A few months ago KUT (one of Austin's premier public radio stations and the home of NPR) started a second station named KUTX. KUT continues to deliver news, various topical shows, and informational programming while KUTX, the sister station, primarily plays music. KUTX has a number of different shows that feature assorted genres and styles of tunes, and it also has occasional, brief news updates, but on the whole they just playing tunes that they think will appeal to an Austin audience.
I've been listening to KUTX a lot lately. Really, I've been listening to it more than I've listened to any other radio station in a long time.
In an era when it's exteremely easy to load hundreds and hundreds of songs onto an MP3 player or smartphone and only listen to songs that you've personally selected for inclusion in your own digital library, I found myself asking the question of why I was feeling drawn once again to radio. After all, even if I didn't want to listen to the same album over and over, technology now allows me to create randomly generated playlists of my own music or to stream music from internet sites which create customized playlists tailored to my tastes (using algorithms to analyze my past choices and send things my way that I'm mathematically predicted to enjoy; this model is used by sites like Pandora).
Riding the bus home after work, listening to KUTX stream through my iPhone, I came to the conclusion that there are probably at least two important things that happen when I'm listening to radio that aren't easy to recreate in other mediums.
First, radio helps me find unexpected things to enjoy which might not be easily predicted by previous listening habits. I still think that there's a benefit in being exposed to things which I might not have immediately chosen or which I don't find immediately accessible, and I still believe that, with a little patience, you can acquire tastes for some unexpected types of music. Just because I've indicated that I like to listen to 90's alternative rock or 80's punk or current techno doesn't mean that I'm not willing to give other things a chance.
Of course, it helps to believe that you can put some amount of faith in the taste of the person doing the programming. And a certain amount of humility on the part of the listener also helps. In order to listen to radio, you have to be willing to be willing to buy into the following propositions: "Just because I don't like something doesn't mean that it sucks. Just because I don't immediately love something when I first hear it doesn't mean that I will never learn to like it."
It probably helps that KUTX is a public radio station as opposed to being a corporate, profit-driven enterprise. Commercial radio isn't all bad, but I think the programming is at least slightly more suspect because it's all carried out in the pursuit of making money. In the most direct sense, this means that listeners have to wonder whether record companies are somehow offering cash incentives to radio stations in order to push mediocre songs into their broadcast rotation. A less direct but probably more commonplace problem is that commercial radio stations just aren't willing to take many risks or challenge listeners with a lot of new or different stuff. Commercial stations like to stick to relatively narrow genres of music and play accessible, catchy songs that listeners will immediately like. Songs on commercial radio are usually very simple and are intentionally written with musical "hooks" (i.e., musical phrases meant to quickly stick in your head in order to catch the ears of listeners). This doesn't make the music on commercial radio bad, necessarily, but it does limit the variety quite a bit.
When radio is at its best, listeners trust the programming enough to give new songs a chance, even if they don't immediately click with a particular tune as it hits their ears. Some songs may have nuances and qualities that aren't immediately apparent upon a first listen. Other songs will probably never be a listener's favorite, but maybe hearing them a time or two will engender some understanding of why other people enjoy them (so even if you don't like a song, you still might be able to appreciate it).
The second thing that I've come to appreciate about radio in more recent years is the relationship that it can develop with the community in which it broadcasts. KUTX has taken the same approach as some other successful non-commercial, listen supported radio stations across the country (WWOZ in New Orleans comes to mind as well as KEXP in Seattle), trying to offer somewhat representative sampling of the type of music that people in their towns are engaged with and listening to. In trying to represent "the sound of Austin", KUTX has taken on the task of trying to not only broadcast music that people will like, but also to represent Austin as a city. Toward this end, KUTX broadcasts music from across the country and around the world that appeals to Austinites, but it also highlights the local work of a large number of Austin and Texas artists. Representing the sound of a city is, of course, probably an almost impossible task for a station to perfectly accomplish, but it's still an interesting and worthwhile effort. KUTX invites local musicians into the station to talk about their music, and they regularly feature live performances that are broadcast from within their studio. Upcoming shows are highlighted, album releases are celebrated, and local music events are promoted. These sorts of things help to build community and can help establish a radio station as a crucial display place for a city's culture.
Anyway, I don't want to go overboard, but I've been enjoying KUTX a lot lately. I hope they keep getting better and better. Just thought I'd give a shout out to one of those rare examples of a modern media source that seems to be headed in the right direction.
** If you want to give KUTX a listen, you can hear a little bit of what Austin sounds like here. Just click on the button for 98.9, and it'll stream right at you!