In search of a new radio 'sweet spot'

As stations automate their programming, it feels like a special treat to find a live disc jockey curating records and connecting an audience.
As stations automate their programming, it feels like a special treat to find a live disc jockey curating records and connecting an audience.

As a part-time insomniac and full-time parent of a young child, I have many fond memories of a 'ꀜsweet spot'ꀝ on local radio that I used to catch alarmingly often in the early part of this century: that moment just before 4 a.m., when KPLU-FM switched over from 'ꀜJazz on the Grooveyard'ꀝ to the NPR feed of Morning Edition.

Here'ꀙs how it went: The last notes of the final song of the set would fade out. The groggy host would 'ꀜback-announce'ꀝ the last song or two (naming the artist and song title you'ꀙd just heard), maybe give a brief weather forecast, give the FCC-required station ID, and then step aside as the BJ Leiderman theme music heralded the dawn of a new day.

Every now and then, it seemed that the groggy host would make some kind of miscalculation — and have to interrupt a song mid-riff, dispense with the song titles, artist names, and weather and make a hurried legal ID of the station that blended right into the 'ꀜMorning Edition'ꀝ theme. But who could blame someone for stumbling at that hour?

For the first time in many years, I was up just before 4 a.m. recently and remembered to tune in KPLU to check in on my old sweet spot. The seconds ticked down to the top of the hour, and then ... the song just faded out and NPR just faded in. As I had learned from KPLU'ꀙs assistant general manager Joey Cohn a few months ago, but had forgotten, KPLU recently automated its overnight service. The DJ, the weather, the human spontaneity — in short, my little radio sweet spot — were gone.

Change is not supposed to good or bad, it'ꀙs just supposed to be change. But I have to say, the more that local radio stations take live and local people away and replace them with prerecorded people (local or otherwise), the less incentive there is for anyone to tune in at all. I can very easily play my own audio devices at home, so there'ꀙs little incentive to tune in a big powerful radio station and hear what is essentially a glorified iPod running a prefab playlist.

We'ꀙre lucky here in Seattle where we have two of the best live 'ꀜcurated'ꀝ shows on radio anywhere: KPLU'ꀙs 'ꀜAll Blues'ꀝ (Saturdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. to midnight) with John Kessler, and KUOW'ꀙs 'ꀜThe Swing Years and Beyond'ꀝ (Saturdays from 7 p.m. to midnight) with Amanda Wilde. When you hear John or Amanda talking between the songs — telling you why the artist or song is important, how the song relates to larger history and culture, what other songs the artist or composer is known for, and so on — you'ꀙre learning and expanding your mind, and you'ꀙre connecting with a real live human being who lives in your area code and who'ꀙs experiencing the music in real-time right along with you. That'ꀙs what radio is supposed to be about.

With all the other audio entertainment options available, it seems to me that local radio won'ꀙt survive — and certainly won'ꀙt remain relevant — unless it figures out how to ditch the automation and put more John Kesslers and Amanda Wildes on the air.


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