Commercial radio makes me cross

20:30, Dec 09 2012

The inmates are running the asylum this week - once again. You'll remember I asked you to Right This Blog! With that in mind please welcome ZootAlmighty.

I'm quite fond of my car. It's a reliable, safe, economical model that nevertheless has enough grunt to pootle up the steep Dunedin hills. However, my car has one major drawback. It came with a radio factory-tuned to ultrasonic Japanese frequencies, so that I can only pick up commercial radio stations of the ZzzM, Plastic Hits and Moron FM kind. And this week my car CD player broke.

"I'm the annoying, slightly creepy ex-celeb DJ who's obviously on some kind of medication. Coming up right after a sanitised version of current events, Hollywood gossip, rugby and commercials that we call 'news', we'll be playing some tinny ringtones and bland chug-a-long disposable R&B standards. Yes, we're the station where there's no need to feel any emotional response to the music! Let our festering garbage be the dreary soundtrack to your day."

A thumping club anthem fills the car and assaults my ears. Even if I turn the volume right down to nothing it somehow penetrates my head in a sinister way. It's like hearing fingernails on a blackboard in the next room when you're all alone in an abandoned school at night. It's sung - no sorry, squawked at me - by an assertive kind of lady who is evidently angry about something. The lyrics are heavily dependent on rhyming "baby" and "crazy". Her voice is like being stabbed repeatedly in the ear with a blunt pencil. After hearing the chorus I want to go out and stab a stranger with a blunt pencil too. I realise that I'm driving far too aggressively.

Of course the commercial stations will always be with us, like the common cold. They have their established market and listeners who don't want/need to be challenged by exposure to "unorthodox" music. They're for people who want to "shout it out to Tayla age 12" and the chance to win an Adele CD if you're the tenth caller. Fair enough.

The sassy lady finishes her rant and is replaced by a yarble-less eunuch who warbles about all the things he's gonna do for you girl cos you're his number one, yeah baby. Loverboy is very soporific. I can feel my mind turning into cottage cheese under the inane onslaught. Thankfully, just before I fall asleep at the wheel, the tune yawns and wails to a flaccid finish. Seconds later I can't recall a single word or note of it.


I jab at the radio buttons and another station comes up. It's Angry Lady again, or someone like her, singing the same song, or possibly a different one - it's hard to tell. The Subaru that's been trying to copulate with my rear bumper promptly overtakes me on a blind corner, almost forcing me off the road. A little later I pull up beside the Subaru at the lights. In it is a completely vacant yoof, drooling over his Warehouse spandex steering wheel cover. His car is pulsating to the sound of pumped up speakers on steroids.

"Coming up, it's Angry Lady with her new hit single I Wanna Be Sassy in the Club!" FECK! ARSE! BOLLOCKS! WHO MAKES THIS VACUOUS SH*TE?! WHO ACTUALLY WANTS TO LISTEN TO IT?! As this particular Angry Lady reaches for the blunt pencil I keep in the car for special occasions, I begin to wonder how many of New Zealand's road fatalities are caused by prolonged exposure to commercial radio.

On the flipside of the "cool" stations with their endless rotated playlists of 12 tracks featuring mad Auto-Tuned fembot clones and artists who can't actually play an instrument (with a token song by one of three Kiwi musicians thrown in every few hours to fulfil a quota), there's the mouldering Plastic Hits stations. Playing for you the Hits of the 80s, 90s and Today! The same stale songs over and over again, forever and ever. Once upon a time, when people used to actually listen to radio and be engaged with the charts, these stations were exciting and innovative, a showcase for new rock'n'roll sounds and an alternative for teenagers to their parents' records. Many radio stations start out like this - young, cool and rebellious (they often have names like EDGY and ROXXX to enforce this image), then after a while their audiences mature or move on and they become MOR (Middle Of Road) FM. There's no point in paying royalties to play new music that people might not like when the listeners are content with the same reassuringly familiar C.R.A.P (Commercial Radio Airtime Playlist). For a station to survive as a paying business it's far easier to stick to the formula rather than evolve.

Talking of stasis versus evolving, David Bowie on the radio is a perfect case in point. Talk to a Young Person, I dare you (a Young Person can be classified as anyone who knows how to make an MP3). Ask them if they like David Bowie. When you've picked your jaw up off the floor and explained who Bowie is, they'll probably be negative or non-committal, because all they've ever heard on NZ radio is Ashes to Ashes and China Girl. Those are the two Bowie staples that commercial radio has been playing for 30 years now. People don't want to hear his new stuff and anyway these days the kids have Lady Gaga. Never mind that Bowie went on to make brilliant original albums like Outside, Earthling, Heathen and Reality that stormed the world charts and sold in NZ by the container-load. I bet you've never heard a post-1990s Bowie song on mainstream NZ radio (please prove me wrong and I will love you forever!). The same theory could apply to Springsteen post Born in the USA and Streets of Philadelphia, Leonard Cohen post Hallelujah, Tim Finn post Six Months in a Leaky Boat, Neil Young post the 1970s, etc, but I digress.

As I drive away, wiping the blood off my pencil, I feel sorry for former Subaru-driving yoof. He grew up on a diet of rancid cheese instead of music because it was fed to him and he didn't know there was anything better. He'll never hear the brilliant original music that inexplicably doesn't get played on NZ mainstream commercial radio. I'm not talking about obscure indie bands; I mean popular bands with established careers and wide-appealing international success. If my only exposure to music was via NZ mainstream commercial radio I would never have discovered Nick Cave, Runrig, Marillion, Amy Macdonald, Kate Rusby, Josh Ritter, Tim Finn, The Twilight Sad, Patrick Bruel, The Frames and The Drive-by Truckers, to name a few.

I'm off to install a new car radio now. Discuss among yourselves: 

Who deserves the prize for NZ's worst radio station? Can you think of artists who are unjustly represented solely by their back catalogues on NZ commercial radio? Can you think of any deserving contemporary popular artists who don't get airtime on NZ mainstream commercial radio?

You can keep up with Blog on the Tracks on Facebook and follow on Twitter. You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts...Off the Tracks is back on track.