Nostalgia is a disease, or at least it was in the good old days when it was treated as a psychopathological disorder.
In her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym describes the perception of nostalgia as a "mania of longing . . . conceived . . . as a shameful disease that revealed a lack of manliness and unprogressive attitudes."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Swiss doctors prescribed opium, leeches, and trips to the mountains to palliate its symptoms. Like today's genetic researchers looking for causative genes, they searched for a single cause, for the "pathological bone" they believed was the locus of nostalgia. They didn't find it in their patients' minds or bodies. One doctor poetically diagnosed it as a "hypochondria of the heart," thriving on its symptoms.
It's a longing for something that never was as good as we remember it.
Yet we ruin everything sooner or later.
Mostly we do this by dumbing things down and sweetening them up--by trying to make them more popular and profitable. We've ruined baseball by draining away its intricacies and enlivening the ball. We've turned the movies into overt spectacles. We've ruined driving, college, politics and the American dream.
We ruined radio with our market forces. It once seemed so intimate, the DJ's voice like a second one in your head, introducing you to music that had been hand-picked and sequenced with care. "Curated," they'd say now, which is a good word because it connotes a level of expertise and discernment.
But businesses do not exist to console or even to entertain you. They will do those things if they have to, to get your money, but if they can find an easier or more economical means of extraction they will employ it. So playlists contracted and, for the most part, local control evaporated. Radio went corporate, leaving behind what some of us fondly remember as a tube-lit golden age.
Some people I know gave up on commercial radio as early as the 1970s or '80s, as soon as they got a tape deck. I had friends who did it professionally. My law school roommate had been a teenage DJ on KEEL-710 AM in Shreveport. At the time, I remembered wondering why he'd give up his glamorous career to be a lawyer.
In college, I had an FCC license and a show on the Centenary College station even though I was never a Centenary student. (I was friends with the student station manager.) I am fairly confident I was the first person in Shreveport ever to play a Van Halen record, since I slit open the promo copy of their first album and put it on the air. (I played "Ice Cream Man" because I recognized it as an old John Brim blues song.)
Later, I supplemented my income as sports editor of The Jennings Daily News in Louisiana by hosting a blues show on KJEF. I was the lead-in to a show hosted by Phil Phillips, who wrote and had the original hit with "Sea of Love" in 1959. (A record that became a hit, the legend goes, because an insubordinate Baton Rouge jock locked himself in the studio and played it constantly for 48 hours.)
The experience was a bit disillusioning. No one listened to Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters in those days, especially in rural southwest Louisiana. They only listened to bands they could watch on MTV. Radio as a viable delivery device for music died some time around the launch of the video star.
Once the playlists started being dictated by some far-off corporate headquarters, once you lost the sense that the songs they were playing were coming from a particular sensibility, the chewing gum lost its flavor. There are still personalities in radio, but mostly they don't spin records.
Tastemakers have migrated from the airwaves, from what we these days call "terrestrial radio" to distinguish it from the satellite stuff that I listen to in my car: Dwight Yoakam's Greater Bakersfield show, Outlaw Country, Little Steven's Underground Garage, the satellite versions of ESPN and NPR (though I do have a button pre-set for KUAR 89.1 FM, I mostly stream the station via my iPad at home).
And while my car doesn't have a CD player any more, I can hook up any number of devices to play digital files through it--even a portable hard drive. Via Bluetooth, I can access my Spotify and Apple Music playlists.
The carmakers have taken notice; most new car media screens allow access to digital sources over broadcast radio. Anyone born in the '90s can be considered to have grown up as a digital native; most of these folks are likely to consider terrestrial radio as quaint as vinyl LPs.
So it's interesting that this local network of stations operating under the rubric of Arkansas Rocks has popped up. Karen found them a month or so ago; her latest car didn't come satellite-equipped (though it did come with a free year's subscription to SiriusXM) so she was mostly shuttling between between KABF 88.3-FM and KUAR and its classically minded sister KLRE 90.5 with occasional sorties beyond the left-of-the-dial non-profit ghetto when she found it at 94.5 FM.
(They have stations all over the state, and you can listen at their web address arkansasrocks.net.)
It sounds really fresh for an oldies station, and while its playlist is heavily skewed to classic rock, it leans more toward album cuts and minor hits that avoided being enshrined in the program director's playbook. You're more likely to hear Dire Straits' "Skateaway" than "Sultans of Swing."
The Queen song I've heard most frequently on the station (twice) is "Tie Your Mother Down," which they followed with Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" ("the best Led Zeppelin song ever, dude") and Stevie Nicks' "Sara." I've heard Ten Years After and Nick Lowe on Arkansas Rocks. Karen thinks they play too much ELO; and, no offense intended, but I really don't need to hear the Doobie Brothers' "Listen to the Music" ever again, even if it does, in context, present as a maxim distilling the station's philosophy.
It's eclectic and not entirely in line with my taste, but the blend of the familiar and half-forgotten is potent. It feels like the old album-oriented-rock station that we used to get lost in late at night.
At least that's how I remember it.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 07/16/2019
Print Headline: The last DJ