Monday, November 28, 2011

Voices from the dashboard

All my life I've taken road trips, partly by natural inclination, partly by necessity.  It's a largely timeless experience.  Sure, the roads have improved (see the Grapevine Grade section of this page for a good example), the speed limits are higher, cars are faster and safer and there's not a lot of "local flavor" in most stopping points unless you actively seek it out, but for the most part road trips have been road trips since well before Kerouac.

One thing that has changed is the soundtrack, and not just because tastes in music have changed.  When I was a kid, any audio not provided by the car and its occupants came from the radio, and if you were on a long haul, it was the AM radio.  Keeping FM tuned in was and remains too much of a hassle.  An AM station, especially one of the "clear channel" stations (not to be confused with the media conglomerate) licensed to broadcast at high power, could be good for hours -- enough for a whole sports fixture, several runs through the news or all the whacked-out talk radio conspiracy theories you could eat.

The key feature here, particularly on a solo trip through, say, the desert southwest US, was the lack of choice.  You'd be doing well to have your pick of baseball, UFO speculation and the company of your own thoughts, and a hundred miles or so out of Albuquerque on a dark night with the game a blowout the UFO speculation starts sounding interesting and plausible.

By the time I was doing my own solo long hauls, cassette tape was an option, but a library of a few dozen albums can be limiting after a while -- and suppose you want to know what's going on in the world, or just let someone else handle the programming for a while?  The in-dash CD (briefly supplemented by a multi-disc changer in the trunk) increased one's options, but the same basic constraints applied.  Only with the advent of satellite radio was there little reason to tune in to local stations at all.

And now there's the web.  As long as you've got a smartphone, bars, a bit of cable and an aux input, you can listen to pretty much anything.  Stream your favorite home station.  Stream your favorite internet station.  Play your podcasts.  Dial up Pandora.  AM won't be completely disappearing anytime soon -- technologies written off as obsolete seldom do -- but the proportion of people who know or care must be steadily dwindling.  Likewise I'd rather not try to predict whether or when web audio will supplant satellite radio, but if I had to place long-term bets, I'd bet on the web.

It's hard to argue that having a huge palette of choices isn't progress of some sort, but there's something to be said for being drawn out of one's comfort zone because there's only one game in town.

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