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Here in New York City, where the NPG magazine editorial staff based, KISS-FM recently switched from an Urban Contemporary format to “Smooth R&B and Classic Soul.” This gout some of our friends all excited. It's definitely a promising development, and it's the station I'm most likely to listen to, because there’s very little that they play that I don’t like, but I usually end up putting on a CD after a while. Why? Because the KISS playlist is way too tight, and the overall sound is too similar. There's far too high a percentage of ballads, they mostly ignore everything before the ’70s except for Motown and James Brown, and as long as I'm complaining, why can't deejays announce songs anymore? But worst of all is hearing the same songs day in and day out. For example, in January, I heard KISS play only two James Brown tunes: “Please Please Please” and “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag” the long version). Sure they're great songs, but after the third time in as many days for “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,” I start yelling at the radio. “How about ‘Cold Sweat’ or ‘I Feel Good’ —they’re better!” All of this means that even though I love many, and like most, of the songs they’re playing, I get bored fast.
If music is more than just background noise, more than Muzak to make you a happy drone, it should challenge and stretch listeners. That's why a broad spectrum is needed in all situations. I’m not saying that KISS should be playing Pearl Jam, which I don’t like, or even Nirvana, which I love. I accept that formats are a way of focusing your audience. Just don’t focus too much, or you get the audience that doesn't really care about music, and that's radio stations have to resort to gimmicks and outrageous announcers and all that non-music crap.
Maybe it’s feeling this way that explains why our review section covers so many types of music, even things we don't all like here. Mark despises the wild jazz I love— he's a mainstream man all the way sound when it comes to jazz. Reggae generally bores me after couple songs in a row, but he likes it. Turn to our reviews this issue, and you'll find a couple reggae reviews from Mark, and my reviews of some far-out sax playing by the great John Coltrane and rising young star James Carter. You’ll also find hip-hop, the Beatles, funk, more jazz, classical, blues, ambient, soul, world music, rock, acid jazz, and some sounds that can't even be categorized.
Before you get to the end of our mag, where we stash those reviews, you’ll also read Dionne Farris ex-vocalist in Arrested Development) lamenting the fact that her music is less likely be heard because she doesn't fit into the categories that define radio formats. Fortunately the last few years have found some alternative formats being adopted by some stations, but not enough yet. The Basic problem is that radio stations think listeners don't like anything unfamiliar. This means that for new songs to get played, they have to sound like whatever’s already being played. Most of the exceptions break through at college stations or independent stations or on the street, becoming so popular at those levels that finally big commercial stations can’t ignore them anymore.
Two things have to happen for the situation to open up and improve. One is that radio stations have to have a higher opinion of their listeners and stop thinking of them as a lowest common denominator that has to be trained to like things. And before radio can accept that, the other thing has to happen: Listeners have to stop being sheep. The next time you call in a request, ask for something you don't hear on that station, instead of the same old thing. You might not get your song played, but keep doing it. Eventually the station will notice. In the next time an unfamiliar song comes on the radio don't reach for the preset to change to another station stopBack when programmers thought all blacks were supposed to play disco and only whites played rock'n roll that a skinny soft-spoken kid from Minneapolis changed the way radio sounded.
written by Steve Holtje