Category Archives: radio

dark horse

I’ve tried all of the major music streaming services, and am currently subscribed to several – Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, (part of my car subscription), Jazz/ClassicalRadio. I’m on the free tier of Slacker, though I’ve paid for it in the past, and have a six month deal for Microsoft’s Groove Music.

I think I missed an obvious winner.

It’s early days, but I’ve been using a service that’s been around longer than any of the above, that is absolutely free, but somehow doesn’t get much attention. It’s AccuRadio.

What’s AccuRadio?

It’s the brainchild of Kurt Hanson, who publishes the must-read RAIN: Radio and Internet Newsletter. If I understand the history of the thing correctly, Hanson created AccuRadio as proof of concept for the things being talked about in the newsletter.

In any event, AccuRadio is not on-demand – you can’t pick out songs or albums to play.  It is a whole lot of (the number that gets tossed around is more than a thousand) channels of just about any kind of music you’d want. So it’s on the Pandora/Slacker/SiriusXM/JazzRadio/ClassicalRadio end of the spectrum.

How does AccuRadio stack up? As a jazz/classical music listener, my initial answer is “very well.” As in, if I had to use nothing but AccuRadio, it would be more than ok.

Compare JazzRadio and AccuRadio: JazzRadio offers 40 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood. It throws in a couple of blues channels and some Brazilian/bossa nova. You can listen for free, but you have to pay to use the apps or to get the higher quality streaming. When I bought it, it was $60 a year, which also gave me ClassicalRadio and a couple of streaming services I don’t  care about.  I paid because I wanted the higher sound quality, up to 320 kbps for mp3s.

AccuRadio’s jazz section offers an astounding 76 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood, but also offering channels devoted to single composers (an all-Ellington channel!), a “top 50 jazz albums of all time” channel, even a channel for Chicago’s legendary AACM (Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians). That’s deep.  And AccuRadio is free, as are its apps. Even if you wanted to, you can’t pay for it.

I’m guessing the sound quality isn’t as good as the paid-for services, but listening on my Sonos Play:1s, I’m hard pressed to hear much difference. In theory, there are commercials, but over a couple of days of listening, I have yet to hear one.

Oh, and if the jazz section’s Brazilian channel doesn’t do it for you, you can find another four Brazilian channels in their own section.

The classical section is equally good; I especially like the channel devoted to the conductor Herbert von Karajan – you could spend weeks sampling what he put on record – and the channels set aside just for European and American orchestras. Like ClassicalRadio, AccuRadio gives you channels for composers, instruments, types of composition (symphonies, string quartets), eras, moods.

Did I mention it’s free?

Hanson and company apparently regard Pandora’s “build your own” model as a bug, not a feature, because even though there’s an interesting way for you to hear your favorite songs more often, in general AccuRadio has already done all the selecting work for you. That said, you do have a degree of control: you can skip songs and ban an artist or song from a channel.

There’s a dedication to craft and detail that pervades the whole operation – even though it appears AccuRadio runs very lean. You want Broadway on Pandora? You’ve got a handful of choices. SiriusXM? Just one. AccuRadio? Try 45 channels. Reggae? There are separate, specialist channels for both dub and instrumentals.

AccuRadio has branded itself a few different ways. The current slogan is “Better radio for your workday,” and Hanson has said he’s not chasing young listeners. The service is aimed squarely at people from their mid-30s to their mid-60s, sitting at a desk with a browser tab open, quietly playing something while they work. AccuRadio supposedly doesn’t quite hit the top 10 of streaming services, but the strategy they’re using strikes me as smart, going at a demographic the other services seemingly aren’t all that interested in.

I’ve struggled a little to describe exactly how good I think AccuRadio is, so here’s my best shot: it’s the Linux of streaming services. In almost all respects, it beats the ones you pay for. You can’t get much better than that.



news blues

As noted earlier, I was impressed with Houston’s KTRH, which did what good radio should do in times of crisis – go extremely two-way, passing on news and information while hearing from listeners live, on the air.

KTRH had hosts who did just that from the git go; I listened on and off for three or four days and got a perspective on the flooding I didn’t get watching the national news. It was good, though I kept wondering – where are the station’s reporters? After all, KTRH calls itself “Houston’s news, weather and traffic station.”

As it turns out, KTRH isn’t – as I assumed – an all or mostly news operation. It’s really a talk station, with Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin chewing up big parts of the broadcast day. As Tom Taylor’s radio newsletter put it, “Houston’s a market with no all-news station and just one big talker, iHeart’s KTRH/740.”

So two things: I’m even more impressed by KTRH doing what it did – going and staying live for an extended period of time – without the backing of a large newsroom. The station did hook up with one of the local TV stations, which helped with things like live press conferences.

The other thing is: how is it that the fourth largest metro area in the U.S. doesn’t have a full time radio news operation? One was tried in Houston a few years back, but it was abandoned three years ago in favor of, if I recall correctly, classic rap. All-news cost too much, the owners said at the time.

Yes, news is expensive, but it can also bring big rewards. Witness WTOP in Washington, DC, a commercial (as opposed to public) all-newser that’s consistently number 1 in the market. And I believe it makes Hubbard Broadcasting a great deal of money.

So what’s changed in the world when a market with millions of people can’t support a robust news station? I remember 25 years ago in Syracuse NY, a much, much, much smaller town, when there was not one but two radio stations with news staffs of nine or 10 people. Seems to me Houston should have one with at least that many, because it’s not getting any quieter out there.


well done, so far

Houston got hammered overnight. Rain of biblical proportions was no joke; the pictures Sunday are hard to believe.

I’m listening to Houston radio today through the iHeart and TuneIn apps, as I did with Corpus Christi last night, with one notably different result. Houston’s all-news KTRH, which is an iHeart property,  is doing exactly what I didn’t hear in Corpus Christi – using radio as a giant community bulletin board.

I’m not hearing reporters out on the street, which is a big weakness; that said, two hosts are gracefully fielding calls from the public, getting callers to describe what they’re seeing and doing, passing on emergency information and bringing in a Weather Channel meteorologist, not as a substitute for local knowledge but as a valuable addition.

The web site’s not great, but they’re posting closings and – this is different from what I typically see on commercial radio sites – they’re making a real effort to keep things updated on-line.

Also, KUHF, the University of Houston’s public radio, was taking the audio feed from one of the local TV stations Sunday morning. TV has greater resources, and I heard a reporter out in the weather. I’d still rather have radio people doing radio, but the information on KUHF was good.

(Update late Sunday afternoon: at some point, KUHF took back its air. I’m listening now and like KTRH they’ve got a couple of hosts fielding calls. No sign of reporters in the field yet; my assumption is that it’s proving impossible at this point to move people into position. The major TV networks got people in place only because they rolled early, and even then most of the crews are having to improvise from where ever they are, as opposed to going to the absolute worst spots.)

Now, none of this should surprise you: Houston is a huge media market, and you would expect radio to be at least as good as I’m describing. But radio tends toward disappointment, so when I hear good work it’s worth noting.

Other notes from Houston:

  • KPFT, the Pacifica community station, appeared to be in regular programming Sunday morning.
  • From my easy chair a thousand miles away, I’m surprised some other stations aren’t breaking format. There’s an AM conservative talk station, KNTH, that’s still playing weekend filler. (I wrongly noted it was an iHeart station earlier; it’s a Salem operation.) Also, KPVU, Texas A & M’s public, was playing gospel Sunday morning.
  • There are a lot of Houston radio stations and I won’t get to listen to every one, but if KTRH ends up being the only locally originated, continuous radio coverage I’ll be disappointed. (Update: As noted above, at least one other station, KUHF, is also on the air with special coverage.)
  • iHeart owns a lot of Houston’s radio. This shouldn’t surprise me or anyone, but the sheer scale of the operation – it feels like every third or fourth station I click on is an iHeart property – is impressive. Most of them are going about their weekend business, though there are banners on individual station web sites directing people to KTRH for hurricane news. One radio they don’t own, KSEV, calls itself “The Voice of Texas” and specializes in conservative talk. There’s a big picture of the hurricane on the front page of the web site, but the accompanying story is two days old. Why even try?
  • And…I missed what the CBS radio cluster was doing. They’ve thrown themselves into hurricane mode as well; as far as I can tell, CBS doesn’t have an all-news in the market, but they’re apparently simulcasting on all the stations they have, including KILT, normally all sports, and KMPX, a “hot AC/adult top 40” station, says Wikipedia.

emergency non-broadcast system

The captains of commercial radio spend much of their working lives in a defensive crouch; if nothing else works – given how often they suck –  they’ll tell you ” You need us when there’s an emergency, like a natural disaster.”

That’s at least part of the argument, for instance, for pressuring cellphone manufacturers and carriers into activating the chip inside phones which allows you to pick up an FM broadcast, assuming you’re wearing headphones.

So this weekend, with Hurricane Harvey unleashing a biblical amount of rain in parts of Texas, is a fine field test.  Cell service is out in a lot of areas, and I heard a guy from the Red Cross say people should have hand-cranked radios, in order to get emergency information.

If I were in, say, Corpus Christi, with my Galaxy 7 and Koss PortaPros, or had a hand-cranked radio,  how well would I be served? I’m a long ways from Texas, but as far as I can tell, the answer is “not very.”

I spent a couple of hours this evening listening to every radio station I could stream  from Corpus Christi, and reading their web sites. Now Corpus Christi isn’t small; the population is well over 300,000.  But as far as I could tell, there isn’t a single local station on the ground in Corpus Christi, telling the stories of the worst affected areas, explaining peoples’ fears and frustrations, while also reporting on what local officials have planned.

What is there? Well, there’s an iHeart cluster, which includes News/Talk KKTX. But this evening, KKTX and other iHeart properties in Corpus Christi were carrying the chain’s San Antonio news/talk station. What they did wasn’t..awful, but there wasn’t much local, specific-to Corpus Christi news in the hour or so I listened.  Worse, the San Antonio station was relying on audio from the Weather Channel for much of its coverage. So the local station was getting its news from out of the market, which was, in turn, getting its news from a national source. Whatever happened to being the local guys who knew what’s going on?

There’s another news/talk station in Corpus Christi, KEYS, but according to the station’s web site they were knocked out by the storm. Which wouldn’t stop the station from updating its web site, but that wasn’t happening.

And so it goes for every station I could find: from Christian to contemporary hits, little or no current, local information about the hurricane. A note about web sites: almost all TV station web sites have problems of one sort or the other, failings, inadequacies, but at least they try. Radio stations don’t appear to even try.

What about public radio? In a lot of towns, the local NPR station has taken the responsibility that used to be shouldered by the dominant commercial station, that of providing basic news coverage. In Corpus Christi’s case, the local NPR affiliate is KEDT. As far as I can tell, KEDT doesn’t stream, so I can’t hear what the station is up to, but the web site is not encouraging. Other than canceling a station event because of the weather, there’s no Harvey-related news.

To be clear, what I’m looking for is a station that’s on the air 24/7, with reporters out where the weather hit, lots and lots of weather updates and – here’s the important part – a continuing conversation with listeners, reporting in on what streets are in the worst shape, who’s missing, lost and found animals, etc. During a crisis, radio can be one big community bulletin board, but I didn’t hear anything remotely like that today.

So what I hope for is that amateurs, hams, have stepped in where the pros aren’t, and are supplying the kind of neighborly, boots-on-the-ground information that’s needed to get through a crisis like this. What I fear is that commercial radio is so weak, so ineffectual, that it can no longer even go about special pleading for itself (“you need us when the weather’s bad”) and have anyone believe it.


signing off

The valuable Engineering Radio blog is defunct.  It’s a shame and a loss.

For eight years  the blog’s author, Paul Thurst, explained radio from the inside. Thurst keeps radio stations in the northeast up and operating, and he wrote an up-close-and-personal look at how the industry is mostly – but not always – failing.

Being an engineer has a way of focusing the mind; you can’t fake or argue about broken equipment, poorly maintained transmitters, workarounds that really aren’t.  You learn something about the business people who allow things to get that way.

Unfortunately, it wore Paul down. In his valedictory post, he wrote “Radio can still serve the community in times of disaster or distress. However, the absolute soul crushing mediocrity of automated programming is killing the entire industry.

“Of course, the cause of this is the equally crushing debt load being carried by the majority of radio station owners. That reality, intersecting with declining advertising revenue and segmentation of market share, spell the end of the commercial radio business model.”

He’s a lot closer to it than I am, but I’m slightly more optimistic. I work for a decent, small media company that believes in spending on good people, being as local as possible, investing for the future. In my case it’s TV, but I have to believe there must be a radio company or two out there that doesn’t suck, that hasn’t ceded the job of informing and entertaining  the community to the local public radio.

Also, Paul’s blog was more than just engineering stories and dark meditations on radio’s problems. He got on some interesting tangents over the years, and the good news is, he’s leaving the blog up for the time being. If you care about radio, read it before it vanishes.

ask me now

Even though I’m fascinated by sound, by music, by radio and by radio journalism and its derivatives, I have a wary relationship to podcasting.

On the one hand, yes, podcasting is a big deal, a way of doing things with sound and words that is outgrowing its origins – its not talk radio, or blogging, or the kind of sound art and documentary exemplified by Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North.  Nearly a quarter of Americans report being monthly podcast listeners. So here’s a medium that’s both new(ish) and popular, and the bar to entry is low.

On the other hand, there is a precious quality to podcasting; it feels like there are too many people trying to do it, too many people thinking out loud about “the podcast space,” too many companies chasing – still – too few listeners. It’s a land rush for hipsters.

So I’m flummoxed by the fact that my favorite podcast right now is “The Turnaround.” It’s very meta, as younger and smarter people said back in 2012. Each episode runs an hour or so, and consists of the host,  Jesse Thorn, talking to famous and semi-famous people about…talking. More specifically, Thorn talks to people who specialize in interviewing.

So what keeps Turnaround from swallowing its own tail? Well,  Thorn is an engaging host and he asks good questions, knows how to keep the conversation going; there’s an emphasis on the real-world craft aspects of interviewing; and as it turns out, it’s just interesting to listen to interviewers talk about how they feel about what they do. There’s alchemy to Turnaround, the whole (Thorn plus interview subject) is greater than the sum of its two parts.

I’ve listened to four or five of them this weekend, and bits from several stick with me – how Errol Morris ended up liking Robert McNamara; Susan Orlean on being so into music that she was more comfortable interviewing musicians whose music she didn’t care for; Brooke Gladstone explaining why she’ll edit answers together, but won’t re-record her questions after the interview ; Louis Theroux talking about  how having a British accent can help, when it comes to getting people on the fringes of American society to trust you.

More to the point, taken together “the Turnaround” episodes are a master class in how to talk with people. I’ve been doing journalism for a long time, but there is still something reassuring when Susan Orlean, best-selling author and New Yorker staff writer, says that being uncomfortable is just part of the gig, and that if you’re going to ask strangers to talk to you, expect to get rejected a lot. And while it wouldn’t work as a plaque in your local journalism school, Errol Morris’s advice on interviewing (‘Shut the fuck up’) should be burned into all young reporters.

I’ll be interested to see how long Turnaround lasts; they’ve posted 13 episodes since late June, have already hit a lot of the obvious choices. I’m not sure how they keep up the pace. Regardless, what Turnaround has already accomplished is considerable and – here’s a metric for the nascent podcasting ratings industry – if it cost money, I’d gladly play it.





sound & vision

The Trump administration has lately taken to doing something I like, and I hope they keep doing it.

For whatever reason, the public relations apparatchiks now insist that some of the press briefings be audio only. No cameras allowed. Presumably the point is to make the briefings – which cable news hypes incessantly and which rarely end well for the Trump side – less entertaining because, well, there’s nothing to watch.

I suppose it’s a loss that we can’t see Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking incoming, or get the sense of the press room as MMA ring. You can’t see them sweat, as we learned when studying the difference between the 1960 presidential debate on TV, (Kennedy won as Nixon sweated and scowled on camera) and radio (generally scored for Nixon on points or at worst a draw).

You do, however, get to concentrate on the words themselves, how they hang in the air. Today, former FBI director James Comey  repeatedly used the word “lie” in connection with President Trump. Asked about it at a briefing later, Huckabee Sanders responded “I can definitively say the President is not a liar.”

The “definitively say”caught me, because it’s the language spokespeople use to suggest they’ve gone and looked into something and are bringing the results back to the unwashed mass of journos. Maybe it’s just me, but the answer sounded a lot like “Yep, I went and checked it out, asked around, talked to my sources, and we’re now sure he’s not a liar.”

I might have missed it, had I been watching instead of listening.

By the way, the President himself is a great listen. He’s word salad, all the way down – I find watching him distracts from the doubling back/vamping/free association/fall back on patented riffs that is a Donald Trump speech. I love it when he does something  like ‘And we’re going to bring the jobs back for the coal miners, the miners who’ve been treated so badly, so badly. You know, I love coal miners. They gave me a great victory here…’ Sometimes he finds his way back to the text. Sometimes we’re off to the races. Regardless, for as long as it lasts, this is a great time to be listening to what’s coming out of the White House. What was once said about jazz applies here too; it’s the sound of surprise.


weekend radio

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.





like kudzu

In this dismal, drifting season, when the weather is a horror and our politics are unmoored and far from shore, you look for signs of life, signs that things go on.

Here’s one, a good one, from the always valuable blog written by John Anderson: notes on the spread of pirate radio in New York City.  There are more than a hundred pirate stations on the air there – that’s the estimate of the official, sanctioned broadcasters, to whom pirates are just roaches, potential interference in their signals and more important, their business models.

But for the communities they serve, the pirates are the neighborhood voice, and Anderson ties pirate radio specifically to the Haitian diaspora in Brooklyn. And then he goes further, with a really interesting notion – using low power, tiny computers like Raspberry Pis to extend the reach and availability of the hole-in-the-wall pirates, who broadcast irregularly, go on and off the air, move on. It’s a fascinating, worthy idea.

Anderson has written eloquently for a long time about community radio, and the powerful forces – including, alas, public radio – allied against it. Reading him tonight reminded me of another piece I saw recently on Radio Survivor about legal 1 watt broadcasters in New Zealand. Just enough to reach the neighborhood, but that’s where community starts, so I suppose that’s the point.  There are safeguards so no one can game the system with tricky antenna designs or other hacks to make the signal stronger than it should be, and best of all, you don’t need a license. In my fantasy life, the Republican-majority FCC thinks this is a great idea – what could be more American than not having to ask permission – and opens the floodgates on micro radio experimentation. I won’t count on it.

(The authorities, of course, are always “cracking down” on pirate radio; pirate radio is always popping back up, shortly after the last cop, in this case the FCC, pulls away.)

when the music’s over

In 2016, what does it mean to really love music? I’m thinking about that question a lot these days, because the answers I always had no longer work, and what’s replaced them is…interesting.

One of the forums I frequent is dedicated to the no-longer-manufactured-but-much-loved “Squeezebox” line of media streamers. Squeezeboxes were wirelessly sending music files to your stereo well before the modern era of streaming kicked in, in earnest. The Squeezebox software is open source, which has allowed the platform to survive – and be ported to new hardware – years after the last Squeezebox rolled off the assembly line.

But Squeezeboxes really aren’t a business anymore, which means most popular streaming services are only partially supported, or not supported at all, or supported only by means of community ingenuity.

So I was struck by a post from a user announcing he’s leaving the forums because after 10 years, he’s switching to Sonos. Sonos is sort of the anti-Squeezebox; as a platform, it’s a black box, not amenable at all to hacking. As hardware and software for the average user, it just works, and works well with all the major streaming services. I know, because I’ve had three of the company’s Play:1 speakers for the last half year – two paired as a stereo in my family room, and one as a radio at the office.

But here’s what caught me in the post from the forum member;  he wrote he was switching to Sonos full time because “I no longer need to listen to my own music.” He noted that Spotify, with its millions and millions of tracks, “pretty much satisfies all my listening needs.”

(I assume a “he.” Most people, though obviously not all, who obsess about hardware and tech are male.)

I get it. I ordered a CD the other day, a Japan-only mono CD of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” album, and it was the first CD I’d bought in, well, six months. (Oddly, the last CD before this was the Coltrane in Mono box set.) After I did it, I wasn’t quite sure why. I dug out a CD to play yesterday and the whole process struck me as cumbersome, strange, limiting – and not in the “it’s cool to not have unlimited choices because it focuses your attention” kind of way.

I use my Sonos for 90+ percent of my listening. To an extent, I’ve replaced my album  buying habit with a music subscription habit, but the two aren’t really equivalent. Buying is a lot more expensive than renting. And even though I have a lifetime of music available on Spotify, I’m less likely to listen to complete albums. What happens instead? Some of the time I do the nervous “flipping from one song to the next” thing, starting an album and then killing it 45 seconds later, but much more often now I find a radio station – or a radio-like service such as Pandora or Slacker – and let someone else do the driving. This is what’s changed most profoundly for me; I’m gradually losing the idea of the album as the default container for music. I know, I know; I’ve just discovered playlists, 10 years after the fact. But not really; what I’ve discovered is radio. Playlists are too closed off, too predictable; what I need is something that can range wide, go deep. The new world of listening is well suited to that.

As a result, I no longer feel the tug of specific albums the way I once did; I may read about a musician and some music he or she has recorded, go looking for it on Spotify or Apple Music, but if it’s not there, I’ll listen to something else the musician did. And if the musician isn’t there, I’ll just listen to something else. The itch isn’t that strong.

This doesn’t mean music has become mere background listening for me, any more than it was when I’d put a CD on. I still pay a lot of attention to what’s being played, and by who; but I often let it go when it’s over. In a way, that’s more satisfying; it gets back to the evanescent quality at the heart of music. You can’t hold onto it.

So I was in the basement today, boxing up books to take to the library for its annual sale, and looking around at the few thousand CDs I own. I’m not quite ready to get rid of them, still, but maybe soon.

(Of course, there are a couple of reasons to keep them: maybe my finances will be diminished, or the economics of internet access will change, and there will come a point when I can’t afford to rent what I listen to. More broadly, maybe something like climate change has deep effects on connectivity over the next 20 years and the internet goes away or is severely curtailed or something. Presumably at that point I’ll be concerned with things other than the relative merits of Coltrane in mono and stereo.)