Rob Patterson

Radio Needs Diversity

With Michael Powell stepping down as Federal Communications Commission chairman and Commissioner Kevin Martin stepping up into the post, let's turn on the radio. Not today's broadcast radio, mind you. For whatever differences the news media has delineated between Powell and Martin, a former Bush campaign lawyer and economic adviser, business as usual will go on over the AM and FM bands.

And business as it usually goes in today's America means that the FCC won't make all that much difference on most of what we hear on broadcast radio (other than even less of what may have the whiff of obscenity). The medium has already been sold down the river to conglomerates whose research, consultants and micro-management of strictly delineated musical formats means we get a handful of listening choices depending on your cultural wardrobe and tastes.

Alas, I can remember when music radio was a wholly different animal. In my youth, Top 40 stations didn't conform to specific genres and formats. It was all about whether a song was a hit, regardless whether it was pop, rock, soul, folk, country or even a novelty record. I dearly remember a time when you'd hear the Beatles rubbing up against the Supremes following Dean Martin with Johnny Cash or Skeeter Davis rounding out the set. Music was music on Top 40, not adult contemporary, urban, smooth jazz or alternative.

Later in the decade, the FM band birthed free-form underground radio and then the original album radio, where at its best you might hear the Beatles again and then Herbie Hancock or even Mozart. Now FM is segmented and targeted into the sort of formats mentioned above.

Much of the new music you hear is determined at the corporate home office. And disc jockeys, who actually used to spin discs and relate to their listeners, are now known as "air personalities" even on the formats that don't let them have personality.

Yeah, satellite radio is emerging to play music you won't hear on broadcast, but this new world is all about niches and narrowcasting. But no longer can you hear radio where, style be damned, if a song is a hit then it's a hit. (Yeah, payola greased the wheels, but it never bought a dog single a position at the top of the charts.) And to top it all off, most of the albums made by today's musical artists conform to much the same narrow stylistic focus that contemporary radio follows.

But I recently got a new taste of what once was on the album Heard It On The X by Los Super 7. It's the third in a series of ever changing musical summits -- the first of which won a Grammy -- among roots music musicians and singers, originally conceived as a salute to Mexican-American music. But this time out, it straddles the US/Mexican border where from the 1930s into the 1980s, border blaster stations licensed in Mexico beamed music you wouldn't hear even on America's still growing and relatively open commercial stations.

The way it goes seamlessly from Chicano music to black blues, blue-eyed soul, Western swing and rock'n'roll reminds of that earlier time when the song, not the style, made the difference. In my house, that's how music is and should be. The songs are from legends like Bob Wills and Buddy Holly as well as regional stars of yore such as San Antonio's Sunny & The Sunliners, sung, respectively, by such great voices as Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell and Delbert McClinton. And then there's brilliant matches like Tejano music star Ruben Ramos singing the ZZ Top-penned title tune.

In an era when albums are a few maybe hits (to be downloaded) with filler (to be suffered or ignored), from cut one to 12, every song on Heard It On The X plays like a hit, begging repeat listens that woo you even more. How many albums can you say that about these days?

It pays tribute to the spirit of border radio, which, for all its openness to hillbillies, bluesmen and young rock rebels, also was the province of quacks, scammers and preachers both divinely sincere as well as possibly downright evil. But I'll take that any day over guys in suits poring over data and surveys to determine what they think people want. And by covering a rainbow of ethnic origins and styles, the album reminds how the radio we have lost was far more about freedom, liberty and democracy than what's attached to those buzz words these days.

If there were high-power radio stations that would play Heard It On The X, it'd likely be a hit. And no matter how many hear and even buy it, it's already one of this year's most historic releases (as well as historical in its music and extensive liner notes).

It tunes the notion of radio back to a time when, rather than programmers worrying about something causing listeners to tune out, many of us tuned in to hear something new and something different -- to hear America singing in all its diverse and democratic glory. That musical spirit lives again on Heard It On The X.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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