Comments from The Outpost

15 November 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening. It's been a few weeks since my last comments from the Outpost, and in that time, any number of major events have taken place around town and around the world. I'm not going to talk about any of them, however, but rather reflect on a topic very close to home, namely this radio station.

As you've surely heard by now, this is our annual fund drive, and we're also celebrating 35 years of FM broadcasting -- or perhaps I should say, Celebrating 35 years of radio excellence...which is 10 more than NPR. Yes, this station has been on the air for 35 years. The actual anniversary was last April. And if you're interested in other details of the history of WMBR, I invite you to visit our web site,, and follow the links to "about wmbr" and then "station history".

What I want to talk about, though, is not so much the facts of our existence these past 35 years, but rather the unique aspects of the radio that has been produced here and its relationship to other stations here and elsewhere.

WMBR is a total anacronism! A station still doing, in a way, what many stations did 50 or 60 years ago, and no one, but NO ONE, does today! Yes, in the early days of radio, a particular station might have popular music part of the day, classical in another part, a lengthy news broadcast in the early evening, live broadcasts from a bandstand or theater, folksy commentators, and on Sunday morning, a live broadcast of a service from a local church. All on one station!

Over the years, as the number of radio stations and other media increased, and as advertisers became more and more technical in their approach to reaching the market, radio stations became more and more specialized and fragmented. Today, the rule in commercial radio is that a station carries exactly one kind of programming 24 hours a days, 7 days a week. And, that one kind is calculated, yes I say "calculated", to appeal to an audience of a certain age, gender, income, lifestyle, etc. so as to be able to deliver that particular audience to the advertiser.

Yes, when you listen to commercial radio, you may think you're getting something for free. But what's actually happening is that you are being sold by the station to the advertiser! It's the advertiser who pays the money, and the product he's buying is you, the audience.

Now I don't mean to disparage commercial radio, and I've been involved in it often over many years. It is a symbiotic relationship -- you, the station, and the advertiser, and it provides the benefit of entertainment to the audience.

But it doesn't provide much variety, and as I see it, not much opportunity for creativity or innovation, particularly in recent years as programming continues its trend to becoming ever more of an engineering discipline and ever less of an art. You see, I still have this crazy idea that radio can be a medium of art! That it can afford a means of expression for the artist and a source of stimulation for the listener that informs, questions, affects, perturbs, amuses, amazes, and otherwise acts in a manner comparable to other recognized forms of art.

Even programming a series of recordings can be done artistically, but you're not likely to hear that on commercial radio where the music selection is arranged by computers working from the latest polling data. That's where a station like WMBR comes in. Our DJs program their own shows, using whatever unfathomable spirit, inspiration, or impulse happens to move them on that occasion. Yes, most shows have a general style which you may come to expect, but within that ballpark, there is the opportunity to select and arrange recording to create something that is more than the sum of the parts.

In other dimensions also, WMBR has been a place where innovation can take place over these past 35 years. Some of the people who created the formats that are now a staple of commercial radio came through here and found here an opportunity to experiment with their ideas. As various musical styles appeared and evolved, this station was often one of the first on which they could be heard. Commercial radio, after all, wants to know that the audience is already there for whatever type of music they broadcast, and it's from stations like like that various audiences get a chance to develop.

Even as commerical radio has become more fractured and predictable over the past three and a half decades, public radio too has become more professional but less experimental and innovative. As one example, in the 1960s, WBUR was a student and community run radio station much like WMBR, but in the late 60s, BU decided to change it into a professionally staffed station and NPR affiliate. Today, WBUR provides many excellent and unique programs to our area, but not the experimental, obscure, esoteric, or just plain crazy stuff which you can find here on WMBR.

You can also find here on WMBR programming from a diverse mix of ethnic, cultural, national, racial and other constituencies. Such programming serves not only those particular constituencies, but others as well who may wish to experience or be informed by diverse backgrounds and views.

Yes, the amazing thing is that all this different stuff, all this diversity, is here on this one radio station in total denial of how radio is supposed to be done these days. It's absolutely the wrong thing to do according to the prevailing wisdom of contemporary radio programming, and it's what virtually no other station does. With luck though, and with a little help from our friends, we'll keep on doing it.

And remember, WMBR is like New England weather. Don't like what you're hearing at the moment? Stick around, it'll change.

That's why I like to think that what WMBR really stands for is...

Way Much Better Radio!

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.