I grew up in a small town with one AM radio station—before anyone batted around words like demographic or focus group. Since the station had to be a kind of one-size-fits-all affair, you were quite apt to find a set of songs that would go from Barbra Streisand to the Beatles to Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan to the Fifth Dimension. As a kid I never thought much of it, but I now consider it to have been a boon in that it afforded me exposure to a wide range of music. Those days were soon replaced by more specific FM stations. It has been years since I’ve listened to the radio with any regularity, but I wasn’t unaware of the whole Clear Channel business, which is at the center of first-time documentarian Andrew Shapter’s Before the Music Dies.
Through interviews with both the famous and the obscure, Shapter paints a grim picture of the state of radio today. The villain of the piece is—understandably—Clear Channel, which has managed to get a stranglehold on radio and radio programming. While the central issue is the corporation’s effective silencing of many new voices in music—leaning entirely on prefabricated “celebrity” singers—it quickly becomes clear that the same mindset is applied to their “classic rock” stations. Rather than offering a wide variety of music, the stations are made to play only the most familiar “greatest hits,” effectively limiting listener experience to a very small musical world—potentially creating the most musically illiterate generation ever. A straightforward documentary that’s definitely worth a look.