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Oct 2002 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Radio Regression
By Amanda E. Doyle

It all started, as many half-baked life changes do, on vacation in Florida.

My husband and I had gone to the Panhandle to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, taking advantage of the good graces of relatives who own a darling little beach cottage there. Entire days whiled away on the beach are only complete when accompanied (at least in my family) by mini-Cokes, Pringles chips and a small, black FM radio positioned just so, where occupants of our beach-towel kingdom can hear the tunes but nearby sun worshippers aren't disturbed.

darling little beach cottage It's a funny thing about FM radio in the Florida Panhandle; as my astute cousin Meredith, with whom I usually make these trips, observes, radio stations there are particularly micro-programmed, notable even in the vast wasteland that is commercial radio. Sitting on the beach on a sunny Friday morning, you won't just notice that you hear the same song a few times a day; you will, without question, hear only the same seven songs. Repeatedly. And often in the same order.

Thus it was that, at the advanced age of 30, I came to know the lyrics to the latest from Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, P. Diddy, Pink, Ashanti, Eminem and Samantha Mumba. (I had the advantage that, in being from da Lou, I was already passingly familiar with much of Nelly's oeuvre. For the record, I actually do like Nelly, and not just in an ironic way. But there's nothing like hearing "Dilemma" every 12 minutes to reinforce an opinion...)

But here was the scary part: I found myself starting to think, "Ooh, I hope Sk8er Boi is next," or "Will I be able to tell what words are bleeped from 'Just Like a Pill?'" It was when I recognized the Justin Timberlake song — having seen it performed ad nauseum on the MTV Music Video Awards that were on constant loop that weekend, too — that I admitted I had a problem.

Like all of life's problems, just running away didn't make it disappear. No, when we got back to St. Louis, I found myself feeling vaguely unsatisfied as I punched my way through the presets on my car radio. Until I accidentally scanned up past my highest station.

There! There were the spunky Avril, the defiant Pink, the smooth-talking, brown-eyed handsome Nelly! I had discovered what 14-year-olds around the Gateway City surely have known about, like, forever: Z107.

that Avril sure is spunky With all due respect to the legions of preteens who claim this as "their" station: I am nothing like you! I have a job, am a registered and practicing voter and have started lately saying things like, "God, kids are so stupid." I rarely listen to anything besides NPR and community radio; I co-host a talk show on KDHX, for Pete's sake! I know that this megastation is "programmed" somewhere in an office park in Menlo Park, California, by a team of demographers and advertising executives.

Why, then, have I spent the last month guiltily driving around town, on beautiful fall days when normally I'd have the windows down, one arm hanging out? It's because instead of the mellifluous Bob Edwards, my speakers are blaring about an angry young man who wants to shoot his ex-wife and hates his mom, and about another fellow who's got secrets that can't leave Cancun. (Hey, we've all been there, right?)

The entire experience has made me question the very core of my being. Do I stand for anything? How can I claim to have any beliefs at all, when all it took was one long weekend to turn my media habits upside down? My only weak defense is what marketers have long known: repetition breeds familiarity and with any luck, creates a new habit. Let me repeat that: repetition is the key.

Luckily, my embarrassing problem held within it the seeds of its own destruction. After about three weeks, my new friend "the Z" started to act out of character. There were new, unfamiliar songs. Frankly, they made me anxious and uncomfortable. Oh, sure, I'd still get two or three old favorites in a row, but then in would sneak some newcomer, like "Barenaked," the lamentable Jennifer Love Hewitt "song." What was this crap? (At this point, I consoled myself that I could even recognize crap at all.) No, these new hits just weren't the same, not being bonded with them as I was the others over a weekend of fun in the sun.

So, I've slowly weaned myself off my 24/7 infatuation with the Z. It's back to serious radio fiber for me: Diane Rehm, Alma Latina, maybe This American Life if I'm feeling cheeky. Sure, I still zip by the upper ends of the FM dial now and again, just hoping to catch a golden oldie like "Gangsta Lovin'". But my heart's moved back to the other end of the dial. Growing up sucks.

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