Almost all of your everything can now be safely replaced by an internet connection. Mail? Slap an “e” on there. Phone calls? Why not with a face? Your shopping cart is just a jumble of pixels now! Half your friends are online as we speak! You don’t need a TV, you don’t need a CD player, you practically don’t have to go outside, and you sure as hell don’t need a radio. You can listen to radio stations from all over the planet, even make up stations that’ll play whatever mix of free jazz and art-core you can dream up. So if somebody goes off the air, it’s no biggie.
Only it is. If there’s one thing we can learn from the uproar over WFNX’s sale to Clear Channel, it’s that people still care about the radio and what gets played on it. Reports that 101.7 will become a conservative talk station seem doubtful; talk1017.com is anonymously registered and lacks the hallmarks of a Clear Channel affiliate, however WFNX’s New Hampshire simulcast, WFEX, was recently bought by the Christian network Life Changing Radio. But at the same time, outrage sparked by a top 40-fueled Clear Channel takeover seems to make little distinction between Rush and Carly Rae. Both suck. Just shy of 30 years ago, WFNX became one of the first commercial US radio stations to broadcast alternative music. And not like Coldplay alt; we’re talking independent, underground, and local. WFNX has boosted basement heroes and helped unheard acts from around the world break out. To lose a presence such as this will deliver a blow to the local scene that -- while not deadly -- will hurt like a bitch.
Some good news is that Boston.com has announced plans to continue the legacy of WFNX by acquiring its DJs and hosting the station as an online stream. But in reality, that’s small potatoes; a difference between some radio and none, certainly, but nothing close to replacing what’s lost. And why’s that? Because radio still matters. Real, honest-to-god, the-FM-waves-are-like-three-meters-long-floating-through-your-house radio. In an age where you could listen to a French radio station online as easily as a local one on the radio (or even more so, depending on whether you remember where you stashed that HitClips FM receiver you found in your Corn Pops in second grade), it seems odd that what’s playing in the air should still be considered relevant, let alone something worth fighting for. But it really does matter. Radio is in the air, it’s entrenched in the place where its towers are rooted, and that creates a special relationship between local radio and its listeners. Look at the numbers: while Pew Research’s studies indicate that interest in old school AM/FM radio is on the decline, the number of Americans who tune in weekly has remained practically unchanged for the past 10 years. The same studies point out that while the number of people listening to online-only radio is on the rise, only 53% of Americans reported “liking or loving” internet radio versus the 69% who liked or loved traditional AM/FM. And most Americans report tuning in weekly to the radio waves. More Americans get their local news not from the internet or a local paper, but from the radio. So while we’ve moved on from the days of WASPy families crowded ‘round the old set, radios still play an important role in the everyday life of your average Joe. If the electricity goes out, so does the internet. But the radio’s still there.
All the same, online radio would seem like a good enough alternative. But here’s the thing: what made FNX so super was its hyper-local focus; features like Boston Accents showcased local artists and gave us a place on the radio that was distinctly ours. For as good of a singer as Adele may be, to have a frequency shooting out the sounds of our own streets was something unparalleled. WFNX moving online is little better than losing it all together in respect to the work the station did to promote new and local music to Boston listeners. WFNX was aware of that visceral relationship between a local station and its local listeners, and did not take that relationship for granted. Anyone on any day had a really good chance of catching a lick of WFNX while surfing through the stations, and therefore to discover not only some awesome new music, but a whole outlet for awesome new music. But you don’t just stumble upon an online station. Shoot, you don’t find one unless you knew it was there or someone sends you the link. I’ve been working with Boston University’s radio station -- WTBU; it’s online-only -- for two years now and that’s been our biggest problem, I think. It’s outstandingly difficult to draw new listeners to an online station. Either people choose to click the link or they don’t. Maybe only a quarter of the student body knows we exist, and no true Boston residents even have a reason to know about us -- let alone tune in -- unless their kid is a DJ. But you don’t choose what you hear when you hit “scan” on your car radio, and those few measures of New Highway Hymnal’s latest release could be enough to get you to stick around for more.
The fact of the matter is that WFNX can’t be a local force without the air. No station can. I’m not-so-secretly envious of WKDU -- Drexel University’s student-run station, which broadcasts on the air -- for the ability they have to be a local staple. It’s been more times than I can count that I’ve caught a friend’s band playing at 91.7 over Philly air and ended up sticking around for a whole hour after. WTBU will never get a local following by being relegated to the interwebs, and my greatest fear in this FNX kerfuffle is that Alternative Boston will devolve to the same: a station as underground as the music it plays, no more able to proselytize to the masses than a dead cat. An online station is just the same as any other online station, lost in the vast internet sea with all the others. While a move to the internet may prove a safe temporary respite for WFNX, I hope and pray that it is only that: temporary. Even resuming broadcast on a low-frequency signal is better than putzing around the infosphere, and though I am thankful for the efforts made to keep the station digitally alive, the most important thing is that we not become content with a shitty solution. Because someone needs to make sure Average Joe gets hip to the groove of Fat History Month, and I can’t think of anyone better suited than FNX and the electromagnetic spectrum.
-Laura Jane Brubaker