By Esmail Hamidi
As FM radio began to advance technologically in the late 1960s, it was common for radio stations to invest in an FM license to augment their AM signal.
At the time, AM was the dominant force in commercial radio – FM was experimental, unproven and new. Its higher fidelity meant that it would be suitable for all kinds of music, not just loud wall-of-sound 45s. Also, at the time, it was really hard to fill a full 24/7 week of programming, because radio automation was limited to creepy, finicky electromechanical systems.
With the AM station serving as the primary revenue stream, programming on FM was often less of a concern for station management. As a result, a lot of FM programming came out of the gate unencumbered by program directors, ratings, and other stifling nonsense. These new FM stations needed people to independently pick and play records, while tolerating late hours and little pay. With little oversight, these people had to be DJs, music historians, and entertainers. On the FM, they created freeform radio.
A radio format describes the typical “sound” of a station. Radio formats are defined inside the industry by radio station program directors to describe their audiences to prospective advertisers, not to describe genres or styles of music for the sake of art. When a station adopts a format, they take control away from the DJ, and formalize the process of picking music. It becomes less organic, less personal, and more commercial.
Freeform radio contrasts with the glossy inhumanity of commercial radio, and the fumbling ineptitude of some college radio. Freeform radio isn’t just the absence of a format: The idea of freeform radio rebels against any notion of what “should” be played, thumbs its nose at advertisers trying to quantify its audience, and places complete control in the hands of the DJ. He or she is your friend, playing records for you on your living room stereo. It’s a tasteful, intimate, trusting connection. They’re not barking at you about “today’s hottest music,” they’re not telling you about this Sweet New Product™ they just endorsed — they’re just hanging out and playing records. And that is…beautiful.
So where’s Toilet Radio come into this, you ask? My previous Toilet Radio Manifesto outlined the finer points of rediscovering the crappiest, cheesiest parts of the 1970s. As Nick and I have done more radio shows under this nom de guerre, they have led me to more revelations on what Toilet Radio is, and what I want Toilet Radio to be:
- An updated version of the classic freeform/progressive radio programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Think Joseph “Butterball” Tamburro and Jocko Henderson on WDAS, Michael Tearson on WXPN and WMMR, or Alison “The Nightbird” Steele on WNEW. What would they play if they were my age in 2016? What would they find notable in today’s indie music slushpile, and in WKDU’s hulking vinyl library?
- Where Nick and I discover music new to us live on air, in real time. Sometimes we’ll play something only having heard a few seconds of it. Sometimes our guesses and risks pay off; sometimes they don’t. This is okay. We’re not just DJs – we’re music fans too, and discovering music is just plain fun. We’re also both just really busy guys, and it’s hard to find the time to bounce music off of each other. This is that time.
- A weekly, radio-based teleportation to an imaginary living room. This living room is outfitted with thick shag carpet, wood paneling, two turntables, a 10,000 watt soundsystem, and an assortment of ugly but comfortable chairs. On the walls, there are amateur oil paintings of Hall & Oates next to ratty, screen-printed posters from punk shows. You take a seat and sip whatever you’re drinking on a muggy Monday night.At 8 PM sharp, your friends Nick and Es drop the needle on a record. You haven’t heard it before, you may never hear it again, but damn, those 1970s studio musicians could play….
After a 9 month hiatus, Toilet Radio is back on WKDU tonight, June 27th, 2016, at 8 PM EST.