In this age of media fragmentation, we are increasingly just getting what we want and are able to keep anything uncomfortable, disagreeable, or even challenging well away from our tender sensitivities.
The same can be said about how we now listen to music. We generally just listen to the music we want. Oh sure, there are still a few decent commercial radio stations around these days, but if you listen for more than three hours or so, you’ll soon realise that what you thought was a good music mix is in fact a list of fifty or so songs that are rotated throughout the day. Satellite radio is pretty awesome, but again it can become so specialised that all you’re listening to is Bruce Springsteen cover songs by bands from Georgia, or outlaw country songs released between 1995 and 1997!
And then there is KEXP.
We have indeed come an exceptionally long way from the days we were forced to listen to the same Bad Company song seven or so times a day on the local Classic Rock station, but I wonder if we haven’t gone too far the other way?
The CBC, in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, changed their format and began offering both a morning and evening show that would showcase contemporary Canadian music. Things started off promisingly enough with what seemed to be a real emphasis on diverse programming. I began to hear French-Canadian musicians I had never known existed before. There seemed to be a real effort to get away from the predictable music programming of commercial radio...and then, something happened. I realised that all I was listening to everyday was the same Sarah Harmer and Sam Roberts songs I had heard the day before, and the day before that, and before that...
Seriously, how many bloody Sloan songs can a man listen to before he actually cuts off his own ears in protest?!
In spite of what must have been their well-intentioned efforts, it seems as though the CBC has fallen prey to the same disease as commercial radio. In an effort to attract a certain crowd, they have decided that they will only play a certain style of music, and indeed, a certain select group of artists. They have succumbed to the playlist from on-high.
In the frantic search for an audience in this fragmented environment, they have chosen to play the game. Instead of trying to build something truly uniting, truly broad and encompassing, they have simply joined the crowd, blended in.
Instead of playing a diversity of music that would appeal to a diversity of people, they chose instead to play unchallenging, uninspiring, and let’s face it, mediocre music that refused to challenge the listener.
I was down in Seattle last summer visiting some friends for the Fourth of July – shitty weather but still lots of beer and fireworks! – and on the radio came a Will E. Whitmore song. Now, this is not something you’d hear on any radio station I know of, and so, I excitedly asked about the station.
KEXP was the reply.
Later, after getting back to Vancouver, I looked it up on the interweb, and lo and behold, there was this amazing station that played everything...yes, everything...well, not quite. Luckily, I haven’t heard a single Sam Roberts ditty!
I discovered that it's 'listener powered', as they put it, supported by volunteers, public donations and corporate underwriting. But no commercials.
It’s a Seattle institution, been around for something like forty years. And if anyone from Vancouver has ever wondered why we have such a poor music scene compared with Seattle, look no further than the unflinching support of local music by this station.
Well, over the course of the past year this station has become what I listen to. It is a station that makes no apologies, curries no favours but instead asks you whether or not you like good music. Good music doesn’t mean only rock n roll, country, top forty (although they don’t play top 40 music, and if they do, that tune is on the top forty in spite of itself), world, local...it means everything. Whatever they want. Whatever they feel like.
Monday nights is African music night. Tuesday, World music. Wednesday, is roots rock, blues, soul, and R&B. Thursday is alternative country, honky tonk, boogie, western swing and other hard core twang. Friday is Rockabilly. Saturday morning is the Reggae show and in the evening is the one of the longest running local music shows on the continent. Sunday morning is the Blues and that night, the hip hop show followed by an amazing electronic music show.
It is a station where the DJs still have complete control. No governing body to edit. They play the music they want, when they want. One DJ actually played Informer, by Snow – remember?! – on a dare because it was one of those rare snow days in the northwest. Such wit.
Another DJ, upon returning from New Orleans, explained that he had been scouring the city for street musicians and buying up their CDs with the express intent of coming back to play them on the air. Amazing.
There is a flow to the music as it is rolled out reflecting themes, tones, moods.
KEXP finds the middle by fishing the extremes. It forces you to listen to stuff you might never have heard before, might think that you dislike, and introduces you to sounds that you’ve never even heard before.
This is the most wonderful thing about KEXP: you are challenged to expand, to explore and to grow.
It is the exact opposite of, and antidote to, the fragmentation and siloing taking place as we move from one technological age to the next. It is a post post-modern radio station, never catering to our own highly-elevated sense of ourselves, of our tastes or to the rabid individualism that now divides us.
KEXP unites us.
It unites us around good music.
Tune in someday.