And on the radio you hear "November Rain" / That solo's awful long but it's a good refrain / You listen to it twice cuz the DJ is asleep / On the radio.
— Regina Spektor
Scanning the airwaves between Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Nothing interesting. A classic rock station's playing Foreigner's "Double Vision." A couple others are looping Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" every five or six minutes. I abdicate my perceived right to new music and belt out the refrain.
"She's up all night till the dawn! I'm up all night to get some!"
Yawn. Ke$ha. Ho-hum. Katie Perry. My eyelids are getting heavy, heavy. A classic rock station's playing Boston but I have less than a feeling.
What I wouldn't give for a familiar Humboldt radio voice right now. Hometown radio-sans-rules KHUM would be playing its funky eclectic mix and giving away a Lumineers CD to the person who names the only U.S. state included in an AKC registered dog breed.
Wait. Before I write anything else, I'd like to 'fess up to not being longtime Media Maven Marcy Burstiner, who's my boss at Humboldt State. She's in Spain through Christmas. I'm filling in as Media Mavenette.
My background's in print journalism. I've worked at a metropolitan daily newspaper and edited an alt weekly in Reno. I've taught journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and here. OK, introduction done.
So I'm inching through Pasadena traffic. Scanning, scanning. College station KSPC's playing a throbbing Chrome, Liars, Gonjasufi mix. Not bad. I listen until the show ends and another student plays music from popular video games.
Sigh. I'd already listened to three new albums by Regina Spektor, Xavier Rudd and Amanda Palmer three times each. I'd jammed through old playlists and used up my smart phone's data allowance. Trinidad to Palm Springs is a hearty 12-hour drive, not counting rush-hour traffic.
I want radio, and my expectations are higher these days. I've spent most of my adult years suffering from formats that endlessly repeat insipid songs that mindless zombies say they like when marketers call.
For the past few years, online music sites like LastFM and Pandora have enriched my music experience. Yet these sites deliver delicious music with bland indifference. No local voice describes aging munitions found in Eureka or reminds me that Andrew Bird is coming to town in November.
When I moved to Humboldt a year ago, I discovered what radio could be. Owned by local investors, Lost Coast Communications controls four stations — KHUM, KSLG, The Point, KXGO — and the Lost Coast Outpost, a local news blog.
If you've lived here long enough, you might take decent commercial radio for granted. Don't. Humboldt's "freeform" radio offers us something that folks living elsewhere don't have.
"There's more good music now than ever before in history," says Cliff Berkowitz, who fled L.A. in the 1990s to do his own kind of radio here. "But where are we going to listen to it?"
Days after my trip, back home in the fog, Berkowitz is playing Gin Wigmore's "Devil in Me." He began a 6 a.m. set with They Might Be Giants, played Cat Empire, Nina Simone and Suzanne Vega.
Humboldt radio can be different than L.A. radio because we're invisible, as commercial markets go.
Eureka's TV audience barely manages to rate a spot on the Nielsen Designated Market Area ratings. It's No. 194 of 200, barely edging ahead of Mankato, Minn., and Lima, Ohio.
Eureka's not even listed as a radio market. Neither is Arcata, let alone the itty village of Ferndale, home to Lost Coast Communications. If radio rankings went low enough, Humboldt might be about No. 230, Berkowitz says. (L.A. is No. 2, second to New York City.)
Berkowitz, a DJ who'd worked in San Francisco and L.A., and wife Amy fell in love with Humboldt during visits in the 1970s and 1980s. On one trip, they had an epiphany in a grocery store parking lot.
"Wouldn't it be great to do freeform radio here — and we could call it KHUM or something?" Cliff Berkowitz recalls. Purely hypothetical. Possible retirement plan.
By the 1990s, enough had changed in the radio game that Berkowitz wanted out.
"All the fun was being squeezed out of radio," Berkowitz said. "And it's gotten way worse."
The couple moved here. Money was cobbled together. A small business loan was acquired to buy a radio station.
Freeform radio was born. In Humboldt.
Across the rest of the nation, the 1996 Telecommunications Act paved the way more than 1,000 radio firm mergers in less than two years. Before you could hum REM's "End of the World," three companies controlled 80 percent of ad revenues in the top radio markets.
Revolution brought less variety to listeners. Stations bought by giant corporations don't operate in the public interest, Berkowitz says. "It's a commodity to them."
Not so here. This month, KHUM did live remote broadcasts for a week to support the Friends of the Dunes. Public affairs features include last year's documentary on marijuana growers and regular features like Coastal Currents, an environmental show that airs Wednesdays.
Is there freeform hope for the rest of the nation?
Promising signs exist.
Radio's reptilian monstrosity with more than 800 stations, Clear Channel Communications, has sold off a couple hundred stations in the past few years. After firing nearly all its employees in an attempt to juice radio for maximum profits, its stations are now run by one frizzy wigged robotic lizard in a San Antonio, Texas, broom closet. That's who/what does Rush Limbaugh's voice and picks the music.
In 2008, Clear Channel's ownership transferred to capital investment firms Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital. In 2012, Clear Channel reported losses of $424 million.
Dinosaurs will surely die.
"We could be on the cusp of a renaissance," suggests Berkowitz, "with people who care about radio buying up the small stations."
I'd stay up all night to get that lucky.
Marcy Burstiner's replacement Deidre Pike seems to be manifesting a teensy bit of idealism right now. You may have seen her wandering in the redwoods, mumbling, "I've been cynical so long! It feels good to believe!" She'll get over it.