NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Anarchy on the Airwaves

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In the fascinating Stanley Kramer doomsday movie On the Beach, there’s a pivotal scene where a submarine crew — survivors of a nuclear holocaust — scan the radio waves in vain looking for signs of life elsewhere in the world. Finally, a ray of hope! There’s a mysterious signal coming over the airwaves — but it’s a sort of clicking, like Morse code. A search team from the submarine goes ashore in San Diego to find the source of the signal. And they find it. In an otherwise lifeless city, in an otherwise lifeless radio station, there’s a Coke bottle that’s become entangled in the window shade cord and — blown by the breeze through the window — it’s tapping out a nonsensical message through the radio’s board.

Is that where big radio is headed? A signal with no message?

Mainline radio executives this week appearing before Congress to defend their boycott of the Dixie Chicks sounded defensive and finally … afraid. Their justification of the Chicks boycott as a business decision rather than a political one is shamefully transparent — especially when they claim that listener response “forced” the boycott. And it is demonstrating to listeners that big radio is not responsive to their wishes. As corporate radio increasingly becomes homogenized and chases the dollar through any means necessary, listeners increasingly look to alternatives. Not just in country radio, where airplay at major stations equals chart success equals album sales and ticket sales on tour. That’s still the mainstream model — but it should not be the only country outlet for listeners.

These days though, it’s not so much a case of “either or” — having to choose between either mainstream or underground radio. It’s now a case of having a much larger tray to elect from. Not since the days of true pirate radio with offshore stations like Radio Caroline have so many alternatives to big commercial radio been emerging. Country fans, especially, are looking to satellite radio such as XM and Sirius. And more and more, people are turning to the Internet for radio alternatives
And size no longer matters When your favorite radio station is on wheels, what does that tell you? In a world of 100,000-watt mega stations, tiny WDVX transmits with a puny 200 watts from a 14-foot trailer in rural Tennessee. Thanks to the Internet, though, is a giant among stations. It’s nonprofit and commercial-free and it plays many strains of American music, with a focus on bluegrass.

That WDVX trailer will be rolling into downtown Knoxville later this year. It’s been lured away from its spot at the Fox Inn Campgrounds in Clinton, Tenn., as part of the development of the Gay Street area of downtown Knoxville. WDVX has already been transmitting live concerts from downtown Knoxville, and its new site will have an adjacent 75-seat auditorium for live shows. Internet stations such as WDVX and lively WNCW on the campus of Isothermal Community College in Spindale, N.C., are proving that size doesn’t matter. As long as they can exist with even marginal support, such viable alternatives are going to be sought out by listeners with an ear for adventure.

You should be able to hear George Strait and Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard and Norah Jones, Joe Nichols and Alison Krauss, Delbert McClinton and Allison Moorer, Roscoe Holcomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tracy Chapman and Ben Harper, Ani DiFranco and Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley and Ralph Stanley, Billie Holiday and Charley Patton, T-Bone Walker and Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton and Etta James, Miles Davis and the Carter Family, Bill Monroe and the Jayhawks. Specialized radio outlets for that music are here and they’re growing.

In this limitless future of MP3 streams, iPods and satellites, personal radio is an inevitability. Our own radio stations have demonstrated the enormous listener appeal of customized radio. The day is coming when your personal iPod will transmit your own personal radio favorites to you on demand.

Visitors to Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ mansion are given visitors’ passes that are embedded with chips containing the visitors’ own personal preferences in music and art. Each room in the house is programmed to play that music and show those images on the wall. That’s about as personal it gets — until the day when you get your government-provided computer chip installed in your brain.

Let a thousand radio alternatives bloom.