The Country

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I wish I could travel more. Not a lot more, but a little more. But this year’s been tougher than most and even the quick excursions upstate haven’t been as common as in recent years. For any number of reasons I’m not so picky about traveling. Just about anywhere’s interesting for a day or two. And as is my nature, I’m always curious about what’s on the AM dial there. While moving through the FM Band can feel a little like strolling through the local mall, a journey though the AM dial can be more akin to viewing a town from railroad car window (if you’ve ever done that). You may actually get a feeling for how a town gets its work done. And perhaps a sense of how the other half lives. That kind of thing.

What I really like (and what I’d like do a lot more often if I had my way) is to get as close to nowhere as I can, within reason. To drive and drive until you can see the Milky Way clearly and distinctly after dark, and where local radio stations don’t really exist. Then when the sun sets on my picnic table or in the rented cottage I’m suddenly closer to the entire continent and the rest of the world when I turn on my radio. It’s such a powerful feeling to turn through the shortwave dial with no stray RF bumping and buzzing and whining through the frequencies. And then when I look up at night I can almost get a grip on my place in the galaxy. Or at least it feels that way, which is good enough for me.

That didn’t happen this year, so my almost annual trip to see the family in Michigan was even more anticipated. The dusty trail surrounding our galaxy is a little vague in the sky there. And the lights of sad old Flint have their corner of the sky. But the stars are much better. And so is the RF pollution. So, from my brother’s deck at night I still occasionally find my place in the broader circles of existence when the weather’s good. And I hear some radio too.

But that’s not what this post is about. Here I’m featuring the sound of small town radio in daylight. This particular station transmits just south of Flint, and it’s an earnest little heart-warmer. The call letters are WCXI, and this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this modest wonder. It’s a simple classic country outlet. No frills and only a thousand watts. But the music’s great.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 1 of 4
(download)

Brian Barnum (who I believe is the DJ in all four of these airchecks) is rock solid. Great voice. Low key banter. He doesn’t sound all that old, but his approach is old-fashioned. No matter what happens during the breaks between the music, whether he’s doing a live ad or talking about the weather or a local event, he’s usually arranged some seamless way to introduce the next song within the subject matter at hand. He’s almost as good as Tony Oren that way.
                           
I didn’t go through these recordings in any detail, but I did listen to quite a bit of them as I prepared them to post. I heard some hits I knew, some singles I never heard before and a few neo-traditional things I liked quite a bit. My only complaint was that I don’t know that heard any western swing. I mean, you gotta play Bob Wills every once in a while.

As I mentioned, I already posted a few airchecks from WCXI. And I go more in depth into the history of the station in this post. I just happened to catch a few hours during this trip. Just for my own enjoyment, and I thought I should share. There’s some funny whirrish noise on these recordings, which is mostly noticeable during the mic breaks. Some problem with some stray RF combined with some an auto-gain issue with the radio, tape deck or the radio station. If you can get through Brian’s breaks the music will blossom through relatively clear once again. And don’tcha just love a mandolin?

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 2 of 4
(download)

A lot of people associate country music specifically with the American South. But once you get into the broad appeal of the genre you realize that country and western is as at home in the plains of Canada as it is in Kentucky or Texas or California. And in Michigan..well, that’s somewhere in between all that. And there’s lots of southern transplants around Detroit and Flint from the era when the automotive industry was still healthy and profitable.

One thing that’s always been associated with country music is the hardscrabble life, having to make a living with your hands. (Or trying to…) And that’s been part of the southeastern Michigan lifestyle since the settlers arrived. Through the 20th century a lot of farmers came to this part of the country to get the best jobs an unskilled laborer could hope for– building automobiles. Like my grandfathers. But they didn’t live long enough to see their beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brand names disappear into history. Like we are.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 3 of 4
(download)

After you spend some years away from the area of the world that raised you, you start to get a better grip on the character traits of the culture where you learned to be a person. At least that’s been my experience. When I go back to Michigan I don’t so much feel at home as I feel almost reluctantly defined by the unassuming flatlands surrounding Detroit. The rust belt is full of reservation and restraint and a measured way of talking. WCXI always reminded of that introverted Michigan countryside. (Or at least the few miles you can see of it from US-23 out that way.) I hear it in some of the songs as well as their paced and simple approach to broadcasting. And I’m fond of the understated enthusiasm of Brian Barnum on the radio. It kinda reminds me of how I prefer to experience life in the face of adversity. Calm and Michigan. Nothing extra special.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 4 of 4
(download)

The last aircheck here is from the end of their broadcast day. But at least they’re still there, every day until six. And I don’t know for sure, but I suspect WCXI is one of those stations where the DJ’s might still be choosing some, if not all, of the music you hear when they’re on the air. Is that radical or what? Can’t they afford some consultants?

And if you happen to find yourself within the range of their one thousand watt transmitter you might wanna can call in and make a request. But please only one per day. Give everybody a chance.

How I Love My Country

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

A couple weeks ago I went home. Not exactly, but close enough. I went to Michigan. We were subjected to the incredible hospitality of my brother and his family and had a great visit. I spent many hours in their suburban backyard listening to the radio with the recorder engaged, scanning the broadcast bands for my radio series on this blog. As I ford through those tapes and digest all the reception, I thought I’d share something special I found on the AM dial there– WCXI.

During past visits, I hadn’t paid much attention to WCXI. Years ago, a contemporary country station with those call letters at about the same place on the dial was a mainstay in the Detroit market, and when I came across it I just assumed it was the same station. It isn’t. The old WCXI ceased to exist in the early 1990’s, and their AM frequency (1130 kHz) is now the home of yet ANOTHER sports talk station. This WCXI, based out of Fenton, Michigan (just southwest of Flint) broadcasts at 1160 on the dial, and grabbed up the old call letters in 2000 to help brand their new “classic country” format in southeastern Michigan. And six years later, in an era where AM dial music stations across the country have been almost completely replaced by talk, news, sports and ethnic brokered programming, WCXI is bucking this trend and doing it the old fashioned way.

I don’t know exactly when classic country became a format, but I suspect it occurred in the early 1990’s, coinciding with either the rise of Garth Brooks or the runaway success of Billy Ray Cyrus and his “Achy Breaky Heart.” Country music was changing, and traditional artists and old classics were increasingly left behind on the newly popular “hot country” stations to make way for the new sound. While never a big player in the U.S. radio scene, the classic country format filled a niche out there for an (aging) audience who wanted to hear fiddles, pedal steel guitars, mandolins and rollicking Nashville rave-ups coming out of their radio. And who could blame them.

Well, a decade and a half has passed, and in the world of radio programming that’s a long time. A fringe format that appeals to middle-aged to older listeners doesn’t get a lot of oxygen these days, when advertisers have nearly abandoned trying to sell to anybody older than thirty assuming they are already “brand loyal” (and/or not as easily subject to marketing ploys). In fact, the most successful format for the older set, talk radio, is filled with ads for OLD people. Any talk radio listener quickly becomes familiar with a number of anti-aging supplements and local cancer and heart disease treatment facilities via advertising. Here in New York, I’ve always gotten a good laugh from the jingle for the “Hebrew Home For The Aged” with the lyrics– “This is the place you’ll remember…” I don’t think so.

Not so on WCXI. The advertising is almost embarrassingly intimate, and not cynically based on demographic studies and focus groups. Almost all the ads I heard on WCXI were live D.J.’s reading ad copy, not produced spots and nothing national. It’s advertising for adults, not just senior citizens, with ads for car repair outlets, shops, restaurants and assorted services. You can bet the ad time is CHEAP and the account executives have to work overtime to make a living. Instead of the usual national ad campaigns and overtly-ironic (i.e. Geiko Insurance, etc) jokey stuff, you get earnest appeals to patronize striving local businesses. For people who love this station, it’s easy to imagine they might be swayed by an ad on WCXI just as a way of supporting the music they bring into their lives everyday. It’s the way advertising was supposed to work.

And why or how in 2006 could a station playing grandad’s hillbilly favorites survive, and possibly thrive, north of the Mason-Dixon line? It probably has something to do with vehicles.

Much of the glory and tragedy of southeastern Michigan is based in the automotive industry. In the early to mid-20th century, the area thrived making cars and car parts for America and the world. Decades ago, when the U.S. was transforming from a rural economy to an industrial one, landing a job in the automotive industry was an unprecedented surefire ticket to a middle class life for unskilled workers. And not unlike today’s influx of immigrants across the Mexican border, many thousands of job hungry Americans from the south and southern midwest flooded into southeastern Michigan looking for profitable work they couldn’t find in their region of the country. I can trace my own origin to this migration as both my grandfathers came to Michigan from farming communities south of the state to build cars and trucks for the rest of their lives.

This migration brought a southern flavor to parts of lower Michigan. When I was younger, small towns like Ypsilanti and Walled Lake were jokingly referred to as Ypsi-tucky or Wall-tucky, in reference to the number of the twangy accents you might find there. I once met a teenage girl who was born and raised in Saline, Michigan who had a genuine Tennessee hills accent, despite spending her whole life an hour away from the Canadian border.

Of course, country and western music is now popular all over North America and around the world. But the older and more traditional stuff  is rarely heard on the radio these days (except for certain shows on non-commercial stations). While I don’t have the facts and figures to prove it, you can imagine that there are still some full-time classic country stations in places like Texas and across the south, and most are probably on AM. Then there’s WSM, the AM clear channel powerhouse in Nashville (which can be heard many nights across eastern North America). Still the home of the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night, WSM almost shifted to a talk radio format, but loud protestations from fans of WSM’s country music heritage prevailed, the station did not become a run of the mill propaganda outlet.

Now, those of you who have followed some of my extended musings on this blog know that I listen to a lot of talk radio. (And if you’re as sickened and/or bored by all the right wing talk garbage flooding the dial as I am, you know how difficult this can be.) However, I still I have a soft spot in my heart (or my head) for AM music radio, specifically stations that program music originally made to be played on AM (or jukeboxes). Call me strange, or old fashioned (you wouldn’t be the first), but I sort of PREFER to hear old pop music on AM instead of FM, or in any digitally rendered scenario. I often find it jarring to hear an old song I grew up with in hi-fi stereo on an FM oldies station. It just sounds wrong. I enjoy the old hits in mono, as well as limited, compressed and modulated in an amplitude fashion. But I don’t experience them that way very often these days.

As I noted in an earlier post, there is not one full-time English language music station on the AM dial in New York City. And not only is music leaving the AM dial in general, but commercial radio formats across the board have dropped almost any songs recorded before the 1960’s or 70’s. So, it doesn’t take a psychic to realize that classic country stations like WCXI aren’t going to be around forever. And while I was recording faraway AM and shortwave reception by night, I was having a blast cranking up WCXI around the house and in the car during the day. Toward the end of my trip, I realized I really needed to capture some WCXI to take home.

So, here’s all the WCXI I managed to tape while I was in Michigan, all available below for your downloading and listening pleasure.

This is "Sweet Sue" filling in on Friday for the regular host, Brian, who apparently had some car trouble that day.

WCXI – 07-07-06 pt 1  47:03

(download)

WCXI – 07-07-06 pt 2  47:02

(download)

WCXI – 07-07-06 pt 3  47:02

(download)

I’m not sure if the DJ in the recordings below ever mentioned his name on these recordings. In fact, he sounds like he’s been on the radio for all of a month. But that’s okay, he tries hard enough and seems to get all the song titles and product names right. (The little bit of buzzing and whining interference you hear on these recordings thankfully dissipates quickly.).

WCXI – 07-08-06 pt 1  55:38

(download)

WCXI – 07-08-06 pt 2  56:27

(download)

As you can hear, WCXI is obviously a low budget operation. While the jocks are endearing, a lot of the air talent I heard on the station had a bit of a “minimum wage” quality– lots of goofs, repetition and cornball sentiment. But I gotta tell you, when I travel around the U.S. I kinda like to hear the sound of earnest amateur announcers on local radio. It can help flush some of the accumulated irony out of your media intake valves.

If you love old country music, or the sound of REALLY local smalltown radio, you may find a lot to love about WCXI. To get the full effect, take your MP3 player out in the car and hook it up to your stereo and take a drive down a lonely two lane road somewhere on a sunny day. It doesn’t have to be a flat tree-lined Michigan highway to have the same effect.

I also have another post about WCXI which includes almost four more hours of airchecks. You can find it right here.

 (This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)