I realized the other day that I rarely listen to music on the radio. In fact, considering how much of my time is spent listening to music, this seemed rather odd to me when it crossed my mind mid-conservation last week. I began to wonder why I don’t use the radio for music?
As is often the case when questions emerge in the course of my life, I sought to figure out possible answers. To this end, I decided to spend the entirety of a road trip I took this weekend listening to music via the radio while taking notes on what (if anything) I gained from the experience. In so doing, I figured I would (at least) become more familiar with musical offerings on the radio, and maybe observe some preliminary patterns I could think about or look into later. Simply put, I was curious.
In terms of parameters, my observational exercise was not at all systematic. I was taking a drive (3 hours each way) over the course of two days, and I figured I would simply find music on the radio the entire time I drove. In hopes of having enough observation to notice patterns, however, I did limit myself to only one of the genres of music I regularly listen to. Specifically, I kept my radio dial on country music stations (a genre I was pretty sure I could find anywhere in Florida) throughout the drive (I may later try this with other genres). Obviously, the patterns I observed may not hold outside of country music stations, outside of Florida, or outside of the United States. With these caveats noted, however, I did notice some interesting patterns, and moreover I did not really like any of these patterns, which may provide some clue as to why I rarely listen to music via the radio.
During my drive, I noticed three primary patterns:
- Country music stations in Florida are incredibly repetitive. I heard the same group of songs repeatedly over the course of two days, and each time I found myself wondering what it would be like if I was only exposed to such limited playlists. Considering that I normally travel with a handful of records of various musical types as well as over 2,000 songs in digital format, the lack of diversity in the radio offerings really annoyed me. I found myself getting sick of songs on the third to ninth play that had seemed like decent cuts only hours before on first listen.
- Country music stations in Florida are incredibly male-dominated. Whether I was paying attention to the performers being played, the people talking in between songs, or the commercials announcing concerts or having stars tell listeners how wonderful a given station was, the voices were predominantly male. It reminded me of an experience I had a while back where a friend was seeking female artists to introduce young female musicians to as part of a summer camp, and while I could come up with about 100 off the top of my head the friend in question had trouble thinking of more than 5 or 6 before turning to others for help. While researchers have examined gender disparities in various musical subcultures and the mainstream, I began to also wonder what influence such an imbalance might have on the casual listener who is never exposed to female artists and whether or not such listeners notice they are primarily hearing male voices and experiences.
- Country music stations in Florida are incredibly “now” focused. At more than one point, for example, announcers noted (with effected shock) that they were going “way back” in time before introducing songs from 2007 and even 2009. I honestly don’t know what to make of this observation analytically, but I found it curious that anything from more than two or three years prior was an “oldie” on these stations. I wonder what messages listeners receive about time when songs within the last decade are framed or defined as “way back when” music.
While I am certain other Interactionists could offer a multitude of analyses from these patterns (and I encourage all to do so in the comments), what really struck me was the ritualistic nature of music on the radio. Thinking about the work of Erving Goffman or Spencer Cahill, for example, I kept feeling like the radio stations were offering me a “code of conduct” or “set of expectations” for the genre.
If one were to be a fan of these stations, one would (consciously or otherwise) be revealing an interest in repetitive offerings (i.e., ritual interactions with the musical medium in question), male-dominated storytelling (i.e., learning of the musical world through the eyes of its male members), and an ahistorical culture (i.e., the newest things are the only ones worth mention and the most recent newest thing quickly fades from view). I found myself imagining what elements of selfhood would be comforted and / or created in relation to this particular set of rituals. Such a self would likely feel just as uncomfortable with musical diversity, gender egalitarian storytelling, and the historical development of genres, sounds and techniques as I felt while listening to these channels. It thus made me wonder what rituals other musical platforms may suggest for the people who interact with them, what patterns might others notice when viewing such platforms, and how people go about selecting different ways to engage with musical content.
In my own case, I realized that radio might not be a good fit for my musical needs (and country music radio in Florida definitely appears not to be) for the same reasons that my digital collections, record collections, and Internet radio stations are good fits. The former set offers a ritualistic, narrowly-defined set of songs that I have no say in while the former grants me the opportunity to do away with genres and create my own listening rituals from a wide variety of musical traditions and sources. In closing, I wonder what other people hear when they listen to music via radio stations as well as the ways other people go about developing their own listening rituals and platform preferences. In short, I wonder what lesson plans or ritual codes may be found by observing musical offerings on the radio in a more systematic fashion?