Photo by Frank Albrecht / Unsplash

Bursting Bubbles and Rusty Radios: Seeking the Fox Valley Soundscape

Editorials Dec 5, 2022

by Miri Verona

I sat in a car, driving out of the Fox Valley, just a week or so ago. My friend had a habit of flipping through the radio stations, which he knew was at times a pet peeve of mine to have to listen to. I feel a strange sensitivity to radio. It’s both the whiplash of station flipping and the specific sentimentality and niche of each wavelength. It all feels incredibly ephemeral. As a zoomer, I’m fully integrated intothe media sphere of streaming services, podcasts and social media. All the same I still have warm enough memories of the network television my parents grew up with and even the radio of my grandparents’ generation.

The radio today is the grandparent of modern media and like a grandparent, it strikes certain feelings of nostalgia. It might still be around in your life, it may have passed on. As my friend went through the stations we heard a lot: a number of radio evangelists, some sporadic news, a handful of pop stations, and maybe a classical or jazz station or two. More than anything, though, we heard classic rock and country and a lot of it.

A grandparent it may be, the radio is still the highest “reach platform” according to a 2019 study by the media market research firm, The Nielsen Company. While it might not carry the most weight in the growing attention economy of today, in 2019 it still has the most consistent presence reaching 92% of adults every week compared to the TV and smartphone with 87% and 81% respectively.

Two years later, the Pew Research Center published a study which found radio making its first major dip in listenership for at least a decade. Radio’s grasp held at around 90% since at least 2010, but had a drastic drop to 83% in 2020. Revenue was down 24% as well, according to Pew. Many of us may even be surprised it took radio this long to start a significant downturn (maybe helped by the COVID pandemic), but it’s really not surprising for a few reasons.

The research also shows that most radio listening happens passively in the car. While radio has that specifically-catered sentimentality I mentioned before, it’s often on in the background. Network TV is much the same, just adding in our visual sense to the mix. Neither have really been able to compete or, in my opinion, will ever again compete with the internet that adds an interactive, quasi-kinesthetic buffet of choice to consumers. The radio has been rusting for a while, but it’s only just started to sputter out.

All this is to say: I think radio has a particular power to tell us something in terms of our local soundscape. A globalizing and digitizing world comes at a certain expense to local culture. One interpretation of radio’s particular and curated nature is that it’s a great way to understand the specifically local culture of a soundscape; what listening patterns are casually endemic to a certain area like our Fox Valley.

As I stated before, the stations I perceived the most among my friend’s station flipping were country and classic rock music. Our local Nielsen-participating stations’ ratings seem to reflect this as well, with our top genres being country, classic rock as well as radio genres like “classic hits” and “adult hits” which just seem to cater to the mainstream tastes (rock, R&B, pop, etc.) of a specific age-group of adults as opposed to any particular genre.

At Lawrence University, where I’ll be graduating from later this year, we talk often of the “Lawrence Bubble,” or the enclosed disconnect we can feel in the Lawrence community from the Fox Valley and even the world-at-large. To be frank, Lawrence is a liberal arts school through and through. While the Fox Valley is quite purple, at face-value, left-wing politics are what is acceptable at Lawrence. While radios in the Fox Valley play country, classic rock and popular genres from the 60s-80s, Lawrence’s classical and jazz are certainly deafening amongst the variety of music that gets made here.

Students often refer to the Appleton “townies” with some amount of disdain, which I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with. I’m a part of this community, to be sure, but I point it out to ask the question: how might we use music to bring our Lawrence closer to the Fox Valley in terms of sound and music? Can we burst the Lawrence Bubble sonically, so to speak?

Lawrence’s own radio station, WLFM, has recently become defunct with a mass giveaway of free records, CDs and tapes from the WLFM archives in the hallways of the conservatory. The former studio is now being used for storage. Among many strange bits of music from apparently bygone times, I didn’t find anything I wanted and found myself more aroused and perplexed by the odd number of records from a music label called “Musica Helvetica” run by a radio station in Switzerland. Even the Great Midwest Trivia Contest moved away from WLFM to the streaming platform, Twitch.

Maybe it’s another symptom of COVID’s having shoved us all online that WLFM fell out of use. It makes me sad to think we’ve lost this way of potentially connecting with the Fox Valley through sound. Lawrence still offers almost exclusively free concerts that anyone in the public can attend. I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of community outreach through music with Lawrence’s Music For All program which gives free performances at a variety of venues.

Some of my happiest musical moments have come after performing with my klezmer band for Music For All events to have a few adults walk up to me, positively beaming about their shared love for this genre that means so much to me. An elective class which I’ve taken called “American Roots Music” is currently offered in the fall at Lawrence, co-taught by Lawrence faculty along with a local folk artist. That felt like it pointed in the right direction.

I’m definitely wringing my hands at least a little bit, but I do wonder what Lawrence could look like if it integrated closer with the Fox Valley. Would we have a conservatory that was dominated by a funny mix of polka, music of the indigenous Menominee people, along with the classic rock and country off the radio? To be sure, I’ve heard all of these traditions on our campus, but just in blips. Maybe I’m downplaying how important classical and jazz are to the Fox Valley.

Where is the local sonic culture of the Fox Valley coming from and where is it moving? What is the most authentic and integrated soundscape we at Lawrence could make in the Fox Valley? The picture I’ve painted and questions I’m asking are messy and even a bit overwhelming, but we shouldn’t be discouraged by this - culture and music culture in particular have always been messy. The pipes on the pipe dream organ I’ve been playing this whole time to no resolution might be detuned and out of whack, but the question above all questions is always going to be what the next courageous decision to make should be.