Friday, November 16, 2007

Radio Free Everywhere

A World in Your Ear made clear that the real glory of Internet radio lies not in the polished programs of the BBC, delightful though they are—instead, it lies in the ability to eavesdrop on local discussions, to hear the world in its various moods and timbres. For most of the 20th century, listeners tried to do this with shortwave radio, but it was difficult, and not just because of the hissing static. Shortwave stations have generally been government operations, designed to show a certain face to the world—they have been remarkably alike in their somber (and untrustworthy) approach. But radio, at its best, is the most gloriously local of all media, hemmed in by the nearest range of hills, signals fading 10 miles out of town.

We’ve forgotten much of this in the United States, where deregulation in recent years has allowed a few big players (Clear Channel, Infinity) to buy up thousands of stations and turn them, essentially, into repeaters for their cheap-as-possible broadcasts. It’s impossible to overstate the awfulness of most of this radio. (And to say that Americans have chosen to listen to it is simply not true—when licenses become available, these deregulated giants have the cash to make the best offers, and then their efficiencies of scale force out the remaining competition. There are whole communities whose dial is nothing but that endless round of homogenized music and bellicose talk.)
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