Left of the Dial – A Special Monthly Column

Written by on November 29, 2023

Left of the Dial – A Special Monthly Column – by Mike Stampalia.

Begin the day with a friendly voice

A companion, unobtrusive

Plays that song that’s so elusive

And the magic music makes your morning mood

“The Spirt of Radio” – Song by Rush, lyrics by Neil Peart, 1980.

I like Spotify.

Each month, I shell out 17 bucks so that my family and I can listen to (pretty much) any music we want, whenever we want to. Sure, there are holes – Neil and Joni and some others are glaring omissions. But for a big music dork like me, the ability to just pull up a song whenever it crosses my mind is worth it.

Sirius XM is okay, too.

Sometimes I’m in the mood to (just) listen to hair metal, or blues, or outlaw country, or the deepest cuts from Bruce I can find. And it is nice to have a channel that’s out there, waiting to deliver exactly that. It’s fun. For a while…

But I inevitably get bored. Spotify is a musical echo chamber. It either plays you exactly what you tell it to, or it tries to figure out what is most like what you already like. It’s musical social media, and I think we can all agree, social media is garbage. Sirius XM is mostly just a cross between “random play” and an algorithm built around painfully small playlists. I mean, if I’m listening to “Deep Tracks,” I shouldn’t hear “TVC 15” four times a week. Pretty sure Bowie has a deeper catalog than that.

No, what I always end up seeking out is surprise. Discovery. Curation. EXCITEMENT.

I need a DJ. Not an algorithm, not a playlist. A real-life person who is going to presume to tell me what I’m missing out on, musically. Somebody who has thought – DEEPLY – about how that last song will segue into this next song. Someone for whom the music they are playing is important, down to the smallest detail, and who’s going to tell me about it. Someone who’s going to introduce me to something I haven’t heard before.

The world has grown to believe it doesn’t need DJs anymore. But the world is wrong.

Rush – the legendary band that created the song cited at the top of this column – tends to divide listeners into two camps: those who recognize the group as unparalleled musicians and songwriters who made some of the most enduring and mind-blowing music the rock world has ever heard, and those who are wrong. But the truth is, in 1974, Rush were perilously close to being relegated to obscurity as no-talent Zeppelin-wannabes before they ever got started. But for one lonely DJ by the name of Donna Halper, who listened to the unknown Canadian band, determined that the too-long (by common wisdom) “Working Man” would appeal to her factory-town Cleveland audience, and began to play them. 40 million records later, a lot of people came to hear what Ms. Halper heard.

There are, of course, the high-profile DJs.

John Peel, the famed English DJ on BBC Radio 1, was a relentless and immensely influential champion of new, boundary-pushing music. Commonly accepted as the first man to put the Ramones on the radio in the UK, he also championed David Bowie well before he “broke” onto the world stage. He steadfastly kept playing the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” after it had been banned, was onto Nirvana very very early, and was instrumental to the success of both the Specials and Happy Mondays. That’s some range.

The recently departed, her-name-is-better-than-your-name, Dusty Street was impossible to pigeonhole. Known for boosting up-and-coming new wave acts such as Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, she was also a big proponent of punk, blues, jazz, and just about anything else, as long as it was good. She was the first American DJ to play Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” proudly self-identified as a “goth,” and was fired from KROQ after a Corporate takeover. Dusty had something to tell all of us, and she didn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of that.

Jim “The Last DJ” Ladd’s whole identity is tied to an almost religious devotion to the importance of “free-form” radio. And he’s right. Free-form radio is where the music is hand-picked by the DJ, and not constrained by playlists, formatting, time constraints, or commercialism in general. As a young DJ, while on-air, he got a phone call from anti-war protesters in LA’s Griffith Park, saying they were listening to him during the protest. He immediately pivoted into a set that included the Doors “Unknown Soldier” and Lennon’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” amongst others. Can you imagine that happening on today’s commercial stations? Me neither.

And let’s not forget the true unsung hero: the College Radio DJ. Is it all good? Absolutely not, there’s an awful lot of self-indulgent, unlistenable garbage out there. But, oh man, if you want to hear something new and exciting, this is where you’ll find it. College radio is where I first heard the Smiths and Big Black. It’s where I first heard house music, years before it would find a home on the QE2’s dance floor on Tuesday nights. It’s where I first heard Public Enemy, and “Cooky Puss” by some unknown drunken idiots calling themselves the Beastie Boys. More recently, it’s where I first heard Bright Dog Red, the jazzy, improvisational, avant-in-the-best-sense-of-the-word group from right here in Albany. Check them out, thank me later.

You don’t outgrow college radio when you turn 23.

Let’s not overlook the importance of a local connection. What you hear on Sirius XM comes from some anonymous suit’s laptop somewhere. The very-English John Peel, based out of the UK, was a monumental DJ, but ultimately could never be “my” DJ for that reason. Ladd was nothing if not West Coast, so while I may love what he did, it doesn’t “speak to me” the same way I’m sure it did for those kids in Griffith Park. I want my DJs to be from HERE. I want them plugged into our local bands, knowing who’s coming to town, and just generally to appreciate and “feel” the Upstate NY vibe. The Capital District is not NYC, Troy is not Albany, and neither one is Saratoga. I want someone who understands that and can connect musically to those of us who live right HERE, right NOW.
So, I implore you: take your musical life off random. We have great choices here. Radioradiox is based out of Cohoes, has DJ-curated free-form music every morning and evening, and is beautifully independent and local-focused. We have great college stations – WCDB (SUNY Albany), WRPI (RPI), and WSPN (Skidmore) to name just a few. Don’t overlook public radio – these are not your parents’ public radio stations. There is some great music on them. And if you find yourself flipping aimlessly around the dial, vaguely disappointed and wondering what’s missing…

It’s probably a good DJ.

As we celebrate mediocrity

All the boys upstairs want to see

How much you’ll pay for

What you used to get for free

There goes the last DJ

Who plays what he wants to play

Who says what he wants to say

Hey hey hey

“The Last DJ” – Song by Tom Petty, lyrics by Tom Petty, 2002.


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