Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In Praise of NYC Radio

It’s not something I do often, but on the rare occasion that I drive in New York, particularly at night, I love listening to the radio. 

Because I am a musician, and because I play the double bass (not very airplane friendly), I spend a lot of time on long drives.    For the medium-long distance trips, I’m often the one who drives with the gear while other band members fly.  I think I’ve driven to Chicago and back roughly 4 million times now. 

If you’ve never done it, the drive between Chicago and New York is a lot of truck stops, a lot of corn, and a lot of flat.  About 15 hours worth to be exact.  And the soundtrack to this lovely jaunt through the American heartland is a lot of pop country, a lot of top 40, and a lot of Christian rock. 

I actually don’t mind this music so much.  It’s truly artful how people can write and produce music that is so digestible, so unobtrusive, but also catchy and memorable.  And on a long boring drive, this music helps to induce a sort of sedative, narcotic, trance-like state.  It’s like the musical equivalent of eating Pringles: it’s satisfying in the short-term and easy to consume absent-mindedly, but can make you sick in large quantities.  And I don’t mean this pejoratively. I actually really like Pringles. 

But by the time you reach Manhattan, all the junk food and gasoline fumes and Katy Perry have left you in a comatose state, your brain function at a dangerously low level.  Your body and mind are desperate for nourishment.  And then you come out of the Holland tunnel and New York City in all of its New York City-ness hits you like a ton of bricks.  Or rather like a shot of adrenaline through the breastplate, like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction...

Your central nervous system seizes as you are attacked with more culture, life, filth and vibrancy than your atrophied brain can even begin to process.  But as you cross the Manhattan bridge into Brooklyn, and you look at that amazingly beautiful view of lower Manhattan, things begin to calm down a bit and you remember how much you love this place, and how glad you are you don’t live in western Pennsylvania…

Perfectly in step with your shifting state of mind, the radio changes as well.   All of a sudden there are dozens of different stations to choose from in dozens of different languages.  On any given night you can hear Hip Hop, Bachata, Brazilian music, indie rock, Cuban/Puerto Rican music, punk, Chinese pop music, Korean pop music, decent jazz programming, talk radio shows about local politics; I’ve even heard metal shows late at night, real metal too--serious, cool, brutal stuff.  I’ve driven a lot all over the country and I can pretty confidently say that there is nothing like this anywhere else, at least in my experience.  Sure, there are certain good shows or good stations in certain cities, but nowhere I’ve been has anywhere near this amount of diversity or cultural richness on the radio.   New Orleans comes close, but even there the radio is very New Orleans-centric—their music just happens to be really diverse and interesting.  And outside of those certain cities like New Orleans, the programming in the rest of the country, let’s say 85% of it, is almost completely homogenized. 

As I get home to Brooklyn, I always look forward to hearing the shortwave pirate radio stations that play West Indian dance music at night.  The music is cool, but I mostly just love that these radio stations exist.  The fact that unlicensed illegally broadcast stations can stay on the air in one of the biggest and “greatest” cities in the world boggles the mind and lifts the spirit (at least for me, I’m sure the F.C.C. feels differently).  These stations remind me of the delis and bodegas you can still find all over New York.  In the face of the corporate homogenization that is taking over the country, in small towns and major cities alike, these dinky, dirty, poorly stocked delis, with crappy coffee and cheap turkey sandwiches can still exist and thrive, in all types of neighborhoods, simply because that’s how we do it here.  They look like this:

I know people who have lived in New York for decades will tell me that it’s is nothing like what it used to be, and even in the relatively short time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the city change a lot. But to me, the shortwave radio stations in Flatbush and Bed Stuy and the bodegas and delis all over the city signify something about New York—that it is still wild, still a bit lawless.  I feel like this can’t be said for most of the other big, thriving, major cities, at least in America, and it’s one of the many reasons I like this place so damn much. 

So anyway, with a deli sandwich (turkey, lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, provolone on a roll) in hand, and boom station on your radio dial ( ), I’d like to toast this great city.

And New Yorkers! Remember to listen to your radio!  I guarantee you’ll hear something special and new every time you do.


Disclaimer 1: I know I’m making some pretty bold statements, but it’s all based solely on my experiences.  I would love to hear about other cities with good, interesting, diverse radio programming.  

Disclaimer 2: I didn't mention NPR because it is broadcast so widely across the country, but it is one of the most consistent sources of great programming on the radio, and it is a national treasure.  

Disclaimer 3: I was half kidding when I characterized delis as "dinky, dirty and poorly stocked" with "crappy coffee and cheap turkey sandwiches."  While many are lousy (and I do find the lousiness kinda of lovable), some are amazing sources of great affordable food.  Also I'm talking about corner bodega type delis not your Katz's or Carnegie delis...  

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