Why Is American Radio So Bad?

by Harry on April 28, 2004

I never knew much about Doris Day, except that her singing still makes me go weak at the knees, and some of the films are great (I started watching after reading a surprising laudatory essay by the excellent Judith Williamson in the 80’s), and, like Rosemary Clooney, she comes from my favourite American city. But that has all changed, because Radio 2 is running an 80th birthday tribute called The Life of Doris Day. All that you would want to know about her (the first 5 minutes are a bit annoying). But I defy you to find tributes like this on US radio stations. Why?

UPDATE: I should have warned you that the BBC website is very slow and unreliable the past day or two, so you may have to be patient trying to listen to the show.



Ralph Luker 04.28.04 at 4:25 pm

Not to get all nit-picky or anything, Harry, but Rosemary Clooney was from Maysville, Kentucky. We Kentuckians have little enough to boast of, without Ohio’s imperialistic gestures. Oh, and what’s with the Cincinnati enthusiasm? It’s good for prudery and bad race relations. What’s the plus?


harry 04.28.04 at 4:33 pm

Beechmont Avenue? Birthplace of Caroline Benn?

Sorry, it just shows how well the Cincinnatti in-laws have indoctrinated me. I said my favourite, not the greatest: I love it for personal reasons of having many happy times there, and knowing it in a way that I know no other American city (including the one I’ve lived in for 12 years) because of all the time I spend there being with people who belong to it (my wife’s grandmother and her uncles and their families).


rea 04.28.04 at 4:40 pm

You don’t here this sort of thing on US radio, except maybe NPR, because the demographics of Doris Day fans don’t sell a lot of advertising.


Amardeep Singh 04.28.04 at 4:46 pm

Commercial radio in the U.S. is horrible. The reason is obvious: everything is driven by a short-term profit motive. In the UK state-funding enables classier programming.

However, if you flip around at the low end of the dial you can get interesting college radio in most U.S. cities. Sometimes the young DJs are a little overly enthusiastic about groups like Cannibal Corpse. But if you wait it out you’ll likely get to hear some gems too — Ali Farka Toure, Erin McKeown, Os Mutantes, Lena Horne.

So American radio isn’t all bad. The non-commercial segments are under-funded, amateurish, and hard to find, but they are there.


dave heasman 04.28.04 at 6:34 pm

WAMU’s “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” often does 2-hour career-retrospectives of some quite obscure artists. Miff Mole’s Molers, for example, or 3 hours on Jelly Roll Morton. And amateurish it isn’t, Rob Bamberger is an expert. As is Phil Schaap on WKCR.


David W. 04.28.04 at 6:44 pm

There’s good music on the radio to be had in the U.S., just not from the corporate chains. Thanks to the internet I can find both public and independent programming that isn’t beholden to a mass-market audience. FYI, I read an article in yesterday’s Des Moines Register (an Iowa newspaper) that noted how chain giants like Clear Channel were cutting back on the number of stations they owned, and how some independent radio was making a profitable go of it, at least in the state of Iowa.


Zizka 04.28.04 at 6:45 pm

The core of James Brown’s best band was hired in Cincinnati. So there. Including Bootsy Collins, I think.

COMPLETELY off-topic, but apparently one of your collaborators was collaborating with Saddam too. Ship his ass to Guantanamo. No guilt by association if you act promptly.



Dan 04.28.04 at 6:46 pm

I’m of the opinion that commercial radio in Britain (the music stations seemed to be little more than Coldplay 24/7 when I lived there) isn’t much better than commercial radio in the U.S., in the quality of the content, nor is public radio in the U.S. noticeably worse than public radio than in Britain.


Matt Weiner 04.28.04 at 6:52 pm

Of course, what Dan says does not entail that radio in the U.S. isn’t much worse than radio in Britain, if Britain has more of the good kind of radio (public or private).

Harvard’s radio station at least used to do similar kinds of tributes (“orgies” they called them, marathons of one artist during exam/finals week when DJs’ regular schedules were disrupted). But college stations tend to have shorter broadcasting ranges.


LiL 04.28.04 at 7:28 pm

I often wonder if corporate stations/corporations/artists with corporate endorsements/corporate leaders realize there’s a world outside corporations… And that in fact it’s the majority of the world. Unfortunately, the best musical selection (even musical education) was to be had on Napster and the like – browsing other people’s folders and finding incredible things you’d never hear about otherwise. Like Middle-Eastern pop. And then there was all the stuff released by underground dj’s that you can’t play at home unless you own a turntable…


HP 04.28.04 at 7:56 pm


For Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and similar music on American radio 24/7, check out WMKV. I believe they have a live stream.

Based out of–ta-da!–Cincinnati.

A very cool radio station, even if you’re not elderly. Entirely staffed by volunteers out of a large retirement community, and yet entirely professional.


Barry Ritholtz 04.28.04 at 8:04 pm

1) Consolidation and Radio ownership concentration means les smusic, shorter playlists, less creativity and innovation in programming; Its also hurting the music industry, but they are too deeply caught in the grip of syphilitic dementia to notice ;

2) I listen to streaming BBC6 all the time (see this post: http://bigpicture.typepad.com/writing/2004/03/bbc_6.html) and I have yet to have a problem — I was listening this morning with no interruptions. It might be your broadband connection . . .


PGM 04.28.04 at 10:38 pm

As has been mentioned, there are often interesting things at the bottom end of the FM radio dial in America. There are also interesting things scattered about the AM band, too, although that sort of thing is becoming less and less common. It helps to have a good radio; the folks at GE make a few good ones for AM listening. It’s still possible to find stuff such as Radio Drama and local programming in among the talk, and AM offers good reception at distance under some conditions.

More apropos: shortwave still works pretty well for things like the BBC World Service over here on the East(ish) Coast. Having a good antenna is a help here, as is location, but on any given evening we have available to us all manner of international english service programming.

Even more so: the shortwave transmitter doesn’t go down when everyone listens to it.


paul 04.29.04 at 4:25 am

This looks to have been answered, but I’ll chime in anyway.

It really comes down to advertising and demographics: same with magazines, TV, websites and anything else that’s ad-supported.

The audience is sliced and diced and the formats are all so tightly constrained, I can’t imagine listening to any one station for very long. On my short list:
o KUOW, my local NPR affiliate with their own local shows: lots of good stuff from the University of Washington, also leveraging Seattle’s literate population
o KEXP, a commercial free open format college station (streaming worldwide from KEXP.org)
o KING-FM, a 24 classical station, commercial but still able to play whatever they want (streaming from king.org)
o and some local stations, one for oldies that are kid-safe, one for diverse adult rock, and one for decidedly non-adult rock.

But I worry about wearing out the push-buttons on my radio, I find myself changing stations so much. No one station can keep me entertained long enough, and rarely do you get a sense that the person talking between the tracks is really invested in their work: the ideal station to me is one where each program is like a random tour of someone’s record collection. I remember stations like that, but that was 20 years ago or more.


psm 04.29.04 at 6:03 am

Most of the U.S. corporate radio seems to be designed with very little context–one can start in the middle of any program and not be confused about what is going on, which requires very shallow programming. I’d think this is because so many Americans listen to the radio in their cars.


Ian 04.29.04 at 10:33 am

I often listen to KCRW online – good and eclectic choice of music – in fact one of their regular programmes is called Morning becomnes Eclectic


I used to listen to a classical station in NY too but lost the URL.


harry 04.29.04 at 8:05 pm

Thanks everyone for the tips, esp to WKMV. I really liked that. I take the point about DD being uncommercial, but, for example, Radio 2 has the UK’s biggest audience (and beats the local commercial stations in their own regions) with an eclectic mix of stuff, DJs who don’t shout all the time, and these bio-shows which, though often overly nostalgic, are also, often, really good. And when someone says

bq. nor is public radio in the U.S. noticeably worse than public radio than in Britain

I just don’t know where to start except to ask them what public radio I should be listening to in the US that I can’t get in Madison…


lucy 04.29.04 at 10:21 pm

Here in Atlanta, the NPR affiliate devotes Saturday night to simply the finest regular radio program I’ve ever heard: the locally-hosted “Jazz Classics” has been on the air for more than 20 years, and all you have to do to find out why is to listen just once. You’ll get hooked. Web site is wabe.org, or it’s on the FM dial at 90.1 if you’re in town. I recommend it highly.

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