Why WREK is WREK
Markus De Shon was a music director at WREK Atlanta for more than three years. He recieved a Masters Degree in Health Physics and a Doctorate. During his 3+ years of deciding what is or is not appropriate for airplay on the World’s Greatest Radio Station, he had plenty of time to consider what exactly makes something appropriate. When we asked Markus to deliver an address to the station’s staff last fall concerning our philosophical grounding, we knew we would not be disappointed by the results. As it turned out, we were amazed by the degree to which Markus enunciated our philosophy, so we asked him to write the following article. Once again we are not disappointed. So sit back and enjoy this explanation of why WREK is WREK.
WREK presents a sometimes bewildering array of music, but it is only a small fraction of the music which is sent to us. How is it that I (for I can only speak for myself) choose what we should play on WREK? What do I believe our mission is in things musical? Above all else, there is one principle which guides me, which is as follows:
Music is Sacred. By that I mean that music is part of what makes us human. It is a mode of communication which transcends (undercuts?) language. Emotional states can be communicated directly. I don’t pretend that this is an original thought, nor do I think that music is the only way to communicate in such a fashion. However, I do feel very strongly that music is not something to be thought of lightly. I think that our regular listeners probably feel similarly, but perhaps would not use such religious terminology. I do, because the sense of something being important beyond worldly concerns best expresses the way I feel about music.
Music has become big business. Millions of dollars can be made (and lost) in the music “industry” on a single recording. There are multitudes of people that think of music as a commodity not unlike soft drinks. Every week, I speak to people on the phone who refer to recordings as “units” or “product”. They say: “I sent you some product last week,” or “We are really moving some units on this one.” I don’t blame those people for thinking in that way. After all, they are in business, and the point of business is to make money. However, I must say that I find thinking this way about music loathsome. In these phone conversations, those on the other end will say anything that they think I want to hear: “What is your format?” “Diverse.” “What kinds of music do you play?” “Rock, rap, reggae, blues, jazz, classical, international, experimental.” “Well, this album is a rock album with a rap beat and a reggae groove, with bluesy elements. They get kinda jazzy sometimes, but they are classically trained, and one of the guys is from Germany. They mess with the settings on their pedals a lot, too, so it’s sort of experimental.” Clearly I cannot go by what people tell me on the phone.
For the sake of profit, particular recordings are singled out by record company executives (I do not know or care to know the exact process for this) for their potential commercial value, and these are then “pushed”. “Buzz” is generated, and nauseatingly frequent airplay on commercial stations (and, unfortunately, some noncommercial stations as well) thrusts the songs into consumer’s minds. The predicted success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the way that I describe this process seems awkward and ridiculous, it is because the process itself is awkward and ridiculous.
Note that this type of thinking is really only prevalent in the rock music industry and, to a lesser extent, blues. This is in direct proportion to their commercial value. A large proportion of jazz, experimental, international, and classical music is of high artistic value, since most people involved in making it are people interested in artistic expression, and not commercial success. I don’t mean to denigrate those who would like to gain success in music. If a band (or person) is expressing themselves musically, and they become successful doing so, that is great. If a band is abusing the musical medium just to attain success, then they are on nearly the same level as those who use the talent of musicians for their own financial gain, i.e. unscrupulous record companies. Make no mistake, by and by large record companies care not a whit what kind of music they are selling. If recordings of broken air conditioner noise were suddenly to become popular, record companies would push those with exactly the same fervor as they currently push rock recordings.
If music is sacred, then the question of what should be played must become completely independent of commercial concerns. We at WREK realize that we are in a unique position. We are a station in a major metropolitan area, with an unusually large amount of power for a college station (If you look at a list of all the college radio stations in the United States, our high power and location puts us in the top 10 in terms of size). At the same time, we are noncommercial and completely student-owned and -operated. Finally, and perhaps most critically, almost none of the people who work at WREK will be going on to careers in the music industry, music press, or commercial radio. We are scientists and engineers. Thus, we are completely free of any pressures which could potentially be put on us through promises of future employment, or threats of withdrawal of same (Occasionally WREK staffers hear rumors of programming being done on the basis of job offers at certain other college stations. Such as a program director attempting to get a job with a label like Geffen and influencing the programming to “get in good” with that label) . We don’t have to care about whom we piss off. So, we are free to choose music in any way that we wish.
Does it not seem obvious, then, that we should–nay, must–choose the best music which is available to us? To simply rehash what others are doing, particularly what commercial radio is doing, would be criminal. In the religious terminology that I am using, it would be a sin. What, then, constitutes the “best” music? Kurt Weill said “There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” If music is sacred because it is emotional communication, then music which effectively communicates the emotions of the artist is “good” music. I believe that we all have enough in common that if an artist is communicating effectively, we cannot help but be struck by those same emotions. Therefore, the way I choose music is primarily emotional–the music that resonates in me most effectively, i.e. touches my soul, is the music that I then want to have played on the air at WREK. That is the primary consideration; there are reservations, which I will now attempt to explain.
The first is that the recording in question is not receiving airplay elsewhere. I don’t believe that WREK should be covering the same ground as other radio stations in the Atlanta area, because it is simply wasteful.
The second concerns particular musical genres. If a particular genre has received a lot of exposure, i.e. has become part of mainstream musical tastes, and if a recording is well within the bounds of that genre, i.e. does not show significant innovation, then we do not play the recording, regardless of it’s quality.
Since most people these days seem to be most concerned with what’s happening in the world of rock, let me try to explain what I mean in terms of rock music. I would like to be able to look at rock as just one large category, but there seems to be a self-organization which goes on within that category. Bands think of themselves as punk, grunge, metal, pop, or whatever, or maybe some-ridiculously- hyphenated-combination-of-categories. One would hope that a band would simply express themselves as best they can, and that the categorization would be made by some misguided music critics. But from long listening to many bands, it seems more likely that bands categorize themselves (or perhaps are forced into a category by their record company), and restrict themselves to a particular idiom, such that it takes a conscious effort to operate outside of that idiom. I feel that this is a pretty unfortunate thing, since some styles have a limited emotional range, and are encumbered by certain annoying affections (e.g. metal vocals, pop song structure). I find it a little hard to believe that a band is making a personal expression when its recording sounds indistinguishable from hundreds of others.
Certain such categories which used to be the exclusive domain of college radio have become extremely popular of late, particularly “alternative” music. This is a nebulous category, but nevertheless certain bands identify themselves enough with this classification that their sound is instanly recognizable as such. The opinion of WREK is that “alternative” music is receiving sufficient exposure elsewhere. If a band chooses to be “alternative”, and all their songs are well within the bounds of those categories, then we will not program them at WREK. Note that it is not the case that we believe that “alternative” music is somehow inferior to others. We only feel that they are now a part of the “mainstream” in that they can achieve huge commercial success through promotion on commercial and some noncommercial stations already. Our mission at WREK is to educate the public and ourselves, and thus we would be failing in our mission if we were acting as tools of the record industry in this way.
Choosing music in a primarily emotional way is, of course, a very personal process, and bands which are excluded from airplay because of it may be angry at me. More often, record company executives are angry at me. If they have a better method for selecting music for airplay, I will be glad to hear it. Playing music at their suggestion is not a viable option. There are no objective standards for what constitutes good or bad music (as in: “Oh no, we can’t play that. It has too many notes”). Simply playing everything that is not played elsewhere would result in our listeners hearing some extraordinarily bad music (stay tuned for an “Incredibly Lame Music” special I’m putting together). In the end, the reason that things are done this way is that I am the Music Director. The music in general airplay (anything outside of specialty shows that is not a free cut) are my responsibility, so at least I want them to be my choices.
Selecting music for its emotional content has some very definite effects. One is that it is not an easy thing to listen to WREK. On weekday afternoons it is perhaps easiest, since the music we play then is relatively energetic. At other times, though, emotions can run the gamut. Life is joy and pain and boredom and panic and uncertainty and pride and love and death. Music should be all of these things, too. Therefore, if all of the music on WREK is pretty, and there is no downright ugly music being played, then I am not doing my job. Commercial radio delivers music to you in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks. WREK gives you things that are too damn big to fit in your mouth. One has to hack around on them for a while before one can break them down, or maybe one never can. As long as people make music like that, we will play it.
My first experience with WREK was in the fall of 1986, just after I graduated from high school. I was living in Atlanta, trying to figure out what to do next. I discovered WREK, and listened to it constantly. One minute, they were playing Billie Holiday, the next it was punk, and the next classical. It was a constant learning experience, a constant state of amazement. Although WREK now has a block format (which works better in some ways and worse in others), my foremost goal is to keep our listeners amazed, to keep educating them and ourselves. I have attempted to explain my views (and those of many working here at WREK) in a logical way. But, as mentioned before, the selection of music for airplay on WREK is a primarily emotional process, which I believe is the most practical way to go about it. Perhaps my point of view sounds somewhat arrogant or pretentious. As I mentioned before, I believe that WREK is in a unique position in radio in the United States, and since I believe music is very important, then clearly WREK is important. So, I take the selection of music for WREK very seriously. If that makes me sound arrogant, so be it, although that is not my intent. I am just trying doing what I think is best for WREK, and doing it to the best of my ability. I can only hope that my contribution to WREK is at least a measurable fraction of what WREK gives to me.
by Markus De Shon, 1995.