You know something’s afoot when you turn on the shower radio at 6:45 a.m. and hear Anne Murray crooning “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. Or maybe it was Julie Andrews.
I spend a minute or so trying to name the singer, ignoring for a moment that the radio was celebrating Christmas in May. The guessing game ends when the mystery diva is succeeded by Wham!’s “Last Christmas”, for which I have no use even in December. Somewhere in Indianapolis, either a DJ is greatly amusing himself, listener requests have taken a bizarre turn in the hands of joyous off-season mob rule, or Skynet is taking over the airwaves as part of a truly twisted master plan and doing a terrible job of acting naturally.
I’m not a morning person and my brain isn’t a morning organ. The confusion sown by my early-morning background noise inspires my brain to awaken more quickly than usual. Now it has a mystery to solve.
* * * * *
For the past few years, Indianapolis radio station WNTR 107.9 has been an ostensible listener-request station dubbed My107.9. At first the assortment was delightfully random — e.g., censored Eminem once or twice a week, one Fountains of Wayne track on a quarterly basis, Social Distortion once and only once. Over time, eager listeners of a certain age (close to mine, I’d wager) turned My107.9 into a de facto all-’80s station, even though their competitors at Soft Rock B105.7 already turn every single weekend into an all-’80s marathon. I guess the people craved even more ’80s hits than B105.7 could parcel out to them.
When other listeners vote in droves, I tend to tune out because everyone else wants the old radio standards of their generation. Not me — repetitiveness sours my musical enjoyment. Some songs I don’t mind hearing on more than one occasion, but hearing the same songs on every occasion effectively crosses them off my mental “Like” list. I can rattle off a list of songs that appeared on the playlists of so many wedding receptions, holiday parties, or other shindigs in my life — “Celebration”, “YMCA”, “Cha-Cha Slide”, “Unchained Melody”, “Twist and Shout” — that, if I were given the chance to request music, would never appear in my Top 1,000 specifically because I’ve already heard them hundreds of times too many.
The next time my wife and I attend my company holiday party, I’m thinking about creating our own set of Party Song Bingo cards. It would give us something to do for fun while we’re hanging out and not dancing.
* * * * *
Before I leave home, 107.9 announces they’ll be discontinuing their My107.9 identity shortly. Until then, the station plans to have itself some fun as one last, weird hurrah for their listeners.
On my way to work, I flip the car radio to WZPL 99.5 — longtime top-40, one of Indianapolis’ few stations not to change format or call sign in the last thirty years — and catch a few minutes of the Smiley Morning Show, starring DJ Dave Smiley and other fun-loving employees. Seconds after I tune in, they air a call from a lady who’s been listening to 107.9 (“That’s not what we like to hear,” says Smiley) and is flabbergasted that they’re playing Christmas carols in May.
Smiley pokes fun at their station, mocking their low ratings and calling them “losers”. Getting into the spirit of the stunt, weatherman Paul Poteet begins his forecast in a boisterous Harry Caray voice with a prediction of “five to seven inches of snow, and a high of around 25!” It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard on their show.
Thinking back to myself: the last time 107.9 stumped listeners was during their transition phase from their previous random-soft-rock identity (“The Track”) to My107.9. The before-and-after differences were almost imperceptible, but the interlude had a few inspired moments.
What would come of this interlude, I wondered?
* * * * *
The question is begged: why is my shower radio turned to 107.9? Fair question. Rhythms and melodies sometime stimulate me out of a walking slumber. I don’t keep a CD player or any other gadgets near our shower. Once in a blue moon, they’ve played a song I genuinely enjoyed that hadn’t been sullied by overexposure.
More to the point: I lack viable FM alternatives. Local airwaves have failed since 1989 to cater to my musical whims. If Indianapolis ever welcomed and supported a radio station that wouldn’t be afraid to play the likes of They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. before “The One I Love”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Jesus and Mary Chain, John Wesley Harding, Japandroids, the Gaslight Anthem, Weird Al Yankovic, Fugazi, and an endless parade of other strangers to America’s Top 40, I’d turn every radio we own to that station and tear off the knobs.
This will never happen. Instead my options, besides the aforementioned, are:
* At least three country stations (not my thing)
* Talk radio (ugh)
* Sports-talk radio (triple ugh)
* Radio Disney (hahahahahahahaha no)
* An all-Spanish station (alas, I took German in high school instead)
* NPR (95% talk radio, though their Twitter feed offers infrequent samples of interesting new acts)
* Two nationally syndicated Christian imitation-Top-40 stations (K-Love and Air1 are 99% interchangeable, except Air1 tolerates the occasional Skillet single as long as they’re not being too noisy)
* A couple of local high school stations, which are great when it’s an outcast’s turn on-air, but otherwise not
* At least two modern dance/hip-hop club-mix channels (when I reflect on the days of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, today’s sexy-drunk-party sex-jams make me mourn the artistic roads no longer taken)
* Q95, home of the nationally syndicated Bob & Tom Show (which I liked for about three minutes in high school) and all the hair metal and classic RAWK anyone could ever want, if one insisted on wanting it
* WRZX, a.k.a. X103 — last time I checked in, “Indy’s New Rock Alternative” still waved the grunge flag high, loves themselves some big dumb metal, and stood by their nightly “Mandatory Metallica”. A quick review of their site tonight reveals a few surprising names on the playlist, plus many unsurprising. I remember this one time a few years ago when they played the Arcade Fire. I wonder if that ever happened again, but I’ll not risk hoping for such a miracle if it means having to sit through the same five Alice in Chains dirges they’ve been running into the ground for two straight decades.
* 92.3 WTTS, the closest to my musical leanings in terms of unpopular rock, but they’re also overly fond of blues, reggae, the same ’70s classics as Q95, sensitive acoustic-guitar guys, Starbucks-style compilations, and Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason”, which they’ve kept in heavy rotation since 1995.
Oh, the mellifluous variety. I guess.
* * * * *
All day Thursday, the My107.9 official site was listed as “Under Construction”. Around 4:30, during my wife’s commute, 107.9 has shifted to a temporary all-Garth-Brooks format.
An hour later during my own commute, I tune in and hear “Airplanes” by B.O.B. and Hayley Williams. A moment later, I hear a voice I never would’ve expected: once again, Dave Smiley, DJ-ing on the wrong channel and referring to the station as “The Mix” supposedly with “Today’s Best Music”, a slogan so overused he has to be touting it ironically. At one point he takes a listener phone call that turns out to be his morning-show sidekick, KJ, who jokingly requests he play “Daughtry, and then some more Daughtry.”
If this is another prank, I had to salute them for ratcheting its complexity level up a few more notches.
* * * * *
More questions are begged: why not ditch commercial radio like millions of other discerning aficionados and switch to satellite radio? Or catch up with the 21st century and manage my own MP3 devices? Also fair questions.
My first exposure to satellite radio in a rental car on vacation was, at times, more fun than the vacation itself. Hundreds of channels! Tons of formats! Lots and lots and lots of new music and artists that Indy radio never played! Unfortunately, I found that if I stuck with a channel for more than three days, I experienced the same issues with repetitive playlists, as new singles became old hat after the sixth or seventh spin. On our 2006 trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota, I recall a particular She Wants Revenge song that had potential at first, but by week’s end began to grate on my nerves.
My reluctance to embrace MP3s would require an entry in itself. Short answer: not at this time, but thank you for the option.
Thankfully I now have a CD player in my car that allows me creative control in at least one personal venue. My cheap old shower radio, on the other hand, can only handle the medium of commercial radio. There’s still a certain charm in settling on a station that might play worthwhile music and hoping against hope that sooner or later they’ll get to something you really like.
Also, I feel noble in supporting a dying industry. I’ve heard horror stories of stations in some markets where DJs are constantly being downsized, having their benefits slashed, seeing their employment status reduced from full-time to part-time so they’re eligible for fewer feasible insurance options, and generally being encouraged to flee the radio business.
In a way, hanging on to those few stations that support live DJs is like spitting on The MAN. Sort of. Barely. Tangentially. Look, I can pretend if I want.
Most days, settling for a .005% chance of hearing “And She Was” or “You Can Call Me Al” is slightly preferable to a hazy morning spent in unprovoked silence.
* * * * *
Late tonight, some online fact-checking confirms that 107.9’s latest incarnation, The Mix, is not a joke, nor was the clichéd motto of “Today’s Best Music“. For what it’s worth, they share the same owner as WZPL, thus explaining Smiley’s two-timing double-shift. Regardless, it appears the Mix is real and here to stay, until a few years from now when it’s not.
Near as I can tell, this persona isn’t shockingly different from the interchangeable soft-rock/Top-40 stations I listed above. Now playing as I type this sentence: Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You”.
What a coincidence: come tomorrow morning, that’s my plan.