MAD DOG: The Problem With Radio

There's something wrong with my radio. It's not that it's broken, at least not in the mechanical sense. The knobs turn, the station changes, it gets louder, it gets softer, it get bassier and it gets trebly. The problem isn't -- as they like to say in geekier circles -- the hardware, it's the software. To put it very simply: I don't like what I hear coming out of it.Radio comes in two basic flavors: music and talk. You'd think this would make it a snap to tell which one you're listening to, but it's not quite that easy. While talk radio plays virtually no music, except for the occasional opening theme song like "Baseball Uber Alles," music stations take a much less purist approach -- like it or not there's going to be a lot of talk in between the music. On the plus side, at least it's not coming from the mouth of a sweaty fat guy in a suit who thinks David Duke is a liberal.First, let's look at the differences between the formats. Talk radio features a person, called a host, who gets paid big bucks so he or she can spend four hours a day preaching about the ills of society, whining about the decline of morals and publicizing his or her upcoming book for which they got a cool $2.5 million advance so it could be written by a freelance writer who has six Pulitzer Prize caliber novels sitting in a trunk waiting to find a publisher who'll take a chance on a new novelist.Music radio, on the other hand, features songs by bands, or artists as they prefer to be called, which get paid big bucks so they can spend four minutes singing about the ills of society, whining about the decline of morals and publicizing the bit part they have in an upcoming movie for which they got a cool $2.5 million so all the dialogue could be replaced by an actor who has less screen time than Tracy Lords in The Brady Bunch movie.Actually, talk radio and music radio have more in common than you might think. Both keep us company when we're alone. Both feature calls from bored people who have absolutely no life. And both play lots and lots of commercials.It's easy to spot the commercials. Not just because they're loud, obnoxious, and suck up most of our precious natural airtime, but because they cause in most humans a reflex action in which the index finger stiffens and pushes a button on the radio, immediately changing the station to one playing a different loud, obnoxious commercial.Unfortunately commercials are a fact of life. In Duluth, Minnesota however, they've become a way of life. Last June, radio station WWAX-FM changed their format and became an all-commercials station ("You're listening to Wax Radio -- no music, none of the time!"). They air vintage ads, strange and quirky local and national ads and ad bloopers, all interspersed with -- yes, you guessed it! -- paid commercials. According to J. Thomas Lijewski, the general manager, commercials are an "art form that deserves to be respected." So are reproductions of the Eiffel Tower made from toothpicks, but you don't see them in the Louvre, do you?The question is, who would listen to all-commercials radio? ("And now, the top five commercials of the week, without musical interruption!") For one, people who spend the better part of their life watching the Home Shopping Channel ("All ceramic figurines, all the time!") but find themselves in a car without cable because they missed the sale on car roof satellite dishes because they idiotically opted for sleep rather than spend the night watching waiting for people to call in so a host could give them the thrill of their life by tooting a bicycle horn at them.The only other people who would listen to all-commercials radio are, unfortunately, on the radio themselves. At least in Argentina. Every Saturday afternoon millions of people in Argentina huddle around their radios to listen to the wild and wacky antics of Radio La Colifata, or Loony Radio, which is broadcast live from the Borda Psychiatric Hospital in Buenos Aires. Honestly.Loony Radio is produced by the patients of the hospital, who also happen to be the show's hosts, guests and audience. I spent four years as a part time radio DJ, during which time I sat in a padded room talking to myself, but the patients at the Borda Psychiatric Hospital have taken this concept to whole new heights.A couple of the more popular segments on Loony Radio include a report from their correspondent on Mars and a weekly philosophy lecture by Garces, a man who calls himself the Emperor of Paranoia because "I am more schizophrenic than everyone. Sometimes I'm so paranoid that I fear every new patient who comes here will be more paranoid than me and I'll lose my title." If radio is truly theater of the mind, then this one is two rows short of a full house.So what does this mean for the future of radio here in the United States? Before you know it there will be all-commercials radio stations in every city. Then, to get a leg up on the competition, one of them will start playing music in between the commercials. But at least we don't have to worry about Loony Radio making any inroads here -- how much loonier can it get than talk radio?

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