Growing up in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s was like living in a musical desert. St. Louis had a pop music station, a hard rock station, a classical music station, a black music station, a country music station and a smattering of adult contemporary stations playing Air Supply and Captain and Tenille. That was about it. If your tastes varied from that menu, then you were pretty much on your own. There was a single college radio station run by Washington University, and most of its programming was devoted to classical music and jazz. But for an hour or two a week it played what was then called new wave and punk rock. The show was called Pipeline, and on that show I was exposed to a veritable smorgasbord of alternative genres, from the punk rock of the Sex Pistols to the synthpop of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. The first time I ever heard Madonna was on that station, and Pipeline provided a taste of The Specials, Siouxie and the Banshees and the Cure that sent one scurrying to the local record stores like Vintage Vinyl, West End Wax and Euclid Records to buy what was heard or even something similar recommended by one of the knowledgeable hipsters behind the counter.
It wasn’t until I moved to San Diego that I could tune into a radio station that played music I liked, and even that came from south of the border, 91X based in Tijuana. Things actually got worse when I landed in the Philadelphia area. Philly didn’t even have a classical station, and the rock stations could often be found playing the exact same song at the same time. There was little variety in that market, so as soon as I could afford it I purchased a CD player and pretty much never looked back. Today I have switched to MP3s loaded on a USB stick, 16 GB of everything from the hard-rock of The Cult to seizure inducing Skinny Puppy mixed in with lots of electronic dance music from DJs like Christopher Lawrence, John 00 Fleming, and DJ Apsara.
Several months ago The Kid introduced me to Pandora. For those who don’t know, Pandora is internet radio that plays music based on the selection of a particular band one likes. As I understand it, Pandora then plays songs by similar bands or bands liked by listeners who share interest in the band. For example, I have a Frankie Goes to Hollywood “channel” (I’m too old to be embarrassed). It loads up and might start with the band’s greatest hit, Relax, but then might follow with a song from The Fixx or Duran Duran, bands that are also liked by 80’s nostalgia freaks like me. I have several stations for African music, ska, industrial, techno, and hard rock. Pandora is streamed to my smartphone across Verizon’s 3G network, and I connect my phone to the car stereo. It’s like having your very own radio station but one for any particular mood you find yourself in.
It is a customized radio experience, and it is one of the ways I know I’m living in the 21st century. 30 years ago I couldn’t have even conceived of such a thing, but here it is, and what’s even crazier is it’s free. It’s paid for through advertisements targeted at the demographic of people who like a particular artist, so I end up getting a lot of Home Depot and Over 50 Singles ads directed at me.
Congress of course is still stuck in the 20th century, and tries to regulate internet radio in ways favorable to Clear Channel, the dominant force in dinosaur radio. But once you hear new music that appeals to you on your very own radio station, why would you go back to listening to dinosaur radio where you only hear what the record labels pay to be played? It doesn’t matter what your tastes in music are, or even your taste in music at this moment, Pandora and it’s competitor Spotify, will provide you with music. Welcome to the future.