Like An Old Friend

After explaining to Robert my plan for changing the music industry, I whipped around the corner to my cubicle. A voicemail! What a nice surprise. It's always great to see that someone loves you, or at least needs your help with some spreadsheets. But just as I entered my voicemail code, nature called. It made sense. I had just downed a can of Coca-Cola with my delicious Lazzara's pepperoni pizza, a healthy staple in the Stereophile office. On my way out of the loo, I noticed a little black power chord next to the trash stack. Another gift awaited me, this one much better than a voicemail. I picked it up, and it did not take much time for me to decide I was going to take this "trash" back to my desk.

The Sony Radio Cassette-Corder CFM-10 is an unassuming little piece of electronics. I remember back in 1995, while the devastating Hurricane Opal tore across the state of Alabama, my family crouched on the laundry room floor with a cheap green lantern giving us light. My little sister and I were wrapped up in oversized, itchy wool blankets, laughing and joking, while Opal wreaked havoc and destroyed lives. We listened to the wind howling against the house, huge tree branches cracking and crashing to the ground, as we awaited word from weather-god James Spann who spoke from a little black cassette-corder like the one I had just found.

Thursday, June 26, 2008. Lunchtime at Source Interlink Media. Robert comes by my cubicle and Stephen's luxurious penthouse-suite of an office, "Pony up guys. Pizza's here." We head to the conference room joined by half our publishing team: Luke, Rosemarie, and Angela. Random conversations jumped around varying from evil Nazi dentists invading your brains to singing monks landing record deals. One of our conversations was about the death of radio. This only added more fuel to the excitement of my find. This radio was not dead. It was alive and plugged in. Somebody thought it was worth nothing, but to me, on a day when I'd forgotten my headphones to listen to Pandora Radio on the computer, it meant the world.

On my first 30-minute session with the little guy—on station 92.3 WXRK, K-Rock—the first station I got a clear signal from, I heard:

1. "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses (How can you not be a prototypical rock station without a little G&R?)
2. "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay (who are having issues of their own lately)
3. "Brain Stew" by Green Day (a favorite cover song in the early days of my high school band, Pigeon)
4. "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix (the first rock song I learned to play on the guitar)
5. "One" by Metallica (Just completely awesome—I was air-drumming like crazy. Probably should have been working on the "Recommended Components" database.)

I got so excited for each track—minus the Coldplay one, though it was nice to hear the whole single if only to find out it was such a feculent cloud of chords. Maybe that was harsh. I don't care. I'm angry at Coldplay for not taking their music seriously enough to advance out of that "we can only convey the single emotion of a yellow-green-blue melancholy in all of our songs." They had so much promise. [End rant here.]

The point I'm really trying to make is this: I had zero control over the radio. Well maybe the station, but that's it. With stuff like Pandora, you can practically pick the exact song you want to hear, and you even get disappointed when your favorite track doesn't come on. At the other end of the spectrum, here with my Sony CFM-10, you place total faith in some dude with bleached spiked hair and a silver chain necklace—possibly wearing sunglasses—inside a small studio. Totally rad. Many misses does he make with his song choices, but when he gets it right, man, do you get excited. When "One" came on, I flipped. I wasn't expecting it. And I rocked out so hard.

We're so dead-set on emphasizing the level of control within our hobby. The CD players with the jitter and the phono-stages with the signal to noise ratio and the turntables with the wow and flutter and the preamps with the line input sensitivity and the power amps with the rated THDs and the loudspeakers, well, don't even get me started. I stare at this crap all day. Sometimes it's nice when the only numbers you need to know are a 107.7 or a 99.5, followed by a cheesy little sound effect and some guy with a deep voice. Like that voicemail waiting for me on the phone, a little surprise is good sometimes.

So get in your listening chairs, find that CD or LP, and get moved by some silky vocals or shimmering strings or articulate basso continuo. Love the fact that you have this great means of expression, so lovingly built with your own dollars and sweat and wire. I'll be in my cubicle till late tonight. I have band practice cross-town, so I might as well stick around with my CFM-10, listening to Weezer, a little Zeppelin, most definitely more G&R, and maybe some Wallflowers. Hopefully some Rush will come on. Who knows?

Despite all of my rebellion and romantic notions, the CFM-10 does sound really bad. Robert Plant sounded stuffed up and Bono somehow managed to sound like Robert Smith from The Cure. Everything seemed to be raised a microtone or two. I called Stephen over to see if he could hear the pitch alteration that I was hearing. He could. So the sonic performance is not the glory held within this black box. For fidelity to sound, we have our systems, and the level of control serves us well. The Sony Radio Cassette-Corder CFM-10 on the other hand, provides reminders to the excitement of important events and things in my life, such as my guitar, my bands, and hurricanes. Like running into an old friend in the street, it brings me back to those special and even un-special moments—when I'm least expecting them.

Can you measure that?

Hal's picture

Any experience that gets you excited about music is a good experience. The comment I would like to make about listening to the radio is that you may not have know what songs were going to play becaus eit had been so long since you had listened to commercial radio, but had you listened for more than a day or two, you would have heard all of those great songs another 2 or 3 times. While you aren't in control of the playlist, neither is the dude with spiked hair. Some suit who knows what 'sells' is.

struts's picture

Ariel, The Coldplay 'issue' was apparently an attention-seeking hoax by Andrew Hopefner. It's a real shame that he is now probably way more famous for being a liar than for being a gifted musician. You can read more here:

Ariel Bitran's picture

Hal: You are very right about this, and this has been an issue I'm facing now. I can only handle so much G&R. While I don't think the suits are really putting too much voice in the fact that the station plays "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC twice a day, I do feel the suits control the range of songs played on the radio. The K-Rock station which I've been listening to has a special programming segment called the "last letter game" in which you request a song which begins with the last letter of the song that just played. Unfortunately, when you go online to the request site, there is a list of songs to choose from. Kinda depressing knowing that "Y" is always going to to turn out to be "Yellow Ledbetter."

Ariel Bitran's picture

Also on a similar vein. Every Tuesday, on Two-for Tuesdays on Classic Rock 99.5 in Birmingham, AL when I would get out of school in the 8th grade around 3 o'clock, Rush would play. After Rush, there would always be Aerosmith. The unfortunate part about the radio is that its ultimately an advertising business where the most popular songs played will get the most advertising dollars, why the playlist is thus so selective. This is an excellent part about Internet Radio: you get the top tracks and the deep cuts and everything in between and its all so customizable and really just as fun.

Ariel Bitran's picture

Struts: thank you for posting this blog link from Daniel Bernstein. I had not read it and found it interesting. I wouldn't call it an "attention-seeking" hoax because it was not intended to be. The video was intended and really only expected to be viewed by a small collective ("the Sidewalk crowd") as Andrew stated in his text to Daniel, where he probably was being most honest. This is believable considering the small view counts of his other videos. Hopefully something good will turn out of this.

struts's picture

Ariel, I suspect a lot of people are (or were) rooting for Andrew and want the best for him, nevertheless this was a lie and we can only speculate about his real motives for doing it. Likewise I can only speculate that he will come to regret it. It is not really a a great legacy for someone with real talent.