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Radio Killed the Roneo Star?

Radio Killed the Roneo Star?

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Recently I began doing a series of short CD reviews with WJSU-FM 88.5, a station broadcasting from the campus of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. The opportunity to do it came along within days of learning that KABC's parent company, Cumulus Media, Inc., had pulled the plug on the last remaining AM radio jazz programming in Los Angeles (yes, the very same town that nicely fills the Hollywood Bowl each year for the Playboy Jazz Festival). It seemed like a chance to stop complaining about the lunacy and do something.

True, a short radio program on a Mississippi radio station might not do much right away to offset the misguided thinking here in the City of Angels, but you never know. Radio waves are magic. In addition to carrying some NPR programming as part of their affiliation, WJSU distinguishes itself by being the Magnolia State's most devoted jazz station. If John Grisham is ever driving south of his farm in Oxford out on Highway 61, or on I-55 as he heads toward Jackson (the state capital) and wants to listen to some music from fellow Mississippians B.B. King, Lester Young or Mose Allison, as he mulls the plot line of his next novel, his best bet is to tune in WJSU. Sure, he could spend hours loading his iPod with all his faves, after spending other hours online finding them. He could spend even more time compiling an All-Hank Jones or All-Milt Hinton playlist. Or he could just flip on his car radio and tune in WJSU-FM.

There he could listen to the big, wide world of jazz, including podcasts of the CD reviews I've been doing for WJSU's "All Things Social" program with host Gina Carter-Simmers, and maybe hear something new:

He might hear my review of Frank Walton Sextet's The Back Step (HanWal, 2011) recorded in 2001 with the fantastic pianist James Williams, shortly before his death. Or he might hear my discussion/interview with the host about Lorraine Feather's Tales of the Unusual (Jazzed Media, 2012)—I contributed liner notes on the project, so this one is not really a critical review. In fact, Bay Area readers will note that I take her song "Traffic and Weather" so personally that I told the host the song is a commentary on life in Los Angeles (certainly true for me and many Angelenos) when it actually describes a slice of Lorraine's life in San Mateo County.

Radio Killed the Roneo Star?

"Roneo" was not a competitive series of events like sword-fighting, hojo-roping and horsemanship for rogue samurai. Nor was it Nabisco's first attempt at creating the bestselling cookie in U.S. history. It was, instead, the nickname given to the Roneograph, a trademarked name for the best-known brand of a crude little office machine called a mimeograph. Mimeographs, or mimeos (or Roneos) for those of you born after 1970, was a type of copying equipment developed when A.B. Dick licensed the patent in 1887, and subsequently produced one of the million things Thomas Edison had invented, as a cheap, simple solution to a problem (at least until someone else could figure out how to solve it Nikola Tesla's way, without going broke or crazy).

The mimeograph eventually came into widespread use around the turn of the century, and for 80 or more years was a smelly-but-inexpensive alternative to offset printing for people who wanted to produce handbills or schoolchildren's homework assignments. For Bill James, it meant the freedom to disseminate the graphs, statistical charts, and wittily incisive analyses bound into his handmade copies of The Bill James Baseball Abstract, a publication that ultimately revolutionized the game. For the rest of us writers, the machine provided a way to fill the world with our sentences, couplets, sonnets, essays, articles, stories, tracts, tomes, novels and novelettes. Historically, you could place its significance in terms of written communication approximately between Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440, and the Xerox Corporation's introduction of the photocopier in 1959.

Somewhere in the mid-1980s the price tag on the new copiers started dropping as Mssrs. Jobs and Gates came along with their personal computers and those glorious delete keys, and a few years later dropped again, precipitously, when reliably functional computer printers started appearing.

But it was in 1995 that the proverbial shit hit the fan. When the internet was finally commercialized, this blue little planet tilted on its axis until our culture reached several tipping points at once. The most important, of course, being that point when writers—Percy Shelly's poetic fifth column of unacknowledged legislators—realized they could finally write, print, distribute and take over the world.

Nobody told them they should hire a few editors and fact-checkers to lend a hand, but that's a different story.

In 1885, at the same time he was developing the rudiments of mimeography, Edison was also applying for a patent on an electrostatic coupling system for elevated terminals, for which he was granted U.S. Patent No. 465,971 in 1891. His buddy Nik Tesla, along with Englishmen Oliver Lodge and Alexander Muirhead, Russians Alexander Popov and Dmitry Lachinov, plus a slew of others, very nearly killed each other in the race to achieve liftoff. But it was Italian Guglielmo Marconi who was granted a British patent in 1897 for the first working wireless communication device, and after he eventually obtained the other necessary rights from Edison and started the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, the world shortly had its first radio and began its inexorable ascent into the telecommunications Cloud.

Understandably, when the starter's pistol went off in 1885, the ensuing radio race was a lot more exciting than the mimeograph race. There was a big trainload of money coming down the track for radio communications, and they all knew it.

The world changed

Then it changed again.

And then it changed again. But Radio did not kill the Roneo Star, after all. It got killed.

Here it is, July of 2012, and the only jazz radio programming available to Los Angeles' 10 million plus listeners are KKJZ, a publicly supported FM station owned by Cal State University in Long Beach, plus KCRW and KPFK, the NPR affiliates in Santa Monica and North Hollywood. A few other grace notes are broadcast here and there, like breadcrumbs scattered for dedicated and hungry listeners to find where they can, but most jazz fans are busily creating their own internet-based listening stations. In April of this year, Doug McIntyre's employers at Cumulus informed him that he was to remove the tasteful, far-ranging selection of old and new jazz he had always used as his long-running KABC talk show's bumper music, and replace it with more acceptable pop and rock. Fun like the in-studio interview I heard one night with John Pizzarelli—complete with a live display of improvisational ingenuity as the multi-talented musician did his signature unison scatting/guitar soloing—had to go too, of course. Thus does endeth the history lesson on the short, happy life of jazz programming on AM radio in Los Angeles.

Something about this news felt darkly apocalyptic. Your humble correspondent was growing restless.

What could be done about this tumble down the slippery slope into an oblivion of self-designed programming? Where is a person to turn for musical adventure in the midst of all these incestuous, social media-driven choices based on a porridge of earlier choices? Not that I don't appreciate being able to create my own "radio" stations online, but the illogic inherent in this approach is obvious. If the people who are trying to venture into realms of new musical experience are choosing the music with which to create their customized radio station, how far will they venture? The availability of millions upon millions of choices helps a small percentage of inquisitive people, but overwhelms far more of them. Desperate to hear something enjoyable without spending an entire lifetime looking for it in the MP3 Sea of Anonymity, it is easy to choose something familiar. The inbreeding of the closed system inevitably kills it. No matter how big your iTunes library gets, you've heard it all before.

The solution? Easy. Get more people like the pre-April-2012-KABC Doug McIntyre—people who listen to music that you or I might be unfamiliar with—to share it in a broadcast on a public forum. People like the late, legendarily great Chuck Niles of KKJZ (nee KLON) in Los Angeles, or Michael Bourne on WBGO, or the ubiquitous Bob Parlocha on NPR.

I know, I know. You can't turn back the hands of time, right? You can't un-ring the bell. You can't go home again. Right?

Wrong. Technology can be steered in any direction. Anything that could be accomplished in the past can be accomplished again. Our 21st Century technology has not killed commercial radio. Commercial radio has slowly been killing itself, through its own slavery to the bottom line and criminal neglect of long-available broadcast tools. By trying to make their shareholders happy in controlling the marketplace and creating programming that appeals to everyone, radio marketeers have managed to create a product so bland that few people want it or are willing to pay for it. And to appease those grumpy shareholders, they've stupidly told someone like Doug McIntyre to play inoffensive pop music when he goes to a break. When that defeatist strategy fails, then what? Muzak?

Every single opportunity to use any telecommunications technology or any approach that was ever available is—of course!—still available in the Digital Age. New and improved developments have arrived, too, beyond anyone at Cumulus' wildest dreams, apparently. But—no longer a way to return to Eden, no longer a chance to repair the damage and wasted opportunities and make it all succeed again? Hardly. Not even close. The marvelous developments of the last 20 years are more available for use than ever before.

Get ready. Market corrections are never easy. Sometimes they're fun.

Did Video kill the Radio Star?

Did Internet kill the Video Star?

Will Something Else kill the Internet Star?

These questions and many others will be answered on the next episode of Soap.

Unfortunately, ABC Television cancelled the Soap series in 1981. More importantly, many of the principal actors have died or retired, or have been brought out of retirement to MC the annual Academy Awards broadcast. If another episode of Soap ever airs, I'll be one of the very few people who see it. You'll likely miss the announcement and not even DVR it. So I'll just tell you what happens...

Life continues. Civilization is not wiped out, not for quite awhile. KABC stays on the air and due to Doug McIntyre's ratings, lets him play jazz occasionally and signs him to a lifetime contract. There is so much money in Hollywood that they never stop making movies, even at times when they should. Nothing kills the internet because, in fact, it is not alive. Like a virus, it has no intelligence and is entirely animated by its host—mankind—which is the problem, and solution. Apple rolls out roughly twenty more versions of the iPhone, each more impressive than the last, while Japanese and Korean phone designers scramble to keep up (Blackberry is long gone, of course). Bicycles and streetcars make a big comeback as forms of transportation in all the major cities of the world. The United States Postal Service maintains Saturday delivery and is not privatized, because everyone wants the service but nobody wants the problem. Some new guy becomes president, then a woman is finally elected to the office. NPR remains on the air. Jazz lives.

Photo Credits

Page 1: Top, courtesy OfficeMuseum.com

Page 1: Bottom, courtesy of Harald Bohne

Page 2: Bruce Dixon

Page 3: "His Master's Voice," by Francis Barraud

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