The Death of Terrestrial Radio  (Or, park your car and go to the mall)

I’ve noticed something has gotten worse over the last few years (if that’s even possible in this case):

Commerical FM Radio.  It Sucks.   Really hard.   Lest you think I’m competing for Denis Leary’s new career for picking on the wrong people, let me first exclude just about all of  NPR,  Classical and  serious Jazz stations in this rant.  I love you guys, and I’m NOT talking about those portions of the FM band.

I’m not talking about content, either. There’s a niche out there for everyone, and to each their own. I’m talking about the SOUND of commercial FM radio.  More accurately; whatever the hell’s been done to it over the years in terms of compression, loudness and overmodulation, all in a sad, sick way to entice more listeners by being the loudest station on the dial.     

Like most other audio professionals in the last 10-20 years, I’ve been caught up in the digital revolution, making my living with all the same toys and gadgets you and I now take for granted.  I assumed (wrongly so, it seems) that FM commercial radio would keep up with the rest of us, embracing all the changes (mostly for the better) in equipment and sound delivery. 

A few other things have happened in my life that have brought me back to listening to terrestrial FM radio again.  I recently got married and moved to a more suburban location that requires a little more drive time to most of my remote recording gigs, so I’m in the car for slightly longer stretches nowadays.  I have also stopped lugging around CDs (and cassettes before that) and now have – like so many others – most of my favorite music on my trusty MP3 player.  I can even plug that into my car stereo’s input jack.  (Thank GOD for that feature, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)

With my new family, I also travel a bit more to places like the beach, nearby resorts, towns, shopping malls, and so on. I also bought a new vehicle; a fairly standard Toyota Sienna 2006 minivan, with a stock radio & CD player package.  On our frequent road trips, we invariably put the radio on for traffic, news, and when the MP3 player’s battery dies, we then check the commercial music stations.  On some recent trips from the East Coast to the Chicago Ill, & Wisconsin areas for example, I enjoyed an old pastime of every long-distance driver:  checking out the different flavors of FM radio stations that fade in and out as we drive from one locale to another.

As I mentioned already, news, classical and jazz stations were/are always a joy to listen to; never any harshness; clear as a bell whenever we could pick them up. Sorry to say, the commercial stations – literally anywhere we went, city or town, big or small, in my car or rentals – were/are a sonic abomination.

How is this possible, in the year 2010, with all the improvements we have at every point along the audio chain?   The FM radio format in toto surely doesn’t have to sound so bad – we have all the non-commercial. stations proving that every day.   It can and does sound GREAT in the right hands.  Even with all of its shortcomings, the format is entirely useable in its native, purest form. 

Yes, I know it’s true that so many popular recordings nowadays have insane loudness curves and uber-compression, but things are beyond the pale now.   Has anyone reading this really LISTENED to their car radio playing a song, then switched over to the same track on their MP3 player??!?   (And they say MP3’s are bad….sheesh….my iPOd sounds spectacular compared to the same song being mangled by commercial FM stations!)

Trying to be scientific about it, I’ve ruled out my car’s FM tuner itself, as other broadcasts like NPR, the news, classical and jazz stations sound great on my car radio; so does my iPOD going into the line/aux jack.  (It’s even worse listening at home in my living room or my studio’s FM receiver.)  So, why I am I hearing over-cranked and tubby bass, distortion, clipping, and no discernable dynamic range whatsoever on songs I have heard countless times – some for decades?  On terrestrial FM commercial radio, songs we all know and love are all but unlistenable nowadays.

What has exacerbated this phenomenon for me is all the other places I go now where music – even background music – sounds great; sometimes better than great.   When did the modern day replacement for “Muzak” start to sound so much better than my local FM radio station?

I find it absurd that I can go into just about any store in any mall in middle America, and hear terrific, butt-thumping (but sonically balanced) music on playback systems that blow the roof off any FM radio broadcast.   Now that I have a wife and daughter (who both love to shop, btw), I have been coerced to go into more clothing, food & specialty stores in the last two years, hearing more playback systems, doing my own unofficial survey of generic, supposedly innocuous sound systems that are, to be honest, downright remarkable.   (Talk about an incentive to shop!   I hear new music (to me) all the time now, and it makes me say: “Who’s THAT?  What’s THAT artists name?  (My daughter thinks it’s hysterical, by the way…Dad’s an old audio geek who’s relearning NEW music.)

I’ve started looking up at these systems, since they’re usually hanging or placed up in the ceiling area, far above the goods, and out of harm & shoplifter’s way.  In many cases, there are four satellite speakers around the store, and (at least) one subwoofer at one end or the other.  I’ve seen Bose, EV, JBL, EAW and many other systems in no particular order.   Who’s installing these things?  The stores themselves, or the malls that rent them the space?   Who cares!   The point is the sound is full, robust, enjoyable, and – believe it or not – crystal clear, and NOT squashed or mangled by the idiots running the gear at FM stations.  

You never hear a RADIO STATION being played on these systems, either, you hear either a CD player, an MP3 player, or a satellite feed of uninterrupted MUSIC.  (Forget the commercial breaks as a reason; maybe they just don’t like the sound of FM??)

True story:  We recently visited a Hollister clothing store in a big local mall that had subwoofers underneath a “front porch” entrance area that entices shoppers to venture in to the store itself, with great left & right imaging from semi-professional speakers hung above shoppers’ heads as one entered.  I sat on this “front porch” area in a recliner chair, reading complimentary surfer & photography magazines, soaking in Green Day, Maroon 5, and many others, in sonic bliss, while my wife & daughter shopped.  The system wasn’t so much loud as it was pure; well setup and calibrated, playing the same material that is currently being destroyed on FM radio.  I told them to shop as long as they wanted.  I was having too much fun.

Since I started paying attention to all this, I’ve heard some of my favorite “old” tracks – from the 80’s, 70’s, 60’s and even before that, on systems similar to the above, with stunning clarity and depth.  I’ve heard subtleties on these systems that make me want to go buy the remastered CDs of these things, just to experience it all again.  I was stopped in my tracks recently to hear Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride” in supberb remastered hi-fi in the checkout line at….IKEA, of all places.  Talk about a Swedish time machine!

Not too long ago while waiting for a prescription in my local Walgreens, I was treated to a remastered playback of “Let’s Dance” (the surf/party single from the 60’s, by??..)  I couldn’t believe I was hearing NEW things in an old recording I THOUGHT I knew, thanks to their superior playback audio, and non-mangled CD/MP3 playback system.  (yes, I checked with the manager as to what they use. I AM an audio geek, remember!)

When was the last time something like that happened to you while listening to the radio!?  I NEVER hear that with today’s FM commercial radio.  It’s syrupy, goopy, over-EQ’d, (ear-scalding zippy high end, and cone-rattling, over-extended bass) and more.   I suspect the real problem, like everything else, is the goons in the advertising department always want MORE VOLUME to make their signal jump out of the speaker when listeners go down the dial, so they beat up on the guys in engineering to seriously crunk, er….crank it.  (Trust me, they’ve been doing this since the medium was invented; it’s inherently nothing new, but the damage is worse with today’s digital tools.)  

Sadly, with this digital processing, it’s gotten so far out of hand now, it’s unlistenable.   And the kids running the Optimods nowadays have no clue; they disable the factory presets, and smash the hell out of it all.

Did I mention it SUCKS?!?!?

I hear a constant “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” sound riding along on just about all commercial FM radio; it’s there on the better stations as well (including news, classical, etc.) but it’s so much worse and ever-present with rock & pop stations, I usually just have to turn it off.

Listen to the lead vocal on any commercial rock/pop FM station and you’ll hear it; it’s like an outline or sonic edge to everything; a distorted, zippy bzzzzzzzzzz sound to everything.  (Most likely, this is a clipped waveform artifact; the leading edge of a very non-musical square wave.)

Lest you think it’s my age or my ears, I just got a clean bill of health from my ENT specialist. After my 53rd birthday, we did a battery of tests to establish a baseline for going forward for the rest of my career.  I’m not delusional that things can deteriorate with age, but so far, so good.  I’m still hearing well into the 17k-18k range, with minimal loss in either side, thankfully. 

Anyway, I’m not hearing things that aren’t there; I have been pointing these artifacts out to others, and it’s apparent that the whole thing has gotten out of hand – ironically, far worse than all dire predictions about bad sound coming out of MP3 players.  

Maybe no one cares enough, maybe it’s “good enough” for 90% of the people who are speeding along in their cars, or listening to radios wayyyyyy off in the background.

I for one can’t stand it, and I switch it off as fast as I can, whenever I can, and I blame YOU, the people who program and broadcast commercial FM radio.   

As nicely as I can say it: Your signal SUCKS folks, and if there’s anyone to blame for the decline of this media (at least in the USA), it’s YOU GUYS.   You know who you are – you’re the ones who’ve dialed in the bogus over-EQ on the consoles, cranked up the gain on the Optimods, defeated the factory defaults, and fly in the face of (and right up against) FCC rules for overmodulation and insanely high levels, with the same Hitler-youth defense of “We’re only following orders” or this other lame excuse: “Hey, it’s what the people wan’t.”  (Trust me:  no, we don’t.)

You should be ashamed for killing a once-great American medium.   It’s now just a sad joke, and as it dies a slow death from indifference and lack of integrity, you’ll no doubt blame it’s decline on the usual suspects: Satellite radio, Cable TV,  ipods, text phones, video games, and even the Internet itself.

Wake up, people. The fact remains that your signal just sounds awful, and it doesn’t have to.   Someone should fix it, but I suspect it’s already too late. 

Me, I’m going to the mall for some REALLY good-sounding music.

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