Sean Ross webBy: Sean Ross
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Twitter: @RossOnRadio

You don’t have to go on a road trip to hear small-town radio anymore. Not every small-market station streams, but I come across interesting small-market stations in my various listening apps on a regular basis — often discovering them in the course of searching for some other station.

You don’t have to listen to small-market radio if you go on a road trip. If you’re a satellite subscriber, it’s likely that you’ve cheerfully given up on futzing around for a new station every hour. We drove from New York to Florida in December, and the song I’ll remember the trip by was not a current or developing hit, but “When I Was a Boy” by Jeff Lynne’s ELO, then being showcased on Sirius XM’s triple-A The Spectrum channel.

But, I recently drove the 5-1/2 hours from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. Both ways. Without satellite. Without streaming. That means about three hours each way with only small-market music FMs. Many people wouldn’t consider doing that now, but if you’re reading a Ross on Radio column, there’s a better-than-average chance that you would.

Just as there is still excitement in hearing an “oh wow” song on the radio — even if it’s a song readily available on your phone — there is still excitement in hearing local radio locally. A few weeks ago, I surfed across a station in Hazard, KY, talking about the difficulty of finding younger coal miners. There was ample and fascinating “sense of place” there, but it was still somewhere else. Large or small-market, it’s different knowing what you’re hearing represents the place you are.

To that point, there was also excitement in scanning across “Bohemian Like You” by Dandy Warhols, never a consistent hit on U.S. radio, in St. George, Utah. That moment of wondering “how would this song end up on the radio here, of all places,” was barely diminished by figuring out that it was the Dixie State University alternative station, KXDS (Radio Dixie 91.3), operating with a translator in the commercial frequencies. (To drive the Mountain West is to rarely have the frequency on your car radio match the dial position being given by the station.)

The Dixie State station had its own sense of place. The ads were for campus organizations. One tried to recruit students for chemistry club by promising, “You could be the next Walter Wh…,” before the announcer trailed off, and allowed that nobody would actually be breaking bad.

Some other observations from 5-1/2 hours spent largely off the grid:
There are always the stations covering multiple positions by necessity. CHR, Adult Top 40, and Hot AC are closer than ever, but KLGL (Eagle 94.5) Richfield, UT, which was positioned as a Hot AC, still played “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by Weezer, “Please Forgive Me” by Bryan Adams,” and “Alright” by Janet Jackson in the course of my listening.  To Eagle’s credit, it all flowed well. I kept listening for some provocative segue that I could include in “Radio’s Best & Worst,” and barely found one until “Alright” went into Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man.” Weezer went into OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars,” which wasn’t jarring at all.

Radio road trips used to be defined by the unavoidable current song, or better yet by the developing song discovered in market after secondary market. That changed with the tightening of major-group-owned radio in medium markets, and although I certainly heard “Stressed Out” enough times, you are as likely to remember the trip for hearing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, or some other reliably testing library title more than twice, even in the major-markets.

But, you also hear the records that have disappeared. I’ve heard “Getting Jiggy Wit It” three times this week. I heard “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie more than once. Of course, your chances of the latter have been bolstered by the recent boost in super-soft ACs. Las Vegas and Salt Lake City have had the format for years. But St. George has one, too. I heard at least four supersoft ACs.

You also really notice the rise of the Classic Country format on a road trip. It was the thing most often encountered on the handful of music AMs I came across, but it wasn’t only on AM. I would have been happy with either “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard on Me” by Juice Newton or “Baby I Lied” by Deborah Allen. Within an hour, I’d heard both.

When you do hear recent songs that you wouldn’t hear in the major markets, they tend not to be brand new but mid-chart records that other stations have dropped. Ellie Goulding’s “Something in the Way You Move” disappeared almost instantly from major-market stations. I heard it repeatedly on this trip.

Some things don’t change. There is always that hour-or-so stretch where your only choice is one Country station and one station playing choral religious music. Also still true, the first other station you find after that sounds really good. Even if you’re traveling during the week, there will always be the station you can’t hear in regular format. I heard a “Greatest Hits” station playing Scott Shannon’s countdown on Sunday night. When I came back 24 hours later, it was running Tom Kent.

The biggest change is the consistent availability of big-sounding imaging. On a road trip of the past, a great legal or promo always helped establish a small-market station as something special, even if a weak part-timer came along to kill the vibe a few songs later. These days, everybody has good imaging, and you won’t necessarily hear any part-timer in a small-market or any part-timer in a large one. That said, one of the trip’s happiest moments was turning on KLUC Las Vegas at 8:35 on Sunday morning and hearing it hosted.

In fact, while there have been road trips where the small-market radio made the larger-market stations sound bad, just by being more essentially radio, the market sizes were pretty evenly matched this trip. Salt Lake City radio, in particular, impressed me. After decades as the most-overradioed market in America (the geography of Provo and Ogden essentially gave it enough radio stations for three cities), it’s a rare instance of competition truly making everybody better, not just bankrupt. I’m also prepared to declare KZHT vs. KUDD (Mix 105.1) the best CHR war of the moment.

That holiday drive to Florida was a disappointment, from a radio standpoint, because it didn’t stack up to similar versions of that trip from my formative radio years. This drive put me back in touch with some of the things I used to love about radio road trips. The marathon drive was more than worthwhile.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of the above article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.