I had dinner with a couple hundred fellow journalists this weekend; the best part was conversation about radio, and then some radio I heard on my long trip home.
First, I got an answer to something which vaguely bothered me for the last few months. For decades, the Associated Press offered a very solid, reliable radio service. If you owned a radio station and didn’t have an affiliation with CBS/NBC/ABC you could buy AP radio and get a respectable five minute report at the top of every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
One of my little pleasures as a SiriusXM subscriber has been that the channel I listen to most, POTUS (the all-politics channel), ran AP radio news. So when I was driving to work, or especially on the weekend, I got to catch a newscast or two. But sometime in the last few months, AP went away, replaced by an unbranded newscast that uses some CNN talent. It’s ok, but I miss the AP.
Turns out the AP discontinued its “live” newscasts when it comes to overnights and weekends, so SiriusXM switched providers.
My impression is that doing overnights and weekends was expensive, and a lot of radio stations – as we all know – don’t do any news at all. I’m sure it wasn’t a money maker, the last few years haven’t been easy for the AP, so this was probably the practical thing to do.
Still, there’s not a lot left in the commercial space when it comes to reputable, trustworthy radio news, and not having the AP, or as much of the AP, is a loss.
One of my dinner companions got stuck dealing with TV professionally, but is a radio guy at heart, and we fell to talking about the merits of streaming versus tuning it in the old fashioned way. He said it sounds better, even when it sounds worse, when you tune in the AM or FM band. I agree, and I don’t think this is just old guy nostalgia – the new book The New Analog makes a persuasive case that the absence of “noise” in digital sound is a loss. I don’t fully understand it, but somehow not having noise – the background hiss you get with even the best radio signal, the inherent rumble and pops and clicks you get with a record – diminishes the “signal,” the part you came to listen to.
Another TV guy who likes radio a lot was sitting across our big table from me, and because it was noisy and crowded, we ended up shouting our conversation at each other. He told me about his plan to corral an AM radio station on the fringe of New York City. If he pulls it off, it’ll be an education for high school students and a real, honest to goodness emergency station for the area.
We talked about how radio stations used to be owned by local guys who wanted to be somebody in their town, and how that impulse meant that they spent some money, usually in the service of making a lot more, but also to make the station stand out with its news, its DJs. Sure, they liked the money, but it was just as important that they got to sit at the head table at the Chamber of Commerce dinner, got invited to sit on the hospital board. The vastly more efficient mega-radio chains have no interest in any of that.
I worked for an AM station back in the 70s, and we ran local news up until noon on Saturday and were local with our disc jockeys all weekend. Sunday morning was reserved for local church services, as I recall. That’s changed: many (most?) commercial radio stations, especially AM stations, abandon any pretense of being anything other than a money machine on the weekends. They sell time by the hour, running pitches from lawyers, money guys, assorted bottom feeders. It brings money in, but to my ear ruins any identity the station has.
My dinner companion told me that’s pretty much the state of play in New York City, which surprised me. I would have thought there was a big enough audience there to sustain regular operations all weekend long. He told me the two commercial all-news stations, WCBS and WINS, don’t do that. He admires them for that. So do I.
I had a three hour drive home Sunday morning, and – speaking of weekend radio – lucked out. The first thing I hit, randomly twisting the dial on the Passat’s FM, was a guy saying ‘You wouldn’t want to start your Sunday morning without polka, would you?” Now there’s a pitch. Turns out it was Siena College’s station. College-affiliated stations – unless they’re NPR operations – are always rock or rap or something else youthful, in my experience, as are the DJs. This was different, and pretty wonderful. I don’t know from polka, nor care much, but there were a couple of community guys behind the mics, they knew their stuff – this show has apparently been around for a while – and they were taking requests from an audience whose names all ended in complicated combinations of vowels and consonants, and who – it appeared – were all longtime listeners. My impression was the show has a following that extends through the middle of New York state, from Syracuse to Albany. I listened until the signal went away.
Then, in honor of Sunday morning, I got religion. A station was running EWTN programming, (the Catholic channel), which I’ve heard a little on SiriusXM. I caught most of a half hour show dedicated to being pro-life; usually when I hear someone talk about being anti-abortion, it’s in the context of a debate with someone on the other side, and it’s usually more noise than anything else. This show featured interviews with the woman who heads the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and with anti-abortion U.S. Senator Mike Lee. None of it was all that probing or incisive, but I got to hear what pro-life folks talk like when they’re among friends, which was valuable in and of itself.
Finally, for the last leg of the trip going north from Utica, I found a preacher. He was going on about spiritually mature and immature people, about the difference between what is commanded or forbidden in the Bible and what’s merely stuff to argue over, about selfishness, about not throwing obstacles in peoples’ paths – and yes, it was, for an unenlightened heathen, as confusing as described. But the guy was a good talker, knew when to take breaks, and I can see how people have been drawn in for decades by the voice coming from the speaker. As weekend radio goes, not horrible.