In the last few months, research for a project has taken me across the state and, more recently, into Mexico. It may be something sentimental in me, or this weird notion that road trips are meant to be soundtracked by where you are and not by a list you cultivated online, but I noticed what was popular on the radio in these areas.
Many people have complained about what's on Dallas' airwaves, but honestly things aren't that dire. We have a great NPR station in KERA, and KXT is starting to fully understand their role in the marketplace. K104 and 97.9 The Beat both do a great job of exploring not just the mainstream hip-hop and R&B, but also music from the fringes of both genres, and there's not a sports station in the South that can come close to the Ticket.
However, it's some of the old hands in the market I'm troubled by. I'm not sure when KLUV decided their oldies programming included the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis, but they're a break from the traditional programming of Elvis, Elton, Elvis, Beatles. The Edge is able to sneak in the occasional M83 song and Mark Schectman has his Sunday locals show, but it has to be painful for a DJ to announce Linkin Park is coming up next.
The top 40 stations aren't worth trying to deride or comprehend; they serve their purpose and attacking them is like trying to bare-knuckle box a brick wall. I admittedly skip over the country stations in the area, since it seems each one is trying to out-Nashville each other by seeing how many times they can play Blake Shelton an hour. And stations like The Eagle, Jack FM and KZPS are just filling a slot in a market, like their brethren in every other city in the country.
Bringing Austin into this conversation would be unfair, as no city in this state would be able to compete with the variety of music offered by the stations in our Capitol. As for Houston, even with the loss of Rice radio to the murky realm of Internet-only broadcasting, and the recent change of 103.7 from adult alternative to Christian rock, their radio scene is far more eclectic than our own. There's actually an oldies stations that plays music made in the '40s and '50s, and there's classic and outlaw country stations that play the type of music Dallas concert-goers flock to, but can't find on the radio.
Even the modern adult alternative fare is more daring in Houston. Take the Alvin-based 89.7 KACC, which is slightly comparable to KXT. While listening to the station during drive time, I heard them play The Knife, LCD Soundsystem and Le Sera. This seems like something that might not happen on a non-Slavens controlled KXT show.
Recently, I found myself in the back of a car drinking a beer while my driver was buzzing through the streets of Juarez, Mexico with the type of reckless abandon you find in people in their early twenties. From the radio I heard seminal punk band X, and I asked him why he played that song. He laughed and said it was the radio. El Paso is a weird mix of conventional music stations, ballsy college radio and Spanish-language stations that would seem foreign to our Tejano-dominated air waves. While in the area, I heard Carla Morrison, The Hidden Cameras, At The Drive-In, Bloc Party, Traffic, The Grass Roots, The Buzzcocks and the aforementioned X. Why El Paso and not Dallas?
Making my way from El Paso, I drove through Midland, Odessa, Abilene and dozens of small towns. I came across at least 20 publicly funded stations that played classic country, golden oldies and the occasional new wave hit. I grimaced when I lost TCU's station while passing through DFW airport, and I was thankful American Roots was on when I finally switched to KXT.
There's a lot of good here, but it could be improved by stations taking more risks. We're the dominant media city in this state, and it's time our radio stations caught up. Check back here in the next few weeks, as we'll be discussing Dallas as a radio market with locals, and how Internet stations like Radio UTD and Indie-Verse affect the discussion.
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