"...the free-form radio format gives the announcer such control over the records to be played that it is inconsistent with the strict controls that the licensee must exercise to avoid questionable practices." (110)
I first discovered freeform radio when I was 15 or 16-years-old. I had the immense fortune of living within listening range of WFMU, a bastion of free-form broadcasting out of East Orange, New Jersey (recently relocated to Jersey City). When I first started listening, I was merely looking for an alternative to the horrid backwash that is most popular radio. I wanted to discover new bands, to need to be paying attention instead of absently singing lyrics that were ingrained in my subconscious, to feel the rush of radio providence when one of my favorite songs came on in the midst of others I had never heard before. I began listening to other college stations at the same time as I started listening to FMU--they served the above purposes. It became increasingly clear to me, however, that free-form radio presented something entirely different than even the other independent stations, which still limited themselves by genre, and often some unspoken covenant of what was "hip." On FMU I could hear a tune from an obscure French movie soundtrack, an experimental piece by some member of the downtown New York City avant garde, a 1960s girl garage band and a well-known indie rock "standard" within the same show--and it all seemed to flow together. And the DJs seemed to have real knowledge about everything they were playing, and they seemed to truly care about everything they were playing. And they had to--it requires a serious time commitment to figure out a perfect way to segue from Public Enemy into Neu!
Intelligent radio broadcasting also requires intelligent, or at least involved, listening. It involves thinking about how the DJ got from one place to the other, and opening your ears to combinations you would not have expected. It also causes one to question the very basis on which one creates ones distinctions between and formation of genres. Why is it weird to hear a segue from hip-hop into krautrock?
Its weird for a number of reasons, and, as a current free-form DJ myself, it in fact can sometimes present itself as potentially problematic. The tradition of genre-specific radio has mostly to do with the concept of the marketing niche. But this strategy is necessarily based on the assumption that there exist sectors of the population that will want to listen to one general kind of music. Perhaps the reason behind this organization seems obvious--music is a cultural production, and music has social significance. Different types of music may be located as developing out of specific cultural traditions, and people organize around these traditions. Music as an agent of social organization is so pervasive that peoples character is thought to be determined by what sort of music they listen to. Im sure that the first question many of us thought to ask our frosh year roommates was "What kind of music do you like?" We werent only asking because we hoped that the sounds coming out of our roommates stereos would be pleasing to us--we wanted to know what kind of people, social beings they were. Music and musicians influence fashion, social activity, language, and general lifestyle. Even if music itself is only one aspect of a particular subculture, or portion of dominant culture, it is transfigured into a determining figure in and of itself. Although I will uphold freeform radio to the grave, I realize that my social identity is formed, that I consciously form my social identity around a certain music subculture. You wont only, or even mainly, hear girl-powered punk rock on my radio show, but my "musical social life" is certainly organized around that one kind of music.
So how can freeform then be construed as potentially problematic? It has to do with a basic problem of postmodernism yeah its all well and good to disrupt the idea of essential identities, to break down boundaries, but the sort of value produced from the context in which something was created can be lost in the process. For example, if one plays a political punk rock song in the same set with a lighthearted pop song, because it "sounds good," is the punk songs political value compromised? Although it may feel good and transgressive and mess with boundaries, in what ways can music be appropriated or disturbed when taken out of its original context?
Music is a weapon and can be subversive, and so can free-form radio. Perhaps the intelligent DJ-ing and listening I mentioned above involves keeping in mind that the subversion performed in messing with genres and boundaries can even serve to subvert things one may want to uphold. Music, of course, isnt just sound or noise good freeform radio keeps this is mind, while using these basic sonic qualities to dissolve seemingly irreparable musical rifts.