24 July 2008

How I Single-Handledly Changed the Face of Radio in SW Germany

OK maybe not single-handedly. And we have to wait to see if anything actually changes, but read on and hear (er... read) my tale....

So about a week ago, I was home alone and the phone rings. I can't remember the circumstance completely, but I had reason to believe that it could have been Jeannette calling me.

It wasn't. After a barrage of German that didn't have the usual Swabian tinge to it, my filters kicked in and I was able to make out the gist of it (note: I understand more German these days that I think I do, and I have been making rapid improvements in that field since moving here. I still speak like a Cro-Magnon at a tea party, but I'm working on it). The caller was doing some sort of a survey about radio stations in our area. I'm a big fan of music (I think I have several unfinished blog posts about music), and a big anti-fan of radio stations that I have found in SW Germany (I really like Einslive from NW Germany, but I can't get it here. Or I should say, I liked it back when I was visiting Duisburg regularly. Maybe they are different now), so I figured I would answer the questions and maybe throw my 2 eurocents in to chip away at the sucky radio establishment.

After two filter questions ("How old are you?" "37" "Gooooooood". And "Do you or any of your immediate family work for a media company?" "Nope". "Gooooooood.".), I was asked to listen to some music clips.

It started out with 30 seconds of "Radio Ga Ga". Fuck me gently with a chainsaw! I have heard that song every morning between snooze 1 and snooze 3 for the last week and a half. They proceeded to play about 6 or 7 other radio drivel at me, and then, after it was finished, I was asked whether I liked it a lot, I liked it , kinda-sorta or not at all. I said, "It's OK, but I tire of hearing this same crap over and over, and I really wish radio would play some new, interesting stuff, not made-for-the-charts mainstream turn-the-crank-here's-another-hit stuff." Or at least I tried to. Remember, cave-dweller at the captain's table?

The interviewer's response: "So, you're English?". I did correct him.

He then asked me (Ok, maybe you are wondering, but yes, there was absolutely no acknowledgment of my plea for less formulaic, more interesting radio. Just more questions: "What station did you listen to most in the last week?" "Uhhh... SWR3". A small lie. I only listen to the radio as an alarm clock (If I thought I could hear interesting & new music on the radio, I would tune in more. If I want to hear "Radio Ga Ga" I'll throw in my Queen's Greatest Hits CD) and SWR3, probably the best of the region's stations, at least for the least-annoying morning DJ criterion, for some reason has crappy reception at our house, especially the bedroom. So a month or so ago, I was fiddling with the tuning dial (yeah, it is a manually-tuned clock radio. Maybe I am more stone-age than I thought) to try to better the reception, when what sounded like SWR3 popped in and hasn't moved since. It turns out it is HR3 (for the non-Germans, SWRx is a group of radio stations paid for by the obligatory radio & TV tax that covers Baden-Württemberg, Saarland & Rheinland-Pfalz [I refuse to use Palatinate when Pfalz is a perfectly good word]). HRx is the same thing, but covers the state of Hessen.). Why HR3 gets better reception in my bedroom than SWR3, I don't know. But it sounds (musically) about the same, I don't drive so I don't care if the traffic reports are for roads in Hessen. The only downside is that I don't get the Baden-Württemberg-centric news.

So I lied about the radio station. They sound the same, so I didn't care so much. Then he asked how long I listen per day. I told him 1 hour, which is a stretch because it is usually about enough time for me to find the snooze button unless the news is on.

He then asked what's my favorite station. I was at a loss. I didn't remember Einslive, so I said SWR3. Why I couldn't say I didn't have a favorite, I don't know...

Anyway, he then offered to pay me 25 euros if I could show up to somewhere not far from my house to do an additional music review project and proceeded to tell me the available time slots.

SO, to make a long story a little bit shorter, I went to it last night. I purposely wore my NoMeansNo T-shirt and considered bringing my iPod in case I needed to demonstrate what good music is. Not that it went there, or even really could.

When I arrived, there were about 75 other people there, and a sea of laptops. We were seated pseudo randomly, and after a brief intro about how the survey thingy would work, we proceeded to click away on the laptops.

It started our with demographics. Male. 37. Repeat of the phone questions about radio stations. Then we put on our headphones and listened to nearly 2 hours of 30-(or so) second clips of music. For each clip we were to indicate whether we had heard it, and how well we liked it: very good, good, sorta good, total crap. OK, the last one was more like not so good, but still. Then, if we had heard it, we were to indicate whether you would want to hear it on the radio or not. But the way it was worded was funny, something like "if this was playing on the radio, would you be likely to change the station". So that when I want to express my desire to hear it I should click "No" and if I don't want to hear it I would click "Yes". I had to read it several times to make sure I wasn't doing this wrong.

I would say that I knew 80-85% of the songs. They ranged from classic rock to disco, to R&B to radio-friendly hard rock. There were a couple borderline "college radio" tunes, some 90's mainstream radio "alternative" and a bunch of current tunes, but not so much of the Britney drivel but not enough of that song that I heard in Ireland that I don't remember anything about. There was absolutely no Rap or Hip-Hop (the closest it came was the clip of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" which was covered by Run DMC), but there was a couple reggae songs sprinkled in. One Moby song was the closest we got to anything electronic. No Heavy Metal (not even radio-friendly stuff like Guns-N-Roses, if you can even call it Heavy Metal). So really, the clips didn't push any envelopes. Hell, it was so far from anything edgy, even the clips chosen from the few bands that had "edgy" potential (Die Ärzte or REM, for example) were the most watered-down and lyrically dull that they could find.

I seriously think that of the 400 or so clips I heard, maybe 5 got labeled "very good", maybe 20 "Good", and 60% of the remainder I labeled crap. Even the stuff I called good there was only a very select few that I said I would want to hear on the radio again. By the end, I was getting so discouraged. Why not throw one freakin' firewater song in. Or Dan Bern. Or Shellac. Hell, throw in the J.B.O. parody cover of "Go West" ("Ein Fest") instead of the Pet Shop Boys' cover. By the time (the original) "American Woman" clip came on, I dreamed that it was the Butthole Surfers, and, at the same time, was unbelievably happy it wasn't Lenny Kravitz' version. (He should get some sort of prize for making a mediocre song absolutely dull and boring. On second thought, no. I don't want to encourage the practice.) OK, none of that would really fit on "the radio". So maybe go somewhere that will: Richard Thompson's "Oops! I Did It Again" that, even when plotted on a logarithmic scale, is miles away from Britney. Yeah, it's like a google dB better.

Yeah, I should have known that it wouldn't be some "hey, why don't you suggest music to us" kind of thing. It was obviously more of a "should we switch to classic rock or R&B" thing.

The only good I see coming out of this is the last question. "When you listen to the radio, would you refer to hear x% old music and (100-x)% new music." I am just hoping that the 75 people there, and in all the sessions they did, answered such that x is a low number. Of course, after listening to the crap I did for the last hour, my mental state defined "old" as "stuff that has been played to death on the radio" and "new" as "stuff that doesn't get radio play". I'm sure the survey takers were just trying to find out if we want a classic rock station or a modern rock station.

So, maybe my results will show that I am fed up with repetitive crap on the radio, but I don't want to replace it with what was repetitive crap in the 70's, 80's and 90's. I hope that my answers will be interpreted as "I want something new, and not have it overplayed". And remember, if we haven't heard it, even if it came from a decade or 3 ago, it is still "new".

But I won't hold my breath. Instead I spent the 25 Euros on beer.

PS / plea to radio stations: There is so much great music that hasn't hit the airwaves, just playing one or two of these "new" or "different" songs a day, even if you never, ever replay them, is could still expose the music to a lot of people. I'd much rather have that, and have the chance of hearing something new amongst the trite crap that I know pays the bills, then to relegate these songs to some black hole where they will never be heard at all. And it would be 3-5 minutes a day I am not clawing my ears off after hearing that "catchy new song" for the 100th time this week.

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At Saturday, 26 July, 2008 , Anonymous steev said...

Is the situation any different from in the States? Seems like maybe even worse in Germany?

After having just endured a week of driving through rural areas of New Mexico with no community radio stations, I've reminded myself how bad commercial radio is; it's a lost cause, i think.

At Friday, 22 August, 2008 , Anonymous Tom said...

The sad thing is that, here in the US, we may also lose internet radio due to the usurious fees that are being imposed.
No wonder iPods are so popular. They are almost the only way to listen to what you like.


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