To Change the Channel

I listen to the radio every morning.  As I drive, I get news, commentary, interviews with interesting people, and sometimes a bit of music.  It’s an hour of contemplation, introspection, and peace which serves to enhance my sanity and overall wellbeing.  I’ve come to know and love the hosts of the morning programs and, in a way, to consider them friends.  They’re like passengers in my car – guests whom I can tune-out with a flick of the channel button.  I don’t know what I’d do if I got a job closer to home.  Would I drive around the countryside for an hour, listening to the radio programs that I like so much?  Probably not.  Perhaps I could record the programs, and listen at my leisure.  But that just doesn’t seem right; that just isn’t Radio.

I listen to Travis T. Hipp on KVMR at 7:30AM.  I plan my mornings accordingly, making sure that I am on the road and off the phone, tuned-in and ready at the appointed hour.  It’s a short program, him providing perhaps five minutes of commentary.   He usually seems to have unique angle on current events, and almost always cracks me up.  I don’t know anything about his sources, but he always reports on the lesser-known aspects of top news stories, which he uses to compose his low-key tirades.   The radio-show host-du-jour calls Travis by phone at the appointed hour, introducing him “With all the news you never knew you needed to know until now.”  He opens with something like “Well, it looks like congress did it again…” or “Things are really falling apart in the Middle East…” and probably delivers his signature line, “Sometimes I wonder, other times I’m sure.”  The good ol’ cynical optimist, Travis T. Hipp.

Usually there is music right before Travis.  In radio-studio lingo, this is “bumper music,” because it provides a cushion between the end of the preceding segment and the beginning of the next.  Bumper music is very important – not only because dead-air really sucks – but because it can clue the audience in to what is coming up.  Thursday’s radio host would always play the same song.  It was a jazz piece, with a repeating theme that lasted for several minutes, and an improv section in the middle.  The very first time I heard it, it annoyed me.  I heard the melody, and thought it might be a variation on Dave Brubeck’s classic, Take Five.  After listening for a minute or so, I saw that it was not the same, but very similar, including similar changes.

I heard the same song again the following week, at about the same time of day, and the week after.  Each time I heard it, I felt a little bit more annoyed.   I began to hum the Brubeck song back at the radio during this bumper music, trying to overpower it.  The two melodies sort of fit together, which actually made me more upset, as it seemed to prove that the song was in fact a rehash of the classic piece.  I began to talk back to the Thursday radio host, telling him this song was appalling, asking why he would continue to play it.  I started to resent the fact that he ignored my rising wrath.  Stewing in impotent fury, I changed the channel – only to switch back quickly in fear of missing Travis.

Over the following months, I grew to hate the song.  I no longer tried to evade it – nay, I tuned in early, and waited in anticipation to find out if, on this day, my foolish passenger-of-the-airwaves would indeed present his vile and ill-conceived bumper music once again to my exposed and allergic ear.   I began sowing the seeds of a grass roots campaign against the song, pointing out the obvious plagiarism of Take 5 – my all-time favorite piece of music – to my daughter, and then my wife, on the occasions that they happened to ride with me of a Thursday morning.  I knew I needed to take action.

I decided to write a letter to the foolish radio host.  I knew I could not do so on a Thursday morning, as my ire was sure to show through my words, and I did not want to appear rude.  So I waited until Friday afternoon, when I could calmly communicate with the man in the radio, and direct his attention to the error in his ways.  I emailed him:

Dear sir,

Every Thursday morning, I hear the same song a few minutes before Travis T. Hipp.   I don’t know the name of the piece, but it’s an obvious rip-off of Brubeck’s “Take 5.”  I suppose some people might like the song – the solos are very good – but, for me, every time it comes back to the main theme it’s like chewing tin-foil.  I think really hard at the radio, “If you want to play the Brubeck song, just play it!” hoping the musicians will hear me.  This perversion of the classic melody is just wrong.  I would rather sit and pick stickers out of my socks than hear it one more time.

Namaste,
Andy

I re-read it several times, editing out my more inflammatory remarks, before I settled on the text above.  Using the closing salutation “Namaste” seemed like a nice touch – to encourage a feeling of peace between myself and my invisible friend.  I clicked the send button, and waited for a response.

I never heard back from the radio host.  All week long, I wondered – is he angry?  Will he defend himself on the radio?  Humiliate me publicly for daring to criticize his choice of bumper music?  On the other hand, perhaps he is spending a few days listening to both pieces of music, evaluating my comments, and preparing to respond in a deeply informed manner.   I just knew there had to be something going on at the other end of the radio channel.  This silence had to mean that my arrow had found its mark.  I waited (impatiently) all week, until Thursday morning, and then mentally gathered around my car radio to listen to the response.  At 7:30 sharp, on came Travis T. Hipp.  There had been a different song – a country western song – played before.  The bumper music had been changed!

My elation seemed to bathe the inside of my car in a nebulous glow.  I had been victorious!  It was incredible!  I had overpowered the will of the radio station with a single email!  How easy it had been, to simply reach out and change the channel (to re-coin an old phrase) for the betterment of all who would listen to it in the coming ages.  I made the drive to work that day in the best of spirits, intermittently thanking the Great Architect of the Universe and humming Take 5.  It was a good day.

I’d almost forgotten the whole thing by the following week.  It was a routine Thursday: drop my daughter at school, get my morning tea, and tune-in to KVMR.  I was listening to Travis, as usual, when I realized that the host had played a different song this week.  It was not the country song of the week before, nor was it the Brubeck facsimile.  This was some other, random song.  I felt a slight twinge of guilt that I could be partly responsible for this indecisive behavior.  Was it really so hard to come up with bumper music?

The following week it was yet another song.  I was disappointed.  In fact, it was worse than that: I actually began to miss the rip-off tune.  I had gotten sort of used to it, and in a Pavlovian way the routine of hearing that song had served to heighten the anticipation of my favorite news bite.  I still felt that the song had been complete garbage, but it was preferable to have it than simply some haphazard track in its place.  My elation of two weeks prior was wilting, to be replaced with a kind of melancholy unrest, rendering my morning drive just a little less rosy.

By the fourth week of this shabby musicology, I was depressed.  I needed to take action; to undo the wickedness I had wrought.  I called the station.

“Hello?” I recognized the voice – it was him!  To my surprise, the host of the show had answered personally.  I had expected a receptionist, or some other office staff, but apparently the number I had called rang directly into the studio.  In subdued tones, I explained who I was, and how the last few weeks had given me cause to repent.   I expected some kind of retaliatory tirade, or at least a few snide remarks about my earlier overt criticism.  Instead, the man laughed.  “I kinda like the song I was using, but I figured if it was bothering my listeners, I’d take it off.  I haven’t settled on a replacement yet, though, do you have any suggestions?”

I was completely unprepared for this.   Perhaps I should have offered some alternatives when I emailed him in the first place.  It would have made a certain kind of sense to name a song and say “hey, I think this would be a better song than the one you play”, rather than simply demand that my victim cease and desist without recourse.   Further, the manner and tone of his question spoke to the attitude of this radio host: he didn’t really care all that much, one way or another.  The man had not given it much thought, beyond responding to a listener’s comments, and he had certainly been passive to the months and months of progressively seething rage I had experienced.  I was unprepared, and I could offer only this: “The song really isn’t all that bad, why don’t you go back to using it?”

The following week found me tuning into the usual station, at the usual time, and having the usual enjoyment of the regular show.  Sure, that bumper music reminds me of Dave Brubeck’s classic Take 5, but it wasn’t exactly the same.  In fact, the solos are certainly unique – a real master work of instrumental skill, I’d say.  And what if it was reminiscent of the earlier song?  How many different melodies are even possible in the world?  It should be no surprise that, over time, great minds would think in the same refrain.  And why should it bother me?  I’m not even much of a Jazz fan, really – I think Take 5 is the only song I can actually name in that genre.

In the weeks immediately following my talk with the radio host, I found myself humming along with the melody I had once shunned.  It was a nice feeling, like a little bit of weight had been removed from my belt, as I swam the surface of my daily waters.  Such is the power of song that a good jingle is infectious, and sticks with you through the day.  And today, after some years have passed, I hear the song, and I wonder:  “What was it that bothered me so much?”  But I can’t really say, and I suppose I’ll never know.