You used to be able to do that in America: chart your course by the accents, news and songs streaming in from the nearest AM transmitter. A drawling update on midday cattle prices meant I was in Wyoming or Nebraska. A guttural rant about city-hall corruption told me I'd reach Chicago within the hour. A soaring, rhythmic sermon on fornication Welcome to Alabama. The music, too. Texas swing in the Southwest oil country. Polka in North Dakota. Nonstop Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs. What's more, the invisible people who introduced the songs gave the impression that they listened to them at home. They were locals, with local tastes.
I felt like a modern Walt Whitman on those drives. When I turned on the radio, I heard America singing, even in the dumb banter of ''morning zoo'' hosts. But then last summer, rolling down a highway somewhere between Montana and Wisconsin, something new happened. I lost my way, and the radio couldn't help me find it. I twirled the dial, but the music and the announcers all sounded alike, drained, disconnected from geography, reshuffling the same pop playlists and canned bad jokes.
What a miserable trip. I heard America droning.
Recently, I found out whom to blame: a company called Clear Channel Communications. The mammoth buyer and consolidator of hundreds of independent local radio stations along with its smaller competitors, Infinity Broadcasting and Cumulus Media is body-snatching America's sonic soul, turning Whitman's vivacious democratic cacophony into a monotonous numbing hum.
No matter where a person lives these days (particularly in Minot, N.D., where Clear Channel runs all six commercial stations in town), he's probably within range of an affiliate, if not three or four, since the company buys in bulk: pop stations, rock stations, talk stations, the works. Worse, quite a few of these stations don't really exist not in the old sense. They're automated pods, downloading their programming from satellites linked to centralized, far-off studios where announcers who have never even set foot in Tucson, Little Rock, Akron or Boston take your pick rattle off promos and wisecracks by the hundreds, then flip a switch and beam them to your town as if they're addressing its residents personally, which they aren't. They don't even know the weather there.
What results is a transcontinental shower of sound that seems to issue from heaven itself, like the edicts of the Wizard of Oz.
Here's a fear: That local newspapers will get just as killed as local radio, by the deregulation of media ownership. What happens when Clear Chanel or Cumulus Media buys up the local newspapers?