Thursday, April 20, 2006

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

I've become a regular listener of WTMD, Towson University's "college rock" radio station (89.7 FM), where I've discovered there's a lot of great music out there that I need to catch up on. I especially like Towson DJs Melissa Goodman (pictured left) and Dan Rogers (mixes a lot of old stuff I like - Oasis, Police, Neil Young - with the newer tunes) and the syndicated "World Cafe" and "Sounds Eclectic" programs. But lately, as I've increased my listening hours, I've noticed certain disturbing trends. Like the 3 R's, "Repetition, Repetition, Repetition" (as The Fall singer Mark Smith so aptly put it).

In the wake of The Decline and Fall of WHFS (which used to be great back in the 70s and 80s before the soulless "modern rock" playlisters took over at 99.1 on the FM dial to demographically target the Power Plant Live! Set - and then promptly abandoned this aesthetically repulsive consumer class to chase the more lucrative Hispanic market) and the increasingly excessive hippie and jam band noodlings of WRNR (the wayward offspring of WHFS after its call letters came to stand for We Have Foolishly Sold-out), I embraced WTMD for reminding me most of the kind of College Radio I grew up on when, well, when I was in college.


Back then, "College Radio" meant you pretty much played whatever you felt like. My peers know what I'm talking about when I name-drop the Joe Buccari show on ye olde 1970s free-form progressive WHFS (when it was 102.3 FM out of Bethesda), or George Washington University's amazingly eclectic WGTB (90.1 FM) that would play Ella Fitzgerald, Devo, the New York Dolls, Lord Buckley, The Buzzcocks, Robert Gordon, Coltrane, The Firesign Theatre, XTC, Pere Ubu, Sun Ra, The Cramps, and the Bonzo Dog Band back-to-back! Like public access TV, you never knew what to expect far from the confines of predictble playlists and program director-directed format. And you learned a lot through all that exposure!

Listening to WGTB was like flipping through a profusely illustrated sonic magazine, instead of just pouring over the same bland page (a flash card, really) over and over and over again. Alas, WGTB went off the air in January of 1979, shut down by the Jesuits as much for its political leanings as its provocative music.(For a great WGTB history, see Guy Raz's January 29, 1999 Washington City Paper tribute.)


But then it slowly dawned on me that I was hearing the same songs over and over on WTMD. I was hearing Format. I was being subjected to a Playlist. Don't get me wrong - I was a DJ back in the early 80s (when there was this thing called vinyl that had to be cued up), and we had a list of songs that the director suggested we plug. But that meant maybe spinning a half dozen tunes in a two- or three-hour set. But on WTMD, you have to listen to the same formatted playlist every hour on the hour to get to hear one DJ's choice, like an old Smiths sad song, or a dour Dylan ditty, or what have you. Then another 55 minutes of the same old same old.


I also noticed how familiar certain artists sounded, as if I had heard them before. And it started to annoy me. Take Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (pictured right). When I first heard them, I thought it was the Talking Heads because the singer neurotically mumbled so much like David Byrne I thought it couldn't be mere coincidence. Normal people don't sound like David Byrne. that's why "Psycho Killer" was such a perfect vehicle for him - his vocal style was perfectly abnormal. Actually, CYHSY sounded like David Byrne being backed by Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz's little brother's band, The Urban Verbs. Except both the Heads and the Verbs didn't suck, and CYHSY do.

Then there's this Jackie Greene guy (pictured left). I read a blog by some 18-year-old kid who confidently proclaimed him to be a musical genius because, well, you know, 18-year-olds have such a wealth of musical knowledge to choose from when bestowing such pronouncements. I like the ONE song by the guy that WTMD plays over and over again, "I'm So Gone," but must admit that when I first heard it I thought it was Ian McCullough of Echo and the Bunnymen gone full sell-out. Not only does Jackie Greene sing just like McCullough, he looks just like him, right down to the dour expression and insouciant cowlick atop the Gumby hair!

Similarly, Richard and Linda Thompson's son Teddy Thompson (pictured right, and whose "I Should Get Up" is his one alotted song on WTMD) sounds embarassingly like Chris Isaac, which is an OK thing only if you're Chris Isaac (even though Chris himself is merely a better-looking Roy Orbison, albeit one whose songs all sound alike - but hey, I loved his Showtime TV series!) and Midwest jam band Umphrey's McGee ("Women, Wine and Song" is their WTMD daily formatted alotment) sound to these ears like nothing more than the refried Dixieland Funk of Little Feat (who I always detested!) And Ben Harper? I can't listen to his "Get It Like You Like It" without thinking it's a recently excavated outtake from the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street.

Admittedly, I really like that Willie Nile song "Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets Of the Dead)," but c'mon, old-timer Willie's the world's reigning Dylan wannabe (and has been ever since the release of his first album over 25 years ago). On his new CD Streets of New York, Willie not only sounds like the Bard of Hibbing, MN, but even stirs up the kind of nonsensical, surreal imagery Dylan used circa Blonde on Blonde's "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)." But hey, there are worse geniuses to emulate. Mark Knopfler has always been enamored with Bob, too, but still managed to find his own sound.

So many bands on WTMD seem to sound like the Emo-friendly, world-weary vocal stylings of their current darling, Mat Kearney, who I'm sure will be the Cherrybuck or Nickleback of his generation (that's "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" talk kids!). The fact that Mr. Kearney spells his first name with just one "t," like a wrestling or yoga mat, annoys almost me as much as his dearth of talent. It's affected and trendy, just his music. Likewise the derivative Chris Martin-meets-Evan Dando vocal style, with that irritating high-pitched trill in "Nothing Left To Lose" makes my blood rise, much like when I first heard Gavin Rossdale of Bush enjoy his 15 minutes of fame aping Kurt Cobain post-Cobain. This is the kind of crap you hear all the time on The O.C and the soundtrack of really bad teen cineplex movies. Even Felicity had a better soundtrack! Worse still, "Mat" has been embraced by the Christian Rock community. You can find rave reviews for him at sites like, Christian Music Town, and God knows (He surely knows) where else.


Of course the answer to free-form, college radio lies not on the airwaves but on the Internet, where my friends swear by Web Radio sites like WFMU. WFMU is an independent free-form radio station broadcasting at 91.1 fm in the New York City area, at 90.1 fm in the Hudson Valley, and live on the web in Realaudio, or in Windows Media, as well as two flavors of MP3, and all programs archived in MP3 and Realaudio. But I can't listen to the radio at work and my computer at home doesn't have great sound fidelity, so...oh well! I'll just have to endure the endless repetition on WTMD to find the few nuggets worth buying from iTunes.

Related Cool Radio Links:
WHFS 102.3 Tribute
WGTB Tribute


Blogger Ryan Holiday said...


I'm the 18 year old kid who wrote that article. Did you see the article on Blogcritics or something?

Anyways, running a new site where you can listen to Jackie's music. It's called Stream Jackie Greene Try some of these songs man, and let me know if they change your mind. I think he's got better songs than "I'm So Gone"

3:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there.

First off, thanks for listening. WTMD is listener supported radio station and we appreciate everyone who spends time with us.

We love music at the station. Plain and simple, music can change the world and we think that we do our best when we bring new artists to Baltimore's attention.

I thought I would take a few moments to respond about your observations about repetition. Most folks tune into a radio station once or twice a day and spend a bit of time listening. Some listeners, and we love everyone, will leave the radio on for hours at a time.

The folks who listen for long periods of time are more likely to hear a song played more times than someone who is only able to listen in morning drive, but not at other times.

That's our biggest challenge. How many times do you play a song so that the folks who only listen an hour a day hear the song enought times to be able to evaluate it without playing it so many times that the dreaded "burn factor" kicks in. It's a tough call and one we make every day. Sometimes we hit it right. Sometimes we don't. It's all by feel, phone calls from our listeners, watching the sales charts at the independent music stores like Record and Tape Traders and Soundgarden and a good helping of telepathy.

Each week, three or four songs will be highlighted and the tune we think is the most important on the record will get 3 spins a day. It's rare for a record to stay in that position more than one week. That adds up to about 21 spins a week. Sometimes, World Cafe or Sounds Eclectic or another show will add a spin, but we try to compensate for that.

When you look at other stations, you'll see our "heavy" rotation is much "thinner" than most stations. You can always check just about any station's top 30 at

Our jocks have a certain number of songs per hour that they choose themselves and we encourage creativity and hope that what they pick resonates emotionally with our audience of music lovers. We also host many daily features like the 5 o'Clock Shadow, the Guilty Pleasure and I Dream of Themey to keep it all mixed up.

Each week, we also pick one CD that really speaks to us and make play all the tracks over the course of seven days so folks can really get a sense of what the artist is saying.

I want to thank you again for writing such an insightful and honest entry on your blog about us. We're humbled when we touch folks so deeply that express their thoughts about our work. Please be sure to come say hi at First Thursdays or any of our other events. And when you have a question about what we do, we're more than happy to chat on the phone about it.

Thanks for loving the music too!

Steve Yasko
General Manager, WTMD

PS---I gotta tell you, I do love the Jackie Greene tune a lot. And don't miss the new springsteen record.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Camarillo Brillo said...

Great write up!
go here for more WHFS and WGTB from the golden age of radio.

9:42 PM  

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