In high school, I became enamored of broadcast radio. Since I grew up near Boston, along Route 128 — then a high-tech corridor not unlike Silicon Valley — some high-tech company donated a ten watt broadcast station to my public high school. I got my third class radiotelephone license with broadcast endorsement, and became a once-a-week DJ. We lived four miles from the transmitter, and on a good day my parents could sometimes listen to me broadcasting. I don’t remember what music I played on the air, but during my teen years I listened to everything from Renaissance motets to Top 40 rock.
During the 1980-81 academic year, I took a year off from college and went to work in a lumberyard, my first full-time job. There were a few of us who were under 25, and we all listened to WBCN, the freeform rock music station in Boston. Rich, who worked in paint, tried to time his morning coffee break so he could listen to Mattress Mishegas, the strange call-in quiz show kind of thing run by DJ Charles Laquidara, and if he was working up in the paint stockroom, where no one could hear him, he’d listen to ‘BCN. I worked out in the yard so I didn’t get to listen to the radio much. But I heard Laquidara promoting the big protest at Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend in 1981, and my old youth group buddy John and I drove up and camped out in the woods next to the power plant and watched people we knew committing civil disobedience. Laquidara made no bones about his liberal-left politics.
That was radio at its best: not just playing new music from well-known bands, not just giving airplay to unknown local bands, but connecting listeners with what was going on. And at WBCN, Laquidara and his listeners all talked with Boston accents. You knew you were listening to people like you, people who lived near you; it was local. After the corporatization of broadcast radio in the mid-1990s, radio became less and less local: you could hear Howard Stern anywhere in the country.
The Web does most of what broadcast radio used to do, and does it better. If I want to get involved in social action, I check the Web. I love exploring new music on online sources, and broadcast radio would never have played lots of the music I now listen to online. And there were lots of things that sucked about broadcast radio: stupid commercials, songs that you hated that got played over and over, lots of boring moments. (Although increasingly Youtube.com is overrun with stupid commercials and bad music and too many boring videos.)
I’m not feeling nostalgic about broadcast radio. But what strikes me is the way I think differently now. Broadcast radio was a communal experience; most of the people I knew my age listened to WBCN, we all knew about the local bands they played. The Web is a fragmented, even tribal experience; you can become part of a small tribal music community.