Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rock and roll will never die

I don’t know why I continue to read the USA Today pop culture blog, since it almost always focuses either on pop culture in which I am totally disinterested, or pop culture which is so mainstream that I can get information about it in dozens of other places, or pop culture in which I am interested and which is not overexposed, but gets very shallow treatment in the blog itself. I stumbled across it back in 2002 or so, when it was an online column because nobody knew what a “blog” was, and I guess I’ve continuously kept it in my feed ever since out of nostalgia and inertia. But speaking of nostalgia, I’m indebted to Pop Candy for a piece of information it passed along to me yesterday: the return of WHFS.

I think I’ve mentioned this radio station before, but just to quickly bring everyone up to speed: WHFS was a Baltimore/DC FM station with a modern alternative rock format that probably had its heyday in the 1990’s, which happened to be when I was visiting Northern Virginia a lot as a college student and then relocating more or less permanently after graduation. I’m pretty sure it was the first station I programmed into my car stereo presets when I moved to Ashburn in 1996, and I listened to it almost exclusively. They played a lot of music I liked and introduced me to a lot more I would learn to love. And then, in 2005, 99.1 FM switched from WHFS and the alt-rock line-up to WLZL (El Zol!) with a Spanish language format, and that was a huge bummer.

I own an iPod and my car has a CD player, and my wife (technically my girlfriend at the time) even had a subscription to satellite radio, so it’s not as though losing HFS meant I couldn’t listen to alternative rock any more. But it was the “learn to love” part that I really missed. I enjoy re-listening to my all-time favorites as much as the next person, but I think I’m a little outside the median consensus of opinion when it comes to my desire to be exposed to new bands, new sounds, and so on. But I know what I like, and I know I tend to like stuff that’s similar but not exactly the same as what I’ve previously enjoyed, and that was what was so great about HFS: they played new stuff all the time, and because all of it more or less fell into that nebulous I-know-it-when-I-hear-it realm of alt-rock, I tended to groove on most of it. I never wanted to become one of those people who amasses a hundred or so CDs and says “OK, that’s good, I’m done, I can listen to these over and over again for the rest of my life” and never moves beyond that and ends up not knowing the first thing about any bands who’ve hit the scene in the past twenty years. I like being a little more plugged in than that. I know this is an incredibly inconsequential thing to spare a moment’s thought about, but there it is.

And BOOM goes the Big Audio Dynamite
So of course upon reading that HFS was back (now at 97.5 FM) I was ecstatic. I was barely able to restrain myself from sprinting from the evening train to my car in the parking garage, and I dialed up the frequency as soon as the engine turned over. Only to find that, apparently, Manassas is just a hair outside the broadcast range of a now-Baltimore-only radio station. Ah, fiddlesticks.

But there’s two or three bright sides here. One, maybe HFS will rise from the ashes and keep growing, and maybe their broadcast will get a secondary location once again. (I know I’m not going anywhere for a while, so we shall see whether or not they do.) And two, the whole wide world is a lot more interwebby than it was back in 1996. Online streaming is commonplace, and the latest incarnation of HFS is all over it. Granted, I have always tended to listen to the radio more in my car than anywhere else, but I spend enough time focused on or proximate to computers that I should be able to hear some broadcasting via their website now and then. Plus, the HFS site has an offering which I think every radio station’s website should feature (and maybe at this point they do; I can’t overemphasize how much I gave up on corporate radio as anything other than a cheap source of dinosaur-rock background music when HFS went off the air): their playlist.

I loves me some lists! And scanning down the last twenty or so songs that have been aired at any given point in the day yields some interesting results for me. I probably will know about fifteen of those twenty songs, three or so will be new songs by bands I’m reasonably familiar with, and one or two might be completely revelatory to my out-of-the-loop sensibilities. Which at the very least gives me a starting point if I want to do some serious investigating on my own time. I tend to think that iTunes in and of itself is too wide open for me to simply start wading around looking for a new band to latch onto. And music reviews always have struck me as a little too abstract to convey, beyond whether or not an album is worthy of respect or disdain, whether or not I personally would enjoy it. But for years and years of being a twenty-something with the radio on in the car, the WHFS stamp of approval was usually a remarkably reliable indicator. So it’s nice to have that back within reach, in whatever format I can get it.

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