Wanted: Radio Free America

I grew up in a small town in south Alabama. Until I was a sophomore in college, there weren’t any rock radio stations within daytime listening range. The choices were Top 40, country, “easy listening” (aka the stuff my dad played at his dentist office), NPR, and a few religious stations. The only real rock radio in the region came out of Atlanta (96 Rock) or Pensacola, which was home to the then-legendary WTKX-FM, better known as TK-101.

TK was one of the last independently-programmed stations in the country, surviving until 2000, when it was bought out and artistically gutted by the ClearChannel conglomerate (96 Rock in Atlanta suffered the same fate). In the early 80’s, it was the first place I ever heard Rush on the radio, or R.E.M., or U2, or Van Halen (pre-“Jump”, natch), or Metallica, or any of scores of bands that didn’t, at that time, fit in to anybody’s format. The first time I ever heard “Sympathy For The Devil,” or the Faces’ “Stay With Me,” I was listening to TK.

But that wasn’t what was really great about the station. TK had a personality, and it was unpredictable. The station was programmed by the in-house jocks, and you really never knew what you were going to hear next, particularly in the first half of the ’80’s. TK picked up on new acts in a hurry, and even played stuff like Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran long before they were unavoidable on Top 40 stations (and like them or hate them, at that time they were still new and very different from the automated pop of the day). It was a station that could effortlessly go from Judas Priest to Bruce Cockburn to an old Journey tune, and then roll into an obscure live U2 track one of the jocks found on the back of a vinyl EP.

In other words, it was a lot like KCDX, profiled today in the LA Times. Unfortunately, it’s not like much of anything else you can find today, either on the dial or even on satellite radio.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve had an XM receiver for over a year, and I wouldn’t voluntarily give it up (unless I decide I like Sirius better one of these days). Their programming is light-years better than anything on terrestrial radio; Bluesville is a particularly fantastic channel. But at its heart, even XM is nearly as segregated as any ClearChannel-choked radio dial.

Deep Tracks is the closest thing on XM to an old-style rock radio station, but it’s still limited to a fairly slim slice of mid-tempo 70’s and 80’s tunes (and it’s gotten entirely too hippie-oriented for my tastes lately). Anything more muscular is relegated to the ridiculous hair-band ghetto of Boneyard, and that’s asinine. There’s a lot of heavy music out there that doesn’t suck, so why lump the aforementioned Van Halen in with outright crap like Poison or Warrant? Where are the progressive rock acts? Or for that matter, the singer-songwriters? Where are the new, genuinely alternative bands from college radio?

Well, of course, they’re on their own XM channels (whoops, except for progressive rock, which just got bumped to internet-only). But out of all of XM’s bandwidth, why isn’t there at least one place that plays some of everything?

XM brags about being an alternative to commercial radio, and on some occasions and stations they live up to that boast, but with hundreds of channels available, why isn’t there a genuine free-form channel? Why all the harsh segregation? Why are they just repeating ClearChannel’s playlist on Top Tracks and Big Tracks? You can hear all those same songs every day on any commercial “classic rock” station, so why does XM even bother?

In other words, XM, you’re getting my $13 a month. Now how about you deliver me just one station with… personality? Here’s a suggestion: look up a guy who went by the handle “Strummer.” He was as close as TK-101 had to a programming director during the station’s glory days. You could do a hell of a lot worse than hiring him and turning him loose.

UPDATE: Adrian Rush of the Motley Fool agrees (sort of).