Where is Music Radio’s Lester Bangs?


Yea, about that.

Let’s face it, like it or not, opinion based media is the bomb… as in incendiary. Talk Radio has known for years that strong opinions make for listeners and ratings. Name me one successful/popular radio talk show host that does NOT have a show based primarily on his or her rabid opinions? … I’m waiting….

Fox News knows this. MSNBC knows this. CNN is learning the lesson. NPR hasn’t got a clue. Blogs get it. The Post gets it. But where is music radio? Yea, about that…

Music radio, with very few exceptions (morning shows that are really talk shows in disguise) prides itself on the lack of opinion. This can probably be traced back to the consultant riddled influence beginning in the late ’70s and ’80s. Radio talent, and I use that term loosely, was essentially told to “shut up, read the liner cards, sound pleasant and play the hits.” All of this undoubtedly grew out of the early rock radio revolution on FM in the ’70s. On the progressive FM radio dial the personalities were just that, personalities. However, most of their personality was reflected not only in their banter, but in their freedom to pick and choose their playlists. So, the backlash against “personality” was inevitable and yes, logical. Not only did we need them to stop mumbling, we needed them to stop picking the playlists and play the damn hits.

Unfortunately, we taught and believed that a “milk-toast host” was the way to dominance on the dial. Of course, the exact opposite ended up (for the most part) being the truth. The real dominance of morning-drive (and really every day-part) radio is the personality. We got wacky morning shows, shock-jocks and personality driven hosts commanding the biggest ratings in the most important day-parts. But what about the other 20 hours of the day. It became “that was and this is, blah, blah, liner card, break.” But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

Early in my career as a broadcaster, I came out of that early FM progressive radio movement, into AOR, then Classic Rock and finally Alternative and Active Rock before I finally made the transition into Talk. I’ve worked with some stellar “music” personalities with shows that revolved around their commanding knowledge of popular music facts. They garnered a lot of respect (at least they thought they did) from their listeners and peers. They recite catalogues of bands, who played on which record, years of recordings, chart positions, shoe size of the bassist, add infinitum add nausea. Their encyclopedic knowledge of a genre was mesmerizing, to the point of dizziness. Without exception, every single one of them had one thing in common: They were boring as hell on the air. Why? Because they couldn’t, wouldn’t or weren’t allowed to utilize the one thing all of that knowledge of music really gave them, an educated opinion.

Believe me, when the mic was off, they would chatter on about why this record or band was great or scream about how this new song from band x was a piece of sh*t. Now that was entertaining as hell. But when that mic came on, it was “blah, blah, blah” and if you were ‘lucky,’ some pointless piece of info about the music. Yea, where is the music radio Lester Bangs? Hell, for that matter, where is the music radio with any opinion at all?

Here in Austin we’ve got a myriad of music radio that’s undoubtedly more musically complex than whatever market you happen to be in. A couple of AAAish radio stations, the NPR affiliate is all music, most of it eclectic, outside of ┬áthe ubiquitous NPR morning and afternoon drive news shows. Hell, it’s the “Live Music Capitol of the World!!!” The jocks here even pick quite a bit of their own damn music, but give an opinion… forget about it.

As a listener what I wouldn’t give to hear a jock come on and tell me what a piece of crap that last song was and tell me why (and if he was really cool, vow to never, ever play it again). Give me a personality of his own convictions that really is excited about some new tune, and tell me why he is so damn passionate about it. How about an interview with a band where the interviewer isn’t creaming all over the musician, just because he or she want’s rock star x to like them or to not offend the listeners. Give me a damn music radio personality with a brain, a sense of humor and some insight, not liners or an encyclopedic knowledge of titles and tracks.

Wouldn’t work you say? Bullsh*t. (Actually, any time I hear someone in radio say “It will never work” I know it will) ┬áMaybe you think that people are too passionate about music and won’t put up with some radio guy or gal slamming a band or whatever? OK smartiepants, what’s the one thing that a huge percentage of us are just or more passionate about than music? Still thinking? Sports! Find me a Sports Talk radio station that doesn’t rely on opinion based talk and I’ll show you the lowest rated Sports Talk station in town. Agree or disagree with the Sports Talk host, the sports junkie still listens. It’s about engagement, and that’s the one thing music radio lost with the march of the consultants and tightening of the formats, passion. It’s a passionless, also-ran, flaccid, wreaking pile of dung. And all of that has nothing to do with the music they play!

What’s the big whop-de-do about New Media and this Internet Media thing? Yea, about that. It’s not about tech, or the latest social media fad or reinvention of the old paradigm. It’s about engagement. Something music radio lost a long, long time ago.

*John Ford is a Broadcast programming professional with nearly three decades of experience in local and network major market radio Programming and Consulting. Including stints as a VP of New Media Sabo Media, Network Programming and Imaging at ABC Radio Networks, Greenstone Media. Programming, Imaging and Morning/Talk positions at WIOD/Miami, WLLZ/Detroit, KZPS/Dallas, The Edge/Dallas, Zeta 4/Miami, WSHE/Miami and others. John’s also an uber-geek who holds numerous Apple Technical Certifications and enjoys breaking and fixing code and kit. Reach him at his website.