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The Cusp of Something Big : The KUSP gang, circa 1979

When Music Was News to Me

Stephen Kessler on KUSP's all-business decision to ditch midday music.

By Stephen Kessler

Now that culture has been atomized into 18 million targeted niche markets, and anyone can program their personal menu of musical taste into their personal portable digital device, I guess the antique medium of radio can't be expected to provide the public with what it already thinks it wants to hear. Thus KUSP, the offbeat FM station that first introduced me in the 1970s to countless kinds of music I wouldn't have heard otherwise, is killing its weekday music programming in favor of the nonstop blab and chatter of news, talk and opinion, which the broadcast audience allegedly prefers to the eccentric expertise of disc jockeys.

When I say "audience" I mean mass audience--the "average" listener, the most homogenized, most generic consumer--presumably driving around in their cars, who during pledge drives for such nonprofit media as KUSP will (according to the management's assumptions) use their hands-free cell phones to call in their subscriptions to the station. Not only is this money vital to keeping such stations alive, it represents their reach to prospective underwriters, who in turn provide more operating funds while airing their "noncommercial" announcements, otherwise known in the commercial marketplace as advertising.

And so the world goes, and the notion of accidentally hearing on the air any sound not already found in one's pre-existing range of preferences is an increasingly unlikely event, a relic of another age when scrappy little stations like KUSP served an eclectic assortment of individual listeners who from hour to hour might tune in to various kinds of alternative music, world music, folk music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, classical, whatever, with a serendipitous sense of delight and discovery, even astonishment.

I have nothing against NPR or PRI or their programs, which I often listen to myself, or to local news and talk shows that address the region's immediate concerns, but with KAZU across the bay now providing more "information" than I can use, I've continued to value KUSP as an oasis of the deliciously marginal, the unexpected, the refreshingly non-mass-market culture that gives Santa Cruz its distinctive flavor. The loss of weekday music on the station is a symptom of the flattening of the cultural landscape, the narrowing of the public airwaves, even as the Internet multiplies exponentially the available possibilities for consumer satisfaction.

As someone over 60, teetering on the cusp of geezerhood, I'm well aware of my increasing irrelevance. But 60 isn't that old anymore relative to life expectancy, and while people of my age will be extinct soon enough, we still have a few good years and dollars left to spend, so it vexes me that such congenial media as radio and newspapers, to which I happen to be personally attached, have been unable to survive the virtual juggernaut without massive losses.

It appears now that in radioland only tiny, funky, low-power neighborhood pirate stations will provide the kind of individual vision formerly found at the left or low end of the FM dial. KKUP in Cupertino somehow hangs in, and UCSC's KZSC provides a training ground for student radioheads, and Berkeley's contentious KPFA still has pockets of refreshingly nonpolitical programming, and satellites are beaming down a growing variety of subscription fare for those who can afford the right kind of receiver, and of course you can tune your computer to nearly anyplace on the planet, so no one has any right to complain about lack of choice.

But from the tar pits of the analog age in which I seem to be stuck, I hear only fading echoes of the random discoveries I once was pleased to find in unlikely places like some Thursday afternoon out-of-the-mainstream music show on KUSP. Yes, there will be music in the evenings and on weekends, when even information addicts can use a break--but music, for some people, is more than a recreational indulgence, a weekend getaway; it is a vital source of pleasure essential to a sane life, especially at a time when the news is consistently distressing in its portents of ecological, political and economic apocalypse.

Of course we can plug ourselves into our headsets, insulating ourselves from the outside world, and listen exclusively to whatever we want, but sometimes it's enlightening to be exposed to somebody else's passions, tastes, knowledge and artistic choices, and in the electronic sphere there is no more intimate medium than radio for this kind of experience, and no better guide to the previously unheard than a volunteer programmer with a unique selection of sounds to share with whoever happens to listen. Even as islands of this sort of thing continue to exist on the radio, they're being submerged inexorably in the rising oceans of redundant information.

Stephen Kessler, a listener and subscriber to KUSP since its founding in 1972, was co-host of 'The Poetry Show' (Tuesday afternoons) and 'Bards After Dark' (Sunday nights) on KUSP from 1981 to 1986.

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