Friday, January 31, 2014

A.O.R.! And The story of What used to be FM Radio...

Way back before the internet....
AOR RadioBefore satellite-radio, and even before there was MTV, VH1, MuchMusic and other such music video channels, there was something called Radio.
And if we go back even further, say, previous to the 1960s, radio usually meant AM Radio or Short-Wave signals.
   Radio communication was, at the beginning, a technological miracle. It was wireless broadcast made possible by the use of large towers that allowed effective communication over longer and longer distances. However, the problem with taller and taller towers was that at some point, higher towers no longer translated into increased effective signal distance. At a certain height, the signal from a radio tower successfully avoided the nearby buildings and hills of the surrounding landscape, but instead of gaining more distance or range to the signal, the tower was fighting a losing battle against the curvature of the earth itself. Radio signals travel in  straight lines out from a tower and unfortunately, this planet is round.
  But longer-distance broadcast communication is possible with AM signals. Hobbyists, radio technicians and fans of listening to exotic music from distant lands found that within a range of frequencies, during the nighttime, signals could be 'bounced' off the earth's ionosphere and travel hundreds of miles, even around the curve of the earth. This is why, at night, a simple AM radio with an antenna can pick up stations hundreds of miles away.
   When FM radio was invented, however, sheer distance was given up in favour of generating a better sounding, clearer tone out of the speakers of the receiver. FM radio was originally advertised as 'static-free' or radio without any hissing noises. This wasn't entirely true, though most of the interference of AM radio was avoided. FM radio also gave listeners a broader dynamic range that was better suited for music listening, and with the invention of something called 'multiplexing' could easily broadcast in two-channel Stereo sound.
   FM radio was in existence since the 1930s, but played a small role in broadcasting for decades, largely simulcasting the broadcast of AM stations, or creating better sounding radio-broadcasts of live performances of Classical orchestras or Jazz Bands of the era.
   From 1950s most AM Radio stations adopted some sort of top 40 playlist format, which became formalized when Rock and Roll became the predominant form of music in N. America. AM had the hits, and the local FM station played simulcasts of the AM station, which was usually an affiliate or co-owned by the AM station.

   Then, in1967 the FCC, the Radio regulating arm of the U.S. federal government, mandated that license holders in cities larger than 100,000 population must broadcast original programming on their co-owned FM stations at least half the time the stations were on the air...

AOR Stands for Album-Oriented Radio.
  Album Oriented Radio was a concept thought up in the United States when FM Stations could no longer simulcast AM broadcasts due to a ruling by the FCC. Without simulcasts, they had to hire disc jockeys and create new original content. However they wanted to do it cheaply, and without necessarily becoming competitors to their AM counterparts (since many of them had the same owners). In order to fill the air-time with something other than a clone or copy-cat version of the typical AM format, stations allowed several different things to happen. One was a focus away from hit singles (typical for top 40 format radio) and towards albums. Long-Playing vinyl record albums were increasingly used to showcase the talents of musicians since the middle of the 1960s, and sales of albums were climbing and were quickly becoming the more dominant form of physical music. And since albums were popular, and largely considered by critics to be the true showcase of a good artist, FM stations, who had air-tme to fill, were able to play many different kinds of music that concentrated on those artist that had strong albums containing quality musicianship that was far more varied and interesting than your typical 3 minute pop song.
   With an album-oriented format disc jockeys could now play tracks that were much longer than 4 min. and rather than focus on the band or the artist with the most recent catchy tune, they could give air-time to bands and artists that had a much more complex six-minute long song on the last track of the b-side of the album.
   This 'freeform' music programming style allowed Disc Jockeys to switch wildly from one genre of music to another, play songs that were psychedelic or artsy, and even allowed some new forms of music to come to the forefront.
    The most immediate beneficiaries of this new format were the progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis, who had excellent albums with few radio-friendly singles. But those with artistic goals benefitted as well, such as Miles Davis new jazz-fusion sound on the Bitches Brew album, which sold tremendously well and gave the great jazz trumpet-player a new audience to play for. At the same time, folk players like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez also enjoyed a new appreciative fan base on FM radio.

AOR Stands for Adult-Oriented Radio
   In the middle seventies, FM Radio in North America still did not have anywhere near the audience of the AM top 40 format, but it had some success in gaining listeners due to simple demographics. The so-called 'hippie' generation were no longer in their teens and early twenties, but having grown up with rock their whole lives, they were increasingly  interested in a more grown-up/adult version of the music that they had always loved.
Adult-Oriented Radio now was not just the albums by the progressive or artsy bands, it meant the sort of songs that talked about subjects that wouldn't appeal to a teenager, such as love songs that were more than four minutes long and didn't necessarily involve going to a party or learning a new dance. Songs about strange and not necessarily nice people, or songs about the difficulty of being in and/or out of a relationship and sometimes a rock-listener now in his or her thirties needed something less glib about life and more sophisticated than the party-all the time fun-loving rock of a half-generation previous. 
  When it came to adult listeners, AM radio also had a disadvantage inherent to the top-40 format. Disc Jockeys were expected to be loud, hyper-exuberant personalities that talked fast even when the music was slow. They gave weather reports, traffic reports, told listeners what time it was, then finally said: "here comes another twin spin sound sandwich!" and "here's a blast from the past, a moldy oldy that'll always last!" They talked a lot, spoke quickly and acted excited even when nothing was happening.
 On the other hand, FM radio DJs acted more like the 'hosts' of your entertainment. They took calls from listeners and accepted requests for obscure songs. They talked calmly or not at all. Sometimes three or four songs were played before anyone spoke to announce the name of the artists or band.  Sometimes one song by Marvin Gaye turned into a whole evening of lesser known R & B tunes. Sometimes a Funk song was followed by a Prog-rock song, which was followed by Peter Frampton. All this music was more likely to appeal to an adult rock fan, rather than a teenage one.

AOR Becomes Album-Oriented Rock: Although it still has everything to do with FM Radio, because AM Radio won't have anything to do with this sort of music. But musicians, because they're far more clever than most people realize, quickly caught on to this idea and knew that their brand of music was never going to get AM airplay unless it became an FM-hit first. And, somewhat unfortunately, it was when artists started getting FM-hits that the term AOR started to shrink from a broad idea of radio programming into a sort of category of music.
   By the late 1970s, most of the fusion-jazz, psychedelic, folk, R & B and Reggae had been squeezed out of the term AOR, and now it became more closely associated with well-crafted albums containing some progressive-sounding upbeat rock music and a high degree of technological production value.
  Styx was as close to a darling of FM radio as a band could get. REO Speedwagon was another that largely owed it's success to well-produced albums and FM airplay.  And along with several others, usually touting a great-sounding high-tech production quality album, these bands began to define the sound of what would eventually be AOR.
   There are probably only a few artists that could be said were deliberately trying to design their songs to get them or their bands onto FM radio, but Tom Scholz, guitarist for Boston is one of them. In an interview with BBC, in a documentary called 'When Albums ruled the World' Tom Scholz admitted that he had honed his music and his style to suit the FM AOR format in order to get his music on the radio.
  At the same time, the FM radio programmers seemed to seek out the much more polished sound of these albums. The modern world of multi-track recording, sound effects and slick production was creating some impressive albums that really took advantage of the higher sound quality and stereo-capability of the FM signal.

AOR becomes Arena Rock!

And then AOR became synonymous with a sound popularly termed Arena-Rock. How did this happen? Well, everyone's best guess seems to be that the production-techniques that were pioneered by those great 70s albums by Styx, Boston and others had been used by many other bands to create a new genre. Usually such production was used to lend a big, brash, blaring sound to an album that couldn't be achieved by playing skill alone.
  These innovations in recording helped create an AOR sound was hard-edged, but more melodic than most other rock bands. Power chords suddenly became big, resounding sounds that lasted forever with one strike of the strings. Keyboards seemed to sound as big and powerful as a pipe-organ. Drums sounded thunderous. And everything sounded like it was playing for a large audience in a stadium or one of those giant outdoor band-shells.
Some rock bands seemed like they were destined for this type of sound even if they didn't invent it or start out with such a sound. Foreigner, for example, was a band whose earlier albums sounded intimate, like they were playing in your living room. But by the eighties Foreigner became Arena-Rock Gods, using that big sound to garner many powerful and resounding hits like 'Juke Box Hero' on the album 4. 
   Asia, a supergroup of progressive-rock players from Yes, King Crimson and Emerson Lake & Palmer nearly defined the term Arena Rock with their first three albums and especially the song Heat of the Moment. Toto, Journey and Survivor along with several other bands would also be added to the list that made up proponents of Arena Rock. This genre probably reached it's peak in the middle 80s, but is still popular today and often used as a reference by musicians that are looking to make rock music with a big sound while keeping the melody at the forefront.

And such is the story of how a Radio-programming concept became a musical genre...

AOR is (not) what they now call Classic Rock Radio

If it had stopped there, it probably would've been for the best, but unfortunately for fans of AOR and Arena Rock, things went one step too far. As the nineties ended, AOR started being used as a secondary term for 'Classic Rock' Radio.
   To some extent, it couldn't be helped. Currently most commercial and independant radio has been gobbled up by larger media conglomerates and those stations that originally pioneered AOR as an idea largely began catering to an aging audience of rock fans starting from the late eighties. Most of these stations officially became 'classic rock' stations after the grunge wave of the nineties subsided, and usually for one simple reason: to attract and hold their own listening audience while the other rock or pop stations were trying to find a 'new' audience. That new audience was dwindling as a new generation turned to internet radio, music-file-sharing programs and other new media that was largely more interactive than calling up your local DJ and hoping that he or she would take your request.
   But 'classic rock' stations are not AOR, neither in genre nor in the original spirit of the idea. They are no longer interested in playing that obscure 7-minute track on the b-side. Nor are they interested in that great sounding new conceptual album by the band that only has two previous albums. These stations play well-known established hits of a previous generation, and there seems to be a clone station in every city all over North America.
   What happened to FM and AOR in the nineties was only part of the change. While FM stations struggled to hold onto their audience, most AM Radio stations began switching from all top-40 to soft-rock, then to oldies and finally to what they are now, which is almost exclusively talk radio, news, traffic, weather and sports and the occasional multi-language station.
A Last word about Radio: It is now over 30 years since the classic Foreigner 4 album of 1981. Music-listening Radio has become essentially a corporatocracy in the twenty-tensies. Even so-called 'Alternative' stations are largely boring, repetitive and continually re-hash their glory days in the nineties (back when they were independent stations playing new music). It seems unlikely to continue for much longer, and most likely FM stations will fall into the same talk-radio formats and news drudgery of their AM colleagues. Unless the national and sometimes multi-national corporate hold on most of the airwaves is broken suddenly and hopefully forever, then radio will no longer be used for music, in the same way that it is no longer used to broadcast dramatic stories or soap operas.
   The truth is that despite the capability of radio to cast a signal around the world, radio is a  local medium. It is inherently local, to a city, to a town, a region or a community, but businesses and corporations have spent the last thirty-plus years trying to make music radio homogenous across North America, and they've essentially succeeded.
    The reason AOR should not be associated with today's Classic Rock Radio Stations, nor with any form of current radio, is because AOR represents not only the birth of Arena Rock, but what was once a truly new idea, something that allowed expression of a different form, and something that increased creativity rather than diminished it and that is entirely NOT what radio is about today. Radio is subjugated, compartmentalized garbage. Generic genres of crap filtered through the voice of a DJ who is neither spinning records, nor controlling the playlist, nor taking requests (if they don't fit the playlist) and likely would rather not be there anyway.
   It seems strange and oddly poignant that the whole concept of AOR should come about because of a law stating that if you have a license to broadcast, you have to broadcast original content. It seems as though the radio business and media industry spent the last 50 years trying to circumvent that law, and despite their best efforts, some actual creativity happened in the interim. Now the industry has caught up to itself and figured out a convenient formula for 'original content' and has made this 'original content' ubiquitous and bland. And after fifty years, thanks to their ingenuity: radio sucks once again and worse than it did during the height of the top-40 format of the mid-sixties. Current radio of almost any genre of music is mostly riding the coattails of the creativity of the past that it tried so hard to avoid.
   If this was all started with the passing of a law, then perhaps we need a new law. Perhaps a law that states that any hired radio DJ actually has to learn to use a turntable and spin records and listen to albums again. Perhaps there should be a law that a DJ has to have musical sensability of some kind, and with such training they should have some responsibility and say in what music they play. Perhaps there should be a law that even if a company owns thirty stations in thirty different cities, they are not allowed to play all the same songs in all thirty cities, except for two requests made by a local cab driver.
    Most likely, despite the grunge and alternative surge of the 1990s, the days of truly interesting radio are over and not likely to return. 
    But maybe there's an independant radio station in your town.... maybe there's one that is owned and run by a college or university instead of a giant conglomerate. Maybe there's an independant radio station with a DJ that you could actually call up and talk to... maybe supporting your local station and promoting the independence of radio generally would turn the tide on bland, boring and stupid corporatized radio....but that's just wishful thinking...

Thanks to:
Lj, aka: BioCYTE1 (Vinyl Community) whose video on AOR inspired this blog entry: View on YouTube
University of Delaware for this article on AOR: View here
BBC's documentary: When Albums Ruled the World
Wikipedia article: Album-Oriented-Rock