Monday, December 23, 2002

BUT THEY DON'T GIVE YOU ANY CHOICE 'CAUSE THEY THINK THAT IT'S TREASON: Jim DeRogatis, music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently interviewed Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, the lobbying group for the radio industry, regarding charges that radio stations have become increasingly conformist:
Q. But what he's saying is that you have a music lover, maybe somebody who's devoted 20 or 30 years of their career to being a DJ, and they are no longer able to control what they play on the air. It isn't even decided by the station's programmer, but by some national consultant, who is taking his cue from independent promoters and the major-label hype machine. That's who Petty is eulogizing in "The Last DJ."

A. Do you have specific examples of that?

Q.Yes. I've interviewed a dozen DJs in Chicago and Minneapolis on six different rock stations over the years, and they all agree with that critique. They complain about following pre-set play lists fed to them on a computer. If they deviate and play something else in a moment of inspiration, they receive a scolding memo, and sometimes they're even fined. Does "The Last DJ" really exist anywhere today besides college or public radio?

A. Yes, I think so. I don't believe they're gone. In Washington, D.C., WHFS is a tremendous alternative-rock station.

Q. But I have seen its play list, and it's almost identical, song for song, to three dozen other alt-rock stations across the country.

A. If the charge is that they're playing songs that people want to hear, guilty as charged.

Q. What Petty is questioning is what comes first, the apple or the horse? Is radio playing songs because they inspired the programmers and the DJs, or is it playing songs that are being pushed by millions of dollars of promotional money? And how can people like a song that they have never had a chance to hear?

A. I don't think the idea is to inspire DJs. I think the ideas is to inspire audiences to come back with music they want to hear.

Q. If that's so, why is this such a chronic complaint from artists, from Elvis Costello to R.E.M. to Tom Petty? When was the last great rock song written about how good radio is?

A. You're the rock critic, you tell me.

And so on. When real life starts to sound like one of my favorite SNL skits, I smile.

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