lamenting the loss of the sound – in proven “rant” format

Yesterday the Edmonton radio station 95.7 The Sound went through some ch-ch-ch-changes. Instead of playing music by local acts, they’ll now be playing Katy Perry. Instead of providing opportunities to further the careers of local musicians, they’ll now be going to shopping malls dressed in Santa costumes. Instead of the community focus being at the heart of the station, they’ll now just be another frequency transmitting music as a commodity.

The Sound, only a few months old, was already having a huge positive impact in the Edmonton music scene. That has now been replaced with more background noise for people working in cubicles. It’s just another faceless business trying to make a profit.

There’s a long history of this happening in the radio business. In the 1980s, the chance of unpopular bands being heard on mainstream radio was nonexistent. By the end of the 1970s, independent FM radio stations had been replaced by ‘album-oriented rock’ (AOR) format. Nineteen year old Lee Abrams ‘consulted’ for one radio station in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1972. Abrams changed the format; the station no longer played ‘Top 40’ singles. Instead, the station focused on ‘the superstars’ of rock and roll, such as the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.

The format called for playing various songs from these artists’ albums that were not released as singles. Rather than having the airwaves transmit a diverse range of music, only songs by the most popular artists were broadcast. While chances were better that the casual listener heard a song they were accustomed to and thereby more probable to like when they turned on their radio, album-orientated rock reduced the number of musicians making it on the airwaves.

The format was incredibly popular and profitable. Abrams consulted for more than 100 radio stations by 1979, and many of the remaining markets were controlled by imitators who had co-opted Abrams idea.[1] Music being marketed as a commodity by FM stations was, of course, not a unique occurance. In this form, however, it severely limited the ability of artists that were not in the top echelon of the music business to achieve mainstream attention.

With mainstream radio stations focusing on the AOR format, college radio stations began to promote music outside FM attention. In On the Road to Nirvana, Gina Arnold discusses how colleges all over the United States in the late 1970s concurrently began to play the music that was neglected by the AOR format. Arnold traces college radio stations from across America as they created a network of stations that emphasized the tastes of people outside of the status quo. Arnold argues that this network  “provid[ed] all the bands within a community with a way in which to prosper.”[2]

These radio stations were vital to the American punk community. Not until 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” would the bands played on the college radio network really break into the mainstream. Then you have all the imitators rushing to catch up to the new format rather than setting the trends.

95.7 The Sound was doing something unique in Edmonton – they were a mainstream radio station playing music outside of a proven format. They were playing the contemporary Canadian equivalents of the bands played by college stations in the 1980s. There was the chance that it could lead to something great, but now things have gone back to the status quo, otherwise known as  the “soft adult contemporary” format.

It’s a shame that the suits didn’t give the Sound more time to build a bigger following in the city. They might have had graphs and stats and synergy, but no real grasp of what the station was beginning to accomplish. And  it was only going to grow further. Maybe being in offices a province over was stopping them from getting their fingers on the pulse of what was happening in this city, or maximizing profits now was chosen over long-term gain. It’s a shame that there will no longer be people in 95.7 The Sound hoodies at local shows, looking for talent and immersing themselves in the music community.

There’s already a hole to fill with the Sound’s passing. But hopefully another station will begin broadcasting that won’t shy away from innovation – joining the ranks of CKUA, CJSR, and CBC in doing things differently, providing opportunities, and building community.

[1] Danny Goldberg, Bumping into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business. (Toronto: Gotham Books, 2008), p. 119-120.

[2] Arnold, 23. Arnold goes on to say that “the college radio effect happened at the same time in obscure tiny towns all over America – at Oberlin in Ohio, at Florida State, at Evergreen in Olympia, Washington…anyplace where there was a bunch of bored and frustrated white kids with large record collections, and one kid in particular with the will to make things happen.”

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6 Comments on “lamenting the loss of the sound – in proven “rant” format”

  1. Lime Says:

    Well damn. It looks like I missed the entire existence of The Sound as a non-Kate Perry oriented organisation. Here’s a history question for you. Whatever happened to the old pirate radio station operated out of motorhomes and offshore vessels? Does anybody still do that anymore?

  2. reagan mcguire Says:

    i am SO upset that the sound is no longer!! it was the ONLY radio station that i enjoyed for the first time in years!! the lite SUCKS!!!!! i am truly devastated :(

  3. This blog past has been turned into an article in the Edmonton Journal, check it out here:

  4. There is also an interesting “discussion” about the article and the format change here:

  5. […] other day, the Past is Unwritten hit the newspaper stand. The blog post “Lamenting the Loss of the Sound” was transformed (magically and through an editing process) into an Op-ed article. It was published […]

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