How Did We Get Here Anyway

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

While many believe the decline in the US record market is due to digital technology, I believe it is in fact due to a series of business decisions, made over fifty years, dating back to the 1940’s.

Back then, radio was the centerpiece of American daily life and the main meal was news. Americans wanted local, national and international news, and radio delivered faster it than the newspaper. But by the 1950’s, television had begun to compete for attention. Radio had to get competitive.

So radio shifted from predominantly news to music programming. Popular songs became the mainstay of American life. And the record business grew exponentially. In 1960, another innovation solidified record buyers. The pocket transistor radio became the preferred listening device, making music portable for the first time ever. Every teenager had a transistor, and the radio they listened to was hit music, 24/7. In the 60’s, the diversity of music style had exploded on radio. From pop to rock, to British invasion, Motown, folk, and rhythm and blues - anything was possible if it was popular. Radio may have been programmed with payola, but the greatest talents rose to the top.

This bounty of creativity continued through the 1970’s. The FM Rock radio format focused on playing full albums, adding another dimension to consumer interest. You could hear “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Ziggy Stardust” or “Born to Run” in its entirety on an FM rock radio station. Record sales went through the roof.

In the 80’s, there were two significant innovations. MTV launched. Suddenly, music was alive with a vision all its own. The other innovation was the commercial-radio programming tool Selector. Consumers didn’t own Selector – only radio stations. The machine worked in the background, programming songs based on the demographics to meet target audiences for advertisers. Selector took the excitement and discovery out of the deejays’ hands, and into the hands of corporate advertising. It’s like the tail was now wagging the dog. Songs were heavily researched to meet the ideal consumer demographic. Niche radio formats were tested on different stations. Selector destroyed the significance of the radio culture that had worked hand in glove with the record business to find and reveal great talents.

In a final blow, Congress enacted the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which transformed radio entirely. Today media conglomerates own hundreds of commercial radio stations and with Selector, program them from thousands of miles away.

While digital technology does allow us to find that hit band and make it instantly portable, trusted sources have to guide us to the song in the first place. The deejay was our trusted source on commercial radio. When Selector replaced the soul of the deejay culture, it destroyed the American record business.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.