Day 142: Your Emergency Handy Radio Guide

originally published May 21, 2012

The power has gone out.

Your iPod is dead, your laptop is drained and you left your cell phone at work so you can’t even amuse yourself with that goddamn brick-breaker game. What’s left? You decide to light some candles and use that old portable FM radio to give you some background music while you catch up on your reading. Except that you haven’t listened to local radio in years, ever since you bought that Kia with the mp3 input.

Stations often change formats every few years, either to keep up with trends, forge new ones, or desperately scrounge up ratings because nobody wants to listen to that prog-rock crap they’d been playing since 1987.

What’s worse, they have invented entirely new radio formats since you’d last skimmed the dial. Gone are the days when talk, rock, country and oldies were your only choices. So flick your Bics to your wicks, tuck the kids under their lids and slide on in to the smooth grooves and sweet beats of Radio 2012:

Quiet Storm: The lights are out, and maybe there’s some special lady (or special guy) that you’re looking to get down and funky with. Maybe she/he wears gold medallions and refers to disrespectful neighbors as ‘jive turkeys’. A Quiet Storm station is that deep, groovy pocket on your radio dial where you’ll hear the soulful bedroom sounds of Earth Wind & Fire, mid-to-late Marvin Gaye and some of the mellower, soulfullish smooth-jazz stylings of D’Angelo and Maxwell. This is the format that launched Sade gently into that righteous sea of what industry insiders refer to as ‘humpin’ music’.

Rhythmic Oldies: Okay, you and that same lucky guy/gal want to blow off a little energy before you focus all you’ve got into making sweet, sweet love. A Rhythmic Oldies station will deliver your favorite disco hits – assuming you have favorite disco hits. But be warned, you may be aching to unleash the inferno of your most stylish moves to the grooves of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” or Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby”, but these stations might move a bit more forward in time than you’d like. That means you should also brace yourself for Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” or Gerardo’s “Rico Suave.” Blech.

Space Music: This may have been a bad choice. It’s too early to fall asleep, and you don’t have nearly enough psychotropic drugs to justify leaving your dial tuned to this stuff. Space Music can be electronic or acoustic, but this is music to meditate to, not a way to spend an evening. You’re about to find yourself pillow-deep in Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and freakin’ Vangelis. Unless your man/woman of choice is packing a handful of ‘ludes, I’d move on.

Classic Alternative: Remember when the word ‘alternative’ found its way into the category headers at your local record store? It meant that Pearl Jam, a band so clearly dominant because it was a logical growth of rock music, was no longer rock music. It was now an ‘alternative’ to pop and country music (which were ‘alternatives’ to rock music, but that apparently didn’t matter). Now we have Classic Alternative – this station may be focused on original new wave acts like Devo and the Talking Heads, or it may stretch through the 80s and play what was then called ‘college rock’: REM and They Might Be Giants. Strangely, Pearl Jam and grunge-era alternative music seldom lands on Classic Alternative. Those bands show up on modern rock stations, which suggests (quite correctly) that modern rock has not evolved in the last twenty years.

Hurban: Perhaps you or your companion is Hispanic, and in need of the music that feeds your soul. Hurban stations seek out the young Hispanic market, broadcasting in both English and Spanish, and focusing on hip-hop, dance, and reggaeton music. Stuff like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and Julio Voltio. If you’ve never heard of any of those artists, you have landed on the wrong station. Move on.

Rhythmic Adult Contemporary: I know a lot of you will stick it out right here. You want some music you can move to, but you’d rather avoid anything too angry or too ‘urban.’ R.A.C. listeners are not music snobs. They want their Kanye, their Mariah, their T-Pain, but they also want some non-threatening music from the past, like ABBA or Donna Summer. This is where you’ll want to stick if you are content with passing the time until the lights come back on. This music won’t make you think, it won’t make you want to sex it up (well, it might), but it’ll kill time slowly, smothering it tenderly in 4/4 time until it’s dead.

Adult Album Alternative: Back in the 1970s, when music radio was last relevant and daring, FM stations would offer music lovers more than the typical smattering of 45s that dotted every Top-40 station on the market. They’d serve up some obscure album cut from Steely Dan, or a Ten Years After song that wasn’t “I’d Love To Change The World”. Now you’ve got the AAA format, though you’re still likely to hear a number of hits. In most markets, this is the only place you’ll hear artists like Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, and Fiona Apple. Interested? No? Okay, let’s keep going.

Classic Rock / Classic Hits / Oldies: This is radio’s ultimate grey area. These words are used in different ways on different stations in different markets, so be wary – it’s hard to know for certain what you’ll get. The first Oldies stations showed up in the early 1970s, focusing on the 1950s-era rock n’ roll that was no longer getting a lot of play on modern stations. Nowadays, if you can still find an Oldies station, you’ll probably hear charting hits up to 1979. But you might be more likely to hear Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire” than the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

Classic Rock stations will usually focus on post-1965 rock, ending up some time in the 1980s. In Canada, even ten years ago a Classic Rock station would stretch their playlist up to 1991 so that they could play Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway” and meet their Canadian Content standards. Classic Hits is virtually the same thing, but they’ll play more pop hits that would make the rock purists cringe in their faded vinyl seats.

The only safe bet here is that all three of these formats will play the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Hopefully the lights have come back on, or else you’ve found a station to appease you through the darkness. My advice to you would be to throw away that old radio and pick up a portable Sirius/XM satellite unit. No commercials and you can be more specific with your music cravings.

Also, satellite has Howard Stern and a handful of comedy stations. If the lights are out and no amount of Quiet Storm is going to get you lucky, you may as well have a laugh.

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