Let us now turn our attention away from politics and focus on other subjects. There are many pressing issues to comment on, and we have been preoccupied far too much with politics and the Saga of Missy Crutchfield lately (although we profess never tiring of that saga). So, can we just kick back and listen to some music? No, it appears we cannot—not on the radio, at least—or without much disgruntlement. After all, if disgruntlement were a commodity, DizzyTown would be worth millions and the many minions who spend their days posting comments on the TFP’s website would be very rich indeed. But we digress.
In our modern Jetsons World, radio doesn’t really exist anymore. The reasons why have been well documented and the riches and wars have been won by the many corporate machines who own and program radio across America. It’s the same here as it is in any city, small or large, give or take the very few independents on the air. You will hear the same songs in Chattanooga as you will in L.A., Asheville, N.C., or Homer, Alaska.
Disc jockeys are a near-dead breed, killed not by their own hands, but by the corporate-run broadcasting behemoths of the world. Which is not to say that their is nothing worth listening to on commercial radio; it’s just something you can get almost anywhere else—on your iPod or streaming any number of online services such as Spotify—without the ads (if you subscribe) or voice-tracking.
What’s missing is the personality of radio, the savvy jocks who became tastemakers and jiggered the playlists, inserting their own curated selections in between the hits, spinning the songs you were told you craved and the deep cuts you didn’t even know you wanted to hear.
In Chattanooga, dial the request line of almost any station and you are likely to be greeted by someone closely resembling a DJ who can’t or won’t divert from the Corporate Streaming Playlist. At least one station lets you choose the songs it plays in a cheerful if evil ploy to eliminate even the part-time air personality. How novel. And sad.
And so we turn to the city’s only non-preprogrammed radio station, WUTC-FM 88.1, the “Voice of UTC” and the local NPR affiliate. On weekday afternoons from 2 to 4 p.m., you will hear the charming English accent of Richard Winham, the longtime local jock and Britain’s gift to Scenic City radio. Winham’s show weaves together a coherent, entertaining and frequently enlightening mix of songs old and new, interspersed with thoughtful conversations and interviews with local, regional and national artists and bands visiting Chattanooga. This is why The Pulse sought him out last year to pen a weekly music column. To our expectation and delight, Winham has applied the same care, thought, wit and wisdom to his column as he does his daily radio program. It’s what great radio, and great music writing, is all about.
But during the other hours music is played around the station’s NPR offerings, you will be confronted with a hodgepodge of music, seemingly patched together with no apparent forethought. Mid-mornings, Cleveland Carlson cranks up a full-bore hootenanny that makes one wonder if Hillbilly Rockers and Jam Bands constitute their own genre. They do not. Hooting and hollering set to music is just that—and it’s grating in the morning.
In the evenings, you will be haunted by the dark, depressive mutterings of Tommy Cotter, who manages to create a nightly soufflé of mind-numbing musical mayhem. Most songs on Cotter’s playlist, frequently described as obscure and below-the-radar gems, are often the former but seldom the latter. Garrett Crowe, often a sub for other DJs, is the most coherent (verbally and musically) of Winham’s colleagues. Too bad he’s mostly stuck filling in or pulling a late-night shift.
The station’s other local music host, Monessa Guilfoil, anchors “Morning Sunrise” on weekends and either speaks so softly or over-enunciates so emphatically that, between bouts of cloying new age music, we often contemplate suicide. Not likely her intent, but then we have no soft spot for either overenunciation or cloying new age music. Not after six non-stop hours of Bob Parlocha, the host of the syndicated mainstream jazz program heard every morning from midnight to 6 a.m. This combination is too painful to address, lest we find ourselves reaching for the nearest sharp-edged instrument.
The station’s on-air “talent” is not lacking so much in talent—although that, like so much about “free-form” radio and music in general, is subjective—but direction. Even those DJs who commandeered the FM dial in the 1970s weren’t truly free form. They were rabid music fans and collectors who became musical tastemakers under the guidance of a talented program director.
WUTC is a good station, often very good for a city the size of Chattanooga, and it could be a great station—even one that could forge a national reputation. But without the crucial ingredient of direction and guidance, it is bound to flounder—often painfully—and listeners will begin turn off their radios altogether. We have often; but we’re not eager for that to happen again and again. Spotify is fine, but who doesn’t want to be entertained by an actual human—a smart musical tastemaker whose choices both surprise and delight us? Give us that, and we’ll listen morning, day and night.