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Tuesday, May 2, 2006

This L.A. Times story provides the history of KCDX, an independent radio station in Arizona that plays an eclectic mix of music with no apparent rhyme or reason, effectively blowing the minds of certain people who tune in and respond to the spontaneity. When I say eclectic, I mean real eclecticism, not that market-building bullshit on “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, which is no more eclectic than a modern-country station. That show is basically where A&R guys get to test their hunches. KCDX is simply one guy’s music collection uploaded and streamed out at random. The L.A. Times article details the cultish enthusiasm people have for the station, how it inspires them to send the station gifts, thank-you cards, and unsolicited donations, how it drives them to want to find out who the programmer (who calls himself the Guru on the air) is. My initial conclusion: Listeners are likely so surprised and delighted to hear traces of a real individual in the mechanized, soulless death-space of the corporate media, which insists on treating listeners not as individuals but a synthesized, lowest-common-denominator mass and becomes an unmistakable reflection of that contempt, that they are energized, feeling as though they have had their own sense of unique individuality magically restored themselves. (Ads try to capitalize on this moment of epiphany all the time; they try to make listeners suddenly aware of their potential again after having been fed mind-dumbing palaver—perhaps advertisers prefer programming be stultifying and generic at some level, so that the ads can outshine them, so they can “pop” like bold type in a story sidebar.) ” ‘I remember listening to those songs when I was a teenager,’ said Maureen Kane, 52, a lawyer who became a devoted KCDX listener after she heard a 1960s Fabulous Poodles song. ‘It makes me feel so happy when I can remember that time when I’m driving to work.’ ” Free-form radio reminds people what they like about music in the first place, how it individualizes them, provides a conduit to personal memories while providing a building block for the identity we want to make for ourselves. It allows us to see how to use consumerism as a means of personality enrichment (rather than simply a way of stuffing our houses full of objects). And it seems downright subversive to take a mass media outlet and run it with no regard to profit or “scientific” principles of audience maximization (i.e. Pavlovian brainwashing.)


There are a few ironies here, however, that complicate this analysis. First, the humanizing spontaneity of KCDX is actually produced by letting a machine select the songs, leaving human intelligence out of it altogether. The lifelessness and repetitiveness and demeaning nature of formatted radio is something only humans could come up with and inflict on one another. True individuality is exactly like randomness; it is only achievable by ignoring all social mores and expectations and traditions, refusing every rule of conduct and mode of communication that makes one accessible to others. You have to be utterly unpredictable, even to yourself. But how this randomness plays out in shuffling a huge music collection is to show us (i.e. we music lovers with broad, inclusive, catholic interests) how incoherent our tastes really are, despite our pretensions to build a coherent identity, in part, out of them. (If you don’t care about music, the genre-hopping randomness probably wouldn’t even be all that detectable; you would just hear a series of songs like any other you’d hear on the radio. The more you know about pop music, the more you can recognize formats and how they are being tweaked or ignored.) Formatted radio, besides tapping into primal yearnings for repetition, caters to the constructed identity—who you want to be rather than who you actually are. You might want to be hip and current and in the know with the latest chart hits, or you might want to see yourself as a country-loving regular-Joe Republican, or you might want to think you have credibility with the urban underclass by listening to Power 99 FM. Perhaps that explains the other irony, that radio is formatted not because of some conspiracy against joy but because people stay tuned to rigidly formatted radio in a way they don’t to something more free-form. The predictability suits advertisers and listeners alike; listeners know pretty much exactly what they’ll here, and advertisers know pretty much who’ll be listening and what their pretensions are. Only a select minority have it in their basket of pretensions that ideal of being able to deal with whatever piece of pop culture is thrown their way, be it a 20-minute meandering Dead jam or a Pablo Cruise song or gangsta rap or something by Los Tigres del Norte. This disparate collection of the willfully perverse don’t have many opportunities to unite and rally together for something (it kind of goes against their whole nature). but that’s what KCDX offers. Even self-described loners need to feel like they are not alone sometimes. KCDX gives respite to those people who feel the need to resist community in order to stand out and preserve their sense of themselves, it gives them a chance to let their guard down for as long as they are tuned in, in a few moments of rare communion with the like-minded souls whose existence they will have to resume pretending doesn’t exist once the reprieve the station has afforded them is over.

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