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Radio Love: An Essay

21 Jun, 2021 | Return|

Radio Crush by Tim Easton

 

  When it comes to listening to music in my car, I don’t always go for streamed playlists that are curated by a computer. I need human interaction. I like good old fashioned disc jockeys who studied the great DJs before them. I dig radio talk show hosts who take chances. I enjoy the fried-voiced late night romantics, the stumbling, dead-air-chewing college kids, and your classic DJs who put their own thoughts and feelings in between the songs. I love radio—especially when I’m driving my car. Rather than streaming a playlist, I like to gamble on the notion that a radio station will play a tune or tell a story that moves me.

  It started early for me. As a lucky kid growing up in Japan, we had Armed Forces Radio with the one and only Wolfman Jack playing the best of Rock & Roll and teaching me the American slang of the day. From there the DJ luck continued as my family moved back to Akron, Ohio where Kid Leo reigned supreme on The Home Of The Buzzard, WMMS, out of Cleveland. I was there for the Disco versus Rock & Roll battles and did my fair share of calling into the station. I pretended I was a high school journalist just to get inside the door and interview the staff of various local stations and recording studios.

  Later, the fascination with the voices way low on the dial grew. Between 8 -Track jams in the car, my Father would not really endorse the Rock or oldies music stations, but he would play National Public Radio. That’s where I first heard Terry Gross interview great songwriters and jazz musicians on her treasured “Fresh Air” program. That’s where I learned about the Great American Songbook and standards. I loved the radio then, and I listen to it just as much now. As I drive around the planet, I am always scanning the radio dials to an interesting channel on the FM or AM that doesn’t just play what the computer says to play. I don’t gravitate towards playlists unless they are curated by DJs, live on the air. I don’t need to have some special jams on before I pull the car out of the driveway. I know the radio will have my back.

  Fortunately, I live in Music City AKA Nashville, Tennessee. We have, and I don’t say this lightly, the BEST variety in radio on planet Earth. You can ask Alexa to play your favorite radio station from anywhere in the world these days, but that is the easy way at home. I am talking about when you are driving around and using the radio that came with your car. If you can roll with it, the automobile provides the jams. In Nashville, we have all the usual suspects of Top 40, Pop, Urban, Country, NPR, etc, but we also are very fortunate to have more than a few human powered and listener supported stations that survive on the generosity of music aficionados.

    In central Tennessee we have a fantastic Roots station, WMOT, which is the station I was listening to on the day John Prine died. I wrote a song that night called “Voice On The Radio,” which is on my newest record. That station was also playing one of my songs on the day my daughter came in the room and said “Daddy, Daddy, you are on the radio”—a simple and true joy that I will never forget. It’s satisfying to have a station which not only plays a good deal of  roots and Americana music, but also has specialty programs and interviews plus one off performances with singer-songwriters. I suggest you stream it at home to get an idea of what is going on at WMOT.

  When the pandemic kicked into full gear, before the 2020 Presidential election, I was so turned off by the news that I couldn’t even listen to NPR as they reported the stressful news every hour on the hour, so I just switched over to the classical station, which really soothed my nerves and also gave me loads of musical ideas.

  I was sad to see that classical station go, but it was replaced by the first station that both my daughter and I hear songs on that make us both want to investigate the band further. This new station, WNXP, plays contemporary pop that retains that cutting edge. They have the new stuff on there that is more or less the Top 40 of the future, mixed in with classic, progressive tunes from the Program Director’s high school playlist with tracks by The Clash or Romeo Void-stuff that was huge when MTV first arrived and never quite killed the radio star, although nobody releases a song today that doesn’t also have a short film to go along with it.

    I’ve never had a Top 40 hit, and most of the time I don’t even get played on the corporate stations, although here in Nashville I can count five different stations that have played my music. I am super grateful for stations like Lightning 100 that have not only played my music but helped me promote my annual Bob Dylan charity cover songs where local friends and I get together to sing a Dylan tune to raise money for the Southern Alliance For People And Animal Welfare (SAFPAW.ORG). In the music business world, everybody likes to say that getting your songs on the radio doesn’t move the needle in album sales, but I would like to think it moves the connections between those who make records and those who love music and support travelers such as myself as we begin to get ready to travel again.

In Nashville we also have the amazing WXNA which is like a super hip college station run by adults who are absolute aficionados of the music they curate on their shows. The variety is stunning, and the love for the each particular style is strong, which helps the listener love it too. Garage rock, underground Hip-hop, Ska and Dub, singer-songwriter, 50’s Country, psych rock, jazz, folk, all of it absolutely delicious because the passion of the DJ shines through. They spin vinyl on there too.

  I will also never forget the first time I heard my own music on the radio. The very first station to ever play my music was WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. I brought them a 7 inch record I had made and they actually spun it. A few years later, around the time I was making my first solo album, I was driving the Kinko’s van around town and crying when I heard Lucinda Williams “Sweet Old World” on WCBE. I knew that I wanted to write a song that made people feel the way I was feeling. Soon after that, David Dye of the World Cafe, broadcast out of WXPN in Philadelphia, just about ran me off the road when he played three of the songs from my debut album and talked about my work in between the tunes. It was exhilarating. Another first is when my next album came out and I was in New York, talking to the great Vin Scelsa about my songs on the radio. I was also very lucky to be interviewed by the great Rita Houston at WFUV in New York.

  One day I was driving on the outskirts of Cheyenne and heard a song of mine on Wyoming Public Radio. I looked around and all I could see were farms for miles. I hoped that somewhere somebody was listening to that song and maybe it was sinking in. As it turns out, my songs were making their way around planet and today I have relationships with worldwide friends, all because of the radio.

  I have reasonable relationships with many stations around the planet now,  including WAPS in my hometown of Akron, Ohio. I have been fortunate enough to go on the BBC in England, as well as Radio 3 in Spain, which once played my songs as I drove through the mountains while on tour there. Stations outside of Ohio which took to my music early include WUTK in Knoxville, thanks to Benny Smith, who invites me to visit the station often. WDVX is another amazing station in Knoxville that started out of a trailer and is now anchored right downtown and has a really cool live lunchtime show called The Blue Plate Special. A really cool station broadcast out of the Isothermal Technical College in Spindale, North Carolina-WNCW-provided some of my first radio sessions, which included a recording of “Lexington Jail” that became a 7-inch record.  They also gifted me a large photo of Doc Watson which hangs in my home studio. Other stations in North America which I have visited and loved are KUTX in Austin, Texas and KEXP in Seattle, which is the first station I ever saw the reports back from where the Program Director wrote “Hates it” in the notes, but then a few albums later and I’m a guest at the station! The radio station I have visited most in my life and performed the most tunes live on the air thus far has been the Native American run KNBA in Anchorage, Alaska, followed by KUAC in Fairbanks, where I once taped a live Mountain Stage segment courtesy of that fine radio show, normally based in Charleston, West Virginia. I also love KBBI in Homer, Alaska where I have announced that I needed a lift to Anchorage and then stood out on the road and hitchhiked out of town! I dig the little pirate stations and independent radio run out of shacks throughout Alaska. Another highlight of my radio life was appearing on E-Town, based out of Boulder, Colorado, which began to show me how I could connect my love of river conservation with my performances.

  When I first bought my most recent car, I threw down for the Satellite Radio payment, and made damn sure that my daughter heard every Beatles tune a few times through. I loved that 24 Beatles station, and the Grateful Dead station, but my favorite satellite station by far is Little Stephen’s Underground Garage, which reunited me with Kid Leo. Today, I get to try and call the pop stations at the right time with my daughter as we try to win tickets or whatever give-a-ways they are promoting. I’m one of those kinds of music fans. I will get down with Megan Thee Stallion one minute and Hank Williams the next. That’s probably why I live in Music City.

  I must admit there were times in my life that I shouldn’t have been in a car, driving around the country and playing shows. I had let the party life take over, and acted irresponsibly while also turning in hungover performances live on the radio—even going to the slammer a few times. Maybe that’s why they play my music on the “Outlaw Country” station on Satellite radio. I am grateful I didn’t get in serious trouble, and today I would call myself a recovering outlaw.

  I always thought my music was more of an amalgam of so many different styles, leaning heavily on classic Folk and Pop with a side of Country, but anyways it changes and grows with time, because I will never stop listening and learning. While the sounds and sonic quality of records has changed over the years, I still believe there are great artists and songwriters waiting to thrill us, and it’s so nice to be turned onto a new one every now and then. I love the variation in taste that radio provides on any given day. I loved going on Steve Earle’s old Radio America show and stumping him with a politically progressive rapper that he had not heard of yet (Sage Francis). I love visiting radio stations all over the planet.

  When I am at home, I listen to a fairly steady diet of long dead Bluesmen, and mostly Country Bluesmen like Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, or Sonny Terry and Brownie Maghee. This is what I listen to when I’m cleaning the house or cooking. In the car, it’s all about the radio. Over on the AM dial is one other station that basically rules the universe: the legendary WSM which plays country music from the older times. Today, whenever possible, I participate in fund drives and donate my art and time to the cause of maintaining the people’s radio. I like to support my local public stations when I can. I would like to send a huge shout out to all of you who keep your local stations on the air by dropping a few bucks every year at their fund raising events. It’s a big deal and it helps keep the real DJs on the air, doing what they love to do. Consider setting aside the algorithm curated playlists for one drive and take a chance with radio. It will love you back, and perhaps you will hear something new.

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