Archive for Thursday, July 6, 2000

Turn the dial: Radio scene is confusing

The selection of music is slim

July 6, 2000

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Can anyone please tell me what's going on with radio in Lawrence these days?

First, the Lazer goes Top-40, now it's trying to go back. Sort of. Meanwhile, KJHK has stumbled all over itself in its recent attempt to jump feet first onto the hip-hop bandwagon. Next thing you know you'll hear that the former host of KJHK's punk show is a DJ for the Lazer! It's been that kind of year for Lawrence radio.

The ongoing Lazer saga is nothing, though, compared to the Sybil-like personality changes that have occurred on KJHK recently.

Let's look at the Lazer first.

After all but abandoning the Lawrence community in search of Top-40 Topeka ratings, the station has now backpedaled and is including a lot more "alternative" acts in its programming. Translation: You'll get to hear brilliant artists like Blink 182 alongside Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Thrilling prospect though that is, it's too late. Sorry, Lazer, but it's hard to regain an audience that you pawned off to the highest bidder.

The ongoing Lazer saga is nothing, though, compared to the Sybil-like personality changes that have occurred on KJHK recently.

For starters there's the whole hip-hop thing. Now, I love hip-hop in all of its incarnations, but the new "Breakfast for Beat Lovers" program that runs for three hours every morning is enough to turn off even the staunchest rap supporter.

Hip-hop encompasses an amazingly broad range of styles and genres and has a history that dates back at least 20 years (longer if you count the Last Poets, but don't because KJHK sure doesn't).

To the suburban-minded DJs who host the breakfast show, real rap only refers to politically correct, loopy hip-hop like the Jurassic Five, Dilated Peoples, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love those bands, but they only offer a hint of what hip-hop has to offer. To broadly dismiss the contributions of rap bands from the South, the West Coast or even the Midwest is practically criminal.

The narrow-minded DJs spinning the morning beats probably started listening to hip-hop in the last year or two, when mainstream music-fans looking to fill the grunge void finally realized that these kooky rappers actually have something to offer.

Unfortunately, that's the problem.

KJHK does not have the knowledgeable staff or a large enough rap collection to do justice to serious hip-hop programming. One of the reasons Saturday night's long-running and hugely successful "Hip Hop Hype" is so great is that hosts Kareem and CG have a heartfelt understanding of the complexities of rap and they play a lot of their own stuff. They're not "keeping it real," they ARE real, and it's obvious when you listen to their show.

The morning hosts sound like a bunch of kids that are going through some kind of hip-hop phase, only to drop it when the next big trend smacks them in the face.

Ah, but there's more! Not content with its tunnel-vision approach to rap, the station is now mandating no less than eight rotation cuts a hour for its "rock" shows. Rotation cuts are selected by a small staff of KJers and designated for increased attention and airplay. A stack of rotation CDs are kept in the programming booth and DJs are required to play any eight songs from any of those CDs every hour.

The former mandate was five rotation tracks, which was already bad enough. The problem with the rotation cuts is that they strip the DJs of any sense of personal style of cohesiveness. You can almost hear the DJs straining to mix this preselected music into their shows, with predictably dismal results.

How many songs does it take to fill an hour of programming anyway? If the songs average four minutes each, the answer is 15. Subtract eight rotation cuts and another four minutes for commercials and you've got DJs who might get to squeeze in six songs an hour that they have chosen to play.

Six songs every 60 minutes doesn't leave much room for creativity or sense of personal expression that should be the foundation of college radio.

So, what's next for the Lawrence radio frontier? My hope is that the oft-repeated rumors of a revitalized KAW will come to fruition. Though the community radio station was shut down by the FCC a couple of years ago, recent rulings have made it possible for low-wattage stations to operate without penalty.

The day that the FCC allowed pirate stations to operate freely wasn't one many of us thought we would ever see, but, like I said, it's been that kind of year for Lawrence radio.

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