Lessons Learned from Listening to a ‘Cool’ Radio Station

It’s amazing to me how even in 2014, in an age of self-driving cars and hyper-realistic sex dolls (clearly the two biggest technological advancements of all time, right?), I can still forget what kind of incredible technology I have at my fingertips.

Growing up in a sparse desert halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, radio was a fickle, fickle thing. Vegas stations were much too far away. The LA stations were attainable, depending on a few things—where your house was located, how good an antenna you had, and just which station you wanted to listen to. If it was classic rock you were after, then you’d have no problems whatsoever pulling in KLOS, which had the strongest signal and could be picked up from practically anywhere in our Mad Max-like wasteland (slight exaggeration). If your tastes were slightly more off center, however, then getting a good radio station became exponentially more difficult.

(I should note, just in case any desert friends happened to be reading, I know eventually X1039 popped up and made things a heck of a lot better, but I’m talking about the harder-to-get stations from the barren, early years before their existence, so bear with me. Also, desert friends: is that still the only ‘local’ alternative station or do you have any actually broadcasting in the Victor Valley yet?)

The radio situation was part of what made going to concerts such a special experience. See, at that point in time you pretty much had to make the 100-mile-plus drive all the way to LA or Orange County to see a band you liked, and that meant you could get all the stations that were faint, static-filled whispers in the night back in the desert. The go-to station would usually be KROQ—er, “The World Famous KROQ” as they’re so fond of saying—an alternative station that played a plethora of music that most stations within our measly desert reception area never touched. You could hear new music, but you could also hear music you actually liked on the radio—something I think people take for granted in the new, Pandora/Spotify era.

The other, even more elusive station was 91X out of San Diego. They were even farther away and it would usually take an extra long trip somewhere far from the desert to be able to pick them up (in my case, anyway). They played an even broader spectrum of music, a lot of which I had never heard of, and they have the distinction of being the first (and only) terrestrial station on which I’ve ever heard the great Morphine, one of my favorites.

Now, back to the present. Cut to three weeks ago. My wife and I had a brief conversation one day about Ye Olden Days of being excited to tune in KROQ or 91X once we’d driven far enough toward civilization, and a couple of days later she casually mentioned that she’d started listening to 91x, streaming it from their website.

I looked at her like a dog when you ask it who sang Purple Haze. “Really?” I asked. “You can just do that?” You see, guys, I was being an idiot. It never dawned on me even once to just go to a radio station’s website and stream their signal. Partially I suppose it’s because the stations here in Wichita are absolutely dreadful, and why on earth would I want to stream them when I can listen to a Pandora station that’s infinitely better? But now, realizing the great brass ring of radio stations was right there this whole time, just waiting for me to tune in…well, I felt pretty dumb and I started streaming 91X immediately. (KROQ requires some app to stream their feed, and said app is the lowest-rated I’ve ever seen in the app store, so they’ll just have to fix their shit before I listen to them anytime soon)

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It’s been two weeks now of unadulterated, previously unattainable radio, and what have I learned? Let’s see:

Never heard of KONGOS? Give 91X a day, two tops.

I knew vaguely of their song “Come with Me Now” from…somewhere; a commercial or movie trailer or something. It’s an okay song—catchy, not overly poppy, and features slide guitar, a true rarity in today’s music. 91X likes KONGOS A LOT. Not just the one song, either. I’m now familiar with about half their current album. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just sayin’.

They actually play a decent amount of new music.

I can’t claim to be the bastion of cool I was in my 20’s (inside joke there for anyone who actually knew me in my 20’s), so I don’t know how obscure or underground any of the new music 91X plays is. The fact is, I don’t really care.  They’re playing music that I’m not familiar with that’s not entirely bad, and some of it is actually pretty good. Most—no, all—the stations here in town can only hold me for about ten minutes or so before they play something that makes me want to puke or pull an “Aunt Linda” from SNL:

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You may wonder why I say they play only a ‘decent’ amount of new music. That brings me to my next point.

They pander to old people like me.

It’s nice to hear an occasional nugget from my youth mixed in with the new stuff; you need something to be able to hum/sing along with once in a while. 91X makes sure to comfort us old folks by playing the likes of Sublime, Offspring, Weezer, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, No Doubt, etc. constantly. Don’t get me wrong, like I said, it’s nice to have the familiar mixed in with the new, but it’s not like they’re playing deep cuts off of the obscure albums or anything like that. In most cases they’re playing the same songs that were played to death 20 years ago. And some of those old bands (*cough-Offspring-cough*) I never liked to begin with.

One thing I have to say about playing old music: even though I’ve never been the band’s biggest fan, I will instantly be a fan of any radio station that plays Violent Femmes, particularly “Add it Up.” They were one of those bands I never heard anywhere but on the cool stations, and while I won’t listen to an entire album of theirs, I like whatever songs get played on the radio.

All in all, it’s been a great time and has made me crave more. And this is where I reach out to you folks.

What’s your favorite (preferably independent) radio station? I’ve noticed some of the differences and similarities between 91X and the ‘cool’ station in Kansas City, 96.5 The Buzz (stupid name, but it doesn’t have an ‘X’ in it). Some songs overlap, but there’s a good number of different artists as well, and that’s where it gets interesting. I want to see what bands/songs the radio station in your town plays. This goes for anyone and everyone reading this, too; not just people who like this kind of music. I’m eclectic, I want to hear it all. Even that handful of you who read from outside the US, if I can stream it, let me know about it.

In the meantime, I’m going to go turn on some tunes and bet my wife how which band 91X plays first: KONGOS or Nirvana.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Listening to a ‘Cool’ Radio Station

  1. Back in college, whenever we’d venture up to Seattle, we would try to find KEXP, a station run out of the University of Washington. We loved it – they played tons of indie stuff and new artists. When we were in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, Gabriel asked me to put it on & the first song that played was Elliott Smith (needless to say, I was happy). As a teenager, I hated the stations in Wichita (although I do remember one that would play some decent stuff really late at night), so I always watched 120 Minutes on MTV on Sunday nights to hear new stuff. Now that I’m older, I tend to stick to the music I already know. Having a teenager in the house, though, has introduced me to new music that I like (& some I loathe). It’s never occurred to me to stream a station, either, but I think I just might.

    1. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos from the KEXP studios and a few live performances they’ve sponsored, but hadn’t thought to look up their website and stream their station. I guess I’ll be doing that soon.

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