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Where My Ears Wander – Part 1: Underground/Community Radio

By: Darrin Snider (darrin at indyintune dot com)
Monday, March 5, 2012 6:00:00 AM


Sure, I've logged my fair share of hours in front of the ol' boob tube, at least until I gave it up several years back in favor of pastimes that lend themselves towards tangible creative output. Before I bought that first black and white set with the money I got for my tenth birthday, however, it was all about the radio. That love began back around age seven or eight listening to WCIL out of Carbondale, Illinois. WCIL, at the time anyway, was a great little radio station in a college market that offered, beyond the obvious top 40 stuff (... and yes, Disco was king back then ... and yes, I liked it when I was that young and impressionable), an interesting array of non-musical programming, such as Jonnie King and “The Breakfast Serial,” a nostalgia show that introduced me to the wonders of the golden age of radio back in the 30's and 40's, and Kenny Everett's “Kremmen of the Star Corps” which was the contemporary counterpart. In fact, a favorite pastime of mine in those days was, along with some friends in neighborhood, grabbing our cassette recorders and recording our own “radio broadcasts,” usually just mimicking what we'd heard on WCIL the week before.

Then, of course, Clear Channel came along and ruined everything for me in the 1990s by turning all radio stations into cookie-cutters of each other, even down to the same disc jockeys. Really? Aren't you just a forty-song iPod on shuffle with six commercial breaks per hour without an on-air personality? A friendly voice? A companion unobtrusive? (Sorry, I'll stop.) For you kids who grew up in the post Clear Channel world, imagine there are no iPods or iPhones and watch a couple episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati, you'll pretty much get my childhood then.

Having set the scene for what I like in my radio, and my history of why I like it, let's finally get back to the original point of this series of posts, which is to give fellow music fans who crave new acoustic experiences, a starting point for where I think they should be listening. We'll start with community radio, which I discovered about ten years ago thanks to the Internet. Recently, I've paired down my radio listening habits almost exclusively to UK community radio, which is the closest thing I've found to the the aforementioned nostalgia of my youth, as far as variety of programming and individual “flavors” of stations and personalities. These stations, usually advertiser supported, are run mostly by volunteers, so while the polish is a bit rough around the edges compared to their mainstream predecessors, the passion level and musical knowledge are off the charts compared to what you're probably used to hearing. The coolest thing about these stations, and one thing I think modern commercial stations here in the US have completely missed, is the level of interaction that can be achieved by combining broadcasting with social media. Jocks on these stations are constantly in dialog with their audience via text, email, Facebook, and Twitter, meaning that I have had more conversations and developed a greater rapport with radio personalities halfway around the world than I have with the ones in my own home town. After all, our top-rated jocks here are Bob and Tom (who barely even acknowledge they're broadcasting from Indiana) and Alice Cooper (whose programming is all pre-recorded). For those wishing to check out a few of these stations, here is a list of my favorites:

  • WFMU – East Orange, New Jersey – I found this station back around 2000-2001. I honestly can't remember what led me here or why I latched on to it. It may have just been a simple search engine for independent/underground radio or something generic like that. The music they played however was so left-field that I quickly fell in love with them.

  • Radio Teesdale – Broadcasting from Barnard Castle in the northeast of England, was probably the first of the UK stations I picked up on, quickly leading to an obsession with that part of the world. The station features everything from new club music to classic soul to metal, and even a program dedicated to “test card music of the 1960's” which I thoroughly enjoyed for the novelty if nothing else (test cards where what ran on the BBC when there was no programming, like our “test patterns” back in the days before 24-hour television and all-night infomercials). Best times to listen are Monday afternoons (2 PM EST) for Chippy's “Metal Gods Rock Show” (I usually catch the replay on Sunday so as not to miss “View from the Clocktower" … see below) and Thursday afternoons (2 PM EST) for the “Band Wagon” with James Hamilton-Trewhitt. I also find the lunchtime show (which is at 7 AM here) and the drive time Show (which is lunch time here) have a great variety of music and chatter worth sinking your ears into.

  • Sine FM – This station out of Doncaster features probably the best selection of music in this list, but really the one time you simply must listen is Monday afternoons (3 PM EST) for “Dave Brock Buttered My Cat.” I'll admit I initially tuned in because I thought it was going to be hosted by the guitarist from Hawkwind, but quickly grew fond of Dean and Mark, as they are possibly the two most musically-informed jocks I've ever heard. Believe me, it's hard to put on a radio program dedicated to progressive rock and classic metal (two of my top three forms of music) and not only surprise me with your selections, but also have a substantial portion of your show consist of stuff that's completely new to me. Stick around for "Cosmos Made Conscious" afterwards for an off-the-wall mix of blues, reggae, psychadelia, and electronica. I imagine this is best listened to late at night (as it is broadcast over there) instead of drive time (5 PM EST). Fortunately, most of SineFM's programming is also available in podcast form, which I really need to start pulling down to increase my musical knowledge in my off-time.

  • Drystone Radio – Broadcasts from North Yorkshire, where many of my ancestors hail from, which is what drew me to this one. Yeah, I can just see great, great grandpa Wilkie over at the mill rocking out to T-Rex … the band … not the dinosaur. I'm pretty sure they didn't have dinosaurs there in the 19th century. Variety is king here, so the programming is often hit or miss with me, and local community announcements from parts of the world you've never been to are only fascinating the first couple times you hear them. I regularly tune in for “View from the Clocktower” on Thursday afternoons (4 PM EST), however.
Also worth a listen:
  • Pennistone FM -- I still haven't figured out why you find the best Motown and American soul music on stations in the UK, but whatever. I latched on to this one while doing some drywall and paint work in Podcast Studio B. Turns out, you can't really listen to hard rock when doing delicate work. You tend to splash paint everywhere doing an air guitar with your paintbrush, or sand holes in the drywall during the drum solos. Basically I was just in the mood when I found them, I guess.

  • Gloss FM -- Mostly I listen to these stations with the TuneIn app on my Android, which sports a really neat feature. If you shake the phone while a station is playing, it will randomly select a different station, similar to the one you're currently listening to. You can imagine this comes in handy on those mornings where I'm feeling picky, and can't find anything that particularly strikes my fancy. It does not come in handy when I inadvertently shake the phone, picking it up to head to the gents' room. Anyone, on one particular morning, I was shaking every two minutes or so, when suddenly I landed on this station and heard, "Up Next: The Vinyl Vault Show." You can imagine me squealing with glee at this random find.
Next up, I'll give you some picks for fine Internet-only radio stations you should be listening to.

Previous Post:
Show #107: Borrow Tomorrow Returns
Next Post:
Where My Ears Wander – Part 2: Internet Radio

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