Car Radio




David Whitley turns on the radio as he’s travelling down the California coast, and becomes transfixed by the local radio stations.


For all the reasons to go on a road trip through the United States – beautiful scenery, weird Americana, the opportunity to get stabbed to death by a redneck hitchhiker – perhaps the greatest incentive of all is the chance to spend hours and hours listening to American radio stations.



Unless you’ve been organised and burned a wallet-load of CDs, at some point, you’re going to have to resort to the endlessly entertaining game that is flicking through stations on the car radio. You’ll never get a proper national station in the same vein as Radio One, Two or Five Live – but you will get thousands of local stations and oddities catering to bizarre niches.


The first thing to bear in mind is that if you find a station you like, you’ll never find it again once you tune away from it (unless by accident). This is because all the stations have names that are so ludicrously unmemorable that you’ll never quite log them in the memory bank. They all sound like major accountancy firms that have gone through a series of unwieldy mergers or, at best, car number plates. Expect a series of announcements along the lines of: “You’re listening to KNLWT192.3 recurring, playing soft rock all day long.”


Of the four major station formats, the local soft rock station is usually going to be the best bet if you value your sanity. It will largely feature songs by American bands with long hair that didn’t really cross the trans-Atlantic divide in the 1980s, all including a completely unnecessary guitar solo. But the definition of soft rock will be extraordinarily loose, with the odd Celine Dion horror show creeping in for no apparent reason.


The tracks, the DJs will boast, are part of a no repeat workday. They’re lying. There are plenty of repeats – most notably the ‘no repeat workday’ jingle that is played between every song, and the adverts for ambulance-chasing lawyers/ a station-sponsored event for administrative professionals to be held in a local barn next week.


If that doesn’t float your boat, then there are always the Spanish language stations, which go for the completely opposite approach to the no repeat workday. They play the exactly the same piece of music – a gloriously stereotypical slice of horns-blaring Mexicana that would be at home in a Chevy Chase movie if he happened to go into a Mexican bar – all day long.


Option three is the country music stations. There are an awful lot of them, and they’re perfect for a little game of cliché bingo. Whereas other genres try and push the boundaries, it seems as though country music is happy to plough the same narrow furrow it always has done. Most songs will have the words ‘country’, ‘cowboy’, ‘hillbilly’ or ‘dosey doe’ in them, whilst absolutely every single one of them features the phrase ‘honky tonk’. US country radio is wonderful example of how to carve a living by feeding people the nonsense they want to hear, irrespective of whether it’s coherent or not.


But the prime example of this trick is the fourth format: Christian radio. There are an unbelievable number of Christian radio stations in the US, varying in levels of nutjobbishness. If you ever want to listen to bonkers theories of how Jews are just jealous of Christians, why teaching evolution in schools is a sinister plot to wipe out God or why we need to be ready for the impending rapture, then make sure your dial flits across them.


They’re at their best when they get into fund-raising mode however. For fifteen minutes on our drive down the California coast, we sat open jawed as the DJs launched into a shameless begging mission for a station that shall remain nameless (although it was probably something like KYNYPDC3POR2D2118118). They started by offering the ‘opportunity’ to give $40 a month, continued on by intimating that the first hundred people to do so would be truly special, then started saying that those who gave an extra $40 on top for the first two months would be doing exactly what God wanted them to do. It finished at the staggering level of asking listeners to pray for other listeners who hadn’t donated yet, so that they could hear God’s word and essentially fill the station bosses’ pockets with lots and lots of money.


Chris Moyles, you’ve got a lot to learn.