Thursday, January 24, 2008

When Radio Rocked -- Locally


Part 1: Local Playlists vs. National Playlists

The current state of radio is one of nationalism. With just a handful of corporations owning the vast majority of this country's radio stations, every market's radio stations now sound alike. A person can move from Detroit to Cleveland, from Orlando to Austin, from Phoenix to Denver, from Milwaukee to Boise and still find pretty much the same music formats that they just left behind. The playlists are nationally scrutinized, sanitized and researched to make sure they work in all markets. While this can be just fine in some respects and saves the stations time & money, there are some big downsides to this situation. Nationalism leaves no room for localisms.

Local music and local favorites used to be a staple of local radio playlists. That has been wiped away with the new ownership structures in media today. Local music radio used to love supporting local music acts. Not just on weekend one-hour specialty shows, but all day, every day. AM Radio started it in the late 60's, with WCFL & WLS proudly promoting Chicago acts making it big. It really started taking off with the infancy of FM rock radio in the later 70's. By the 80's it was the norm to do so. Radio would play singles from big label acts that were from Chicago, as well as local acts with their own independently released singles & LPs. Stations would promote local music shows & acts constantly. Bands would stop by the studio and play live. DJs would come out to shows. Bars would do anything to get a radio station to do a promotion there with a big name local act. It was a terrific symbiotic relationship that helped get the bands exposure and helped connect the station to the local audience.

By the mid-90's, local radio was turning national, with major media corporations buying up as many radio stations as they legally could, a trend that worsened in the late 90's and has completely degenerated in this new century. Playlists became nationalized. Local Program Directors & Music Directors followed the strict guidelines passed down to them by some non-music person sitting behind a desk at the corporate headquarters in another state. That effectively killed radio play for unsigned & independent artists.

I find this to be a shame. I shouldn't have to reminisce about the 80's heyday of this type of radio. It should still be happening today. Unfortunately, reminiscing it has to be...

Part 2: Looking Back

Back in the 1980's, some of biggest local acts were also big on Chicago radio.
Early/Mid 80's: The Kind (BIG favorites of mine), Tantrum, M&R Rush, Kevin Lee & Heartbeat, Phil & The Blanks, B.B.Spin, Naked Raygun, The Jump n' The Saddle Band, The Boyzz From Illinoizz (later called The B'zz), USSA, Bohemia, Reaction, EIEIO, The All Night Newsboys and The Hounds. There was Ministry, back when they were a new wave band with odd hair and hanging out at Wax Trax, before they went Death Goth & worldwide. There was Urge Overkill & Material Issue before they went major label on us. There some terrific acts like The Elvis Brothers, Off Broadway, and Pezband, who had LPs out on major labels, but were dropped due to poor promotion, but continued to rock the bars here in town.

Late 80's/Early 90's: Dick Holliday & the Bamboo Gang, The Cathy Richardson Band, The Beatle Brothers, Jak Makral, The Critics, and The Insiders. There was even a certain local DJ and his Leisure Suit band that went from rocking the bars to rocking the local stadiums thanks entirely to radio exposure.

Gaining radio play for these local acts with professional sounds was huge for these bands. Many acts eventually caught the eyes & ears of the major record labels, thanks in part to the radio exposure they received. The exposure brought people to the shows, sold their independently released records and made record label A&R representatives take notice. The radio stations built listener loyalty and brand awareness by helping out local artists (and also in turn helping out local bars & venues, who in turn advertised with the stations). The listeners were thrilled to hear a wide variety of favorite music on the radio. Everybody was a winner! Going to ChicagoFest on Navy Pier in late June was like a religious experience, with local bands, local radio stations and fans of both, crowding together for the ultimate musical high.

Sadly, this is no more. Local artists have very few ways to promote their work locally to a large audience. Trying to pick up MySpace friends is not the same as getting music played on the radio. Having a YouTube video is not the same as stopping by the radio studio to goof around with the DJ for a half hour. It is much harder for local acts to get their craft exposed nowadays to local audiences. It's much harder for radio stations to connect with local audiences, too.

In addition to the unsigned bands, local radio was able to promote local artists who were signed and give them an even bigger boost. Many IL bands like Cheap Trick, Styx, REO Speedwagon and Head East received minimal support nationwide, but were saluted as heroes on Chicago radio, with many album tracks getting spins, not just the singles. Concerts by these "native sons" were made into huge events with a great deal of radio promotion attached to them.

Chicago artists still get mentioned on Chicago radio. WKQX has the show Local 101. WXRT has Local Anesthetic. WGCI now has Go Ill. Some DJs, WDRV's Bob Stroud for example, will take special care in mentioning Chicago connections to the artists being played. This is becoming the rare exceptions and not the rule, though.

I swore I would never turn into one of those people who would talk about "good ol' days" and say things like "it used to be so much better when..." I really hate the fact that the current state of radio & music has turned me into that person. It shouldn't be that way and it doesn't have to be that way.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories. You are dating yourself, Larz. I used to go see a lot of those bands in the clubs in the early 80's, too. The Elvis Bros, The Kind, The Way Moves. Good times, indeed!

Larz said...

I forgot all about The Way Moves, Chicago's new wave kings. Skid Marks and his band were huge on the bar scene throughout most of the 80s. They came close to breaking it big a few times, but it never happened for them. If I remember correctly, they reunited for the Rock For Doc concert a couple of summers ago. A good group.

Scott said...

Some great memories from back in the day. Also liked Mike Jordan and the Rockamatics, the Remainders, Nicholas Tremulis, and Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans (technically not a Chicago band). How about Slammin' Watusis? Eleventh Dream Day? Great names from the past.