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The Genius of Steve Gerber

Thoughts on the Death of WFNX and Rock Radio

So many of us in Boston are in the midst of a long goodbye that feels kind of like a messy breakup.  WFNX is leaving us.  But it's still here.  The local media conglomerate that owns FNX announced a while back that they are selling their lease on the frequency to a national media conglomerate, who will almost certainly not put an indie rock station on the air in that spot. 

For me, it is strange to not have Henry Santoro and Julie Kramer on the air anymore.  Both have been on WFNX as long as I've been in Boston (I think--I got here in 91. Pretty sure at least Henry was on the air then).

And no FNX means the choices on my car radio just got even shittier.

But, in some way, this was probably inevitable.  Commercial radio has been at odds with its audience for quite some time.  Commercial radio is an advertising delivery system.  The music is incidental to the mission of delivering your ears to advertisers.  I think a lot of the people who work in radio do so because they love music, but the stations themselves exist as a way to generate ad revenue.

We listen to the radio for different reasons: serendipity and comfort.  We like to discover new music, and we like to hear songs that we like.  The problem is that, when I can now take my entire music collection with me every time I get in the car, I don't need the comfort anymore.  I can supply my own comfort.

And this is how FNX effectively killed itself.  For years--decades, even!--they put comfortable safe bands from the 90's, when the mainstream conquered indie rock, on heavy rotation. Because if something familiar is on the air, you're more inclined to stick around for the Atlas Liquors ad.  So there was a good chance that at any time you turned this station on, you might hear a 90's hit from Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Sublime. But as memory got cheaper, we got to the point where anybody who wants to hear a Sublime song every hour has that on their iPod, which they can take with them everywhere.  Which means that the constant repetition meant to keep you listening actually started to drive people away. Like me.  If I have to hear "Under the Bridge" or "All Apologies" or "Santeria" one more time in my entire life, I may snap like a twig.

So if you wanted music discovery, you turned to satellite radio (where the goal is to keep listeners happy so they keep shelling out subscription money, which is why it's way better than regular radio), podcasts, or the internet.  Even Pandora, which is crap, has introduced me to some cool music.  (James Kochalka!) By the time FNX eased back on the 90's hits (I think maybe about 6 months ago), it was too late. Everybody who wanted to find cool new music was pretty much looking elsewhere.

And so it looks like rock radio is dead.  We've gone from four stations to two.  And if a city with an enormous, auto-refreshing population of college students can't support an indie rock station, well, it looks like that's pretty well dead as a format. 

There's another thing that radio can do, which is foster a sense of community.  FNX, even when they were stumbling musically, did this pretty well.  And whatever replaces it--DJ-free music, sports talk, or right wing nutjob talk are my guesses--really won't be able to do that. 

I hope Julie and Henry find other jobs--well, I smelled the blood in the water when Henry started tweeting about getting his real estate license--or start podcasting, or something.  I really like them, and I'm sorry they were collateral damage when FNX killed itself  with timid programming and when the media conglomerate that owns the station and fancies itself an independent voice jumped at the chance to sell our station to Clear Channel.

Update:

I may have spoken too soon.  Henry, Julie, and some other FNX vets are going to be part of a streaming "radio" station from boston.com.  We'll see what happens...

 

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