about. As I learned later, Merchant was referring to Washington Grove, a 26-acre forest in the southwest corner of Rochester. And she was very serious about this: old-growth forests – protected trees of significant age – do matter.

Among others at this year’s NON-COMM, I suppose the “best new music” was represented by a Philadelphia rock band, Low Cut Connie, whose frontman, Adam Weiner, almost spends more time standing on his piano than playing it. There was a Ghanaian-Australian alternative hip-hop artist Genesis Owusu. The 22-year-old English pop singer Arlo Parks.

And Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley introduced its song, “Me and My Man,” with the explanation, “this song was written by my dog,” so I paid especially close attention to this band from Providence, Rhode Island. (Deer Tick has a June 8 show at Canandaigua’s Lincoln Hill Farms.)

Will any of them make it? Big, I mean?

Maybe not like Rochester’s Danielle Ponder. Oh, she’s not new to us. A former Rochester assistant district attorney, I’d guess she has been singing around here for 15 years. More, likely. On the final day of each NON-COMM, there’s a morning event called “The Music Meeting.” A piece of unidentified music is played, and everyone rates it by holding up a card, ranking it from 1 to 10. Last year, a song from Ponder’s debut album was played. And she got all 9s and10s from the room of radio folks.

It’s unusual for an artist’s music to be played for a second straight year at “The Music Meeting.” But this year, there was Ponder again. With a new song, “Roll the Credits,” played for the radio people. And again, the cards were all 9s and 10s.

As Ponder tours the country, she’s getting raves at every stop. She recently bought a house here. (I hope she gets back a few times this summer to mow the lawn.)

So that was some of the music at NON-COMM. In other aspects, this was a typical convention. You’re sitting in the bar at 9:30 in the morning, thinking “is it too early for whiskey?”

Provocatively named radio panels drove the days: “Format? What Format?” “The Evolving Role of On-Air Hosts” and “The NON-COMMversation,” this year featuring Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of the indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney.
Brownstein – who you may be familiar with as one of the stars of the satirical comedy TV series “Portlandia” – spoke about deejays and how, “the curatorial spirit can change lives.” And, “I like the idea that there’s a real human being picking things out. And not an algorithm.”

She recalled growing up in Portland, Oregon, where there was a buzz about a band playing the local clubs. Brownstein remembered the music as “site-specific and immersive. This music just wanted to change things.” Tucker suggested there was “a restless agitation to it.”

And when the scruffy, grungy trio released its second album, with a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana had arrived.

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At last, lunchtime arrived. Allowing a moment to review my copious notes about these radio-centric conversations. Words such as:

“The radio will always be our biggest megaphone…”

“The center lane is ’80s alternative.”

We are change agents, as someone said. The music people listen to is incumbent on the programming. Radio programming is risk-taking versus fear.

Buzz phrases were flying around the room like someone had kicked over a hornet’s nest. References to “crack the mic,” which I guess means turn the damn thing on and start speaking. But I was afraid to ask, because I didn’t want to look like the stupid guy in the room. “Bandwidth,” that was a common murmur. Used not in a radio-tech way, but as a measure by which your programming has the capacity to define itself.

Oh, how I hate that phrase, bandwidth. As if it’s all a calculation. Rather than something from the gut.

“Radio is where music meets social responsibility… Radio makes music sound better… Radio makes all of our lives better…”

But… but… is the architecture of radio failing?

Does the bandwidth even matter? Someone suggested that, while driving in a convertible (probably with the top down, I assume, so pedestrians can get that Doppler effect), you’re not listening anyway, the music is wallpaper. That’s a complication: is every listener’s experience the same from one point to another?

A panelist suggested the Austin music scene, one of the strongest in the country, is in danger of losing its “independence and weirdness.” Plus, it was claimed, live music brings $2 billion into the Austin community each year. Every community could use a taste of that.

Radio programming is a question of “personality vs. consistency.” Radio programming once included the dictum: “Do not play female artists back-to-back.” Radio programming has a cultural responsibility: “We have a role in helping artists quit their day jobs.”

So much of this speaks in absolutes about an industry in flux. Contradictions emerge. Or, at least, there are different routes to explore. A younger audience keeps radio relevant, yet there’s a need for older material to hang onto the older audience. Perhaps this is, as someone said, “Different points of view being represented.” With a responsibility to “bring different people into the conversation.” Perhaps amplify that conversation with the acknowledgement that, “specialty shows feed the daily mix.”

Someone suggested that no one these days says, “I’m into music discovery.” As if they expect a professional, like me, to do it for them.

OK then, so who are the “crate diggers” seen in used-vinyl stores? For younger listeners, it was suggested maybe they’ll discover Fleetwood Mac for the first time.

A panel addressed the question, “How to Stay Relevant?” How do we know radio – or anything – is moving in the right direction? Because, as one panelist said, “the Best Minds created the current situation.” So the issues arose:

“Always be skeptical of research.”

“Search for external validation.”

“Data has a way of dumbing down entertainment.”

“Consider the possibility you might be wrong.”

“Product managers vs. music enthusiasts, who has your ear?”

“Artistic freedom vs. measured by computer-program analysts.”

“Art as a calculation.”

The game now is ‘alternate ways to listen.’ Your station managers now rely on an analytics dashboard rather than “anecdotal evidence. It’s all about finding kids on their devices. Apps. Spotify. Apple music. Digital outreach. Entry points to social media.

Social media. “It’s emerged over the last 15 years,” one radio programmer said. But a month ago, he abandoned the fountain of misinformation that is Twitter.

In this NON-COMM room of non-commercial radio people, there were reminders of: Don’t forget to remind your audience of digital fundraising. You like radio? “Prove that you want this to exist.”

It’s an evolution, the architecture of a media that seems to be arriving at one conclusion. “A student with ear buds is the future of music.”

Yes, and one other thing, we were told.

“Remember to have fun.”

Jeff Spevak is a Senior Arts Writer for WXXI and CITY Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].
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