The Clock Radio Rule

(Originally published in The High Fidelity Report on Feb 6, 2014)

When I was just barely a teen, about 13 years old, I had this precise GE Alarm Clock/Radio that you see in the picture. AM/FM plus a little dial on the left to set the time that your alarm would go off and shock you out of a deep slumber. It was my "Hi Fi" until I was 14 - when my folks bought me a Sony all-in-one receiver (with record player, cassette, and speakers). I would listen to that clock radio every night. Stealing a cigarette or two from either one of my parents and grabbing a "Stroh's" beer can from my beer-can collection for an ashtray, I'd listen to WSHE ("She's ONLY Rock and Roll") and K-102 (WCKO - "South Florida's Hottest Rock") and I'd blow smoke out of my bedroom window and think about my latest crush or flip through Creem magazine.

South Florida in the late 1970's was in a strange population transition, moving from a mostly "native" Floridian (not aboriginal, mind you) to mostly imports from the north. My family were emigres from NY, but we had arrived in 1972 - not long after Ponce de León, it seems - and so we got to watch the transition happen as more and more people from above the Mason Dixon line and (very) East of the Mississippi filtered into the little Westinghgouse-built community called Coral Springs. By the time I was ashing into Stroh's cans, Coral Springs was more or less a carbon copy of the environment my parents left behind: all Italians and Jews from NY, NJ, and PA - with a smattering from CT. We fell into the former ethnic category, though it's hardly as if our communities were segregated. In fact, it was at about the period I'm referencing that all of the bar and bat mitzvahs were happening - my social calendar runneth over.

It was also a very cool time for radio. Led Zeppelin, Lynrd Skynrd and/or Rossington-Collins, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Linda Ronstadt, Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Blondie, Pink Floyd, Pat Benatar, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Rush, Queen, J. Geils band, .38 Special, AC/DC, Heart, The Kinks, Cheap Trick, B-52's, Steely Dan, Aerosmith, The Pretenders, Devo, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Molly Hatchet ... etc. Just like the immigration of families like mine from the north to the South, non-Southern Rock was starting to overtake the airwaves. Come 1982, South Florida radio would be in the grips of "New Wave" and my record collection would change in response.

The radio was my musical beacon, and because of that horrid little box I fell in love with bands and artists and lots and lots of music. I didn't require tens of thousands of dollars of stereo kit to make music listenable, nor did anyone I know think in those terms. We just listened to the radio, and we bought records based on what they were playing over the airwaves.

Not much has really changed in my world as far as that goes, to be frank. Instead of a clock radio I now have one of those little Bluetooth boxes in my workshop and I've got Pandora. I stream Pandora through the box and let the service do the DJ work for me. It's a cool service, and I've bought many a record based on tunes that I've heard come over the squacky little box. And it's infinitely more satisfying to hear that music over the "big rig" than over the little black box, but that doesn't mean I'm not jammin' to tunes while I work and loving every minute of it. I'm tuned to a "station" based on Joe Pass and Django Reinhardt right now since I've taken up guitar again and want to hear a lot of great guitar playing ... and I catch myself softly scatting improvised melodies over the chord changes as I'm doing my work. That's a pretty cool connection to the music, and it's why I thought of The Clock Radio Rule recently and decided to put it down here:

If you can't listen to your music over a clock radio (or some such other very-not-Hi-Fi device) then you probably don't even like the music - you probably got it to show off your stereo. Get rid of it and find music that you actually connect with.

Simple, but effective. If you need a super-tricked-out stereo rig to make your music listenable, then you're probably not interested in music - you're interested in the performance of your stereo and the tricks it plays on your ears (soundstaging, imaging, dynamic, PRAT, impact, liquidity, blah blah blah), and you're buying music to show off the tricks. This leads to Audiophile Nervosa: a neurotic condition that focuses on gear performance over music, and compels you into an endless spiral of upgrade-fever until you eventually wind up exhausted, out of money, and still jealous of someone else's rig.

The cure is The Clock Radio Rule.

Reconnect to the music and you'll find out that the gear you've already got is pretty awesome already - and putting another $10k into your cabling system isn't going to make your Sheffield Labs collection any more palatable. But putting another $10k into your record collection will make your stereo (and your life) WAY more enjoyable. Haunt some record stores, spend an hour or two a week flipping through the crates and bins, talk to the shop owner and the other folks in the store - they'll turn you on to new music to get excited about.

I'll start you off: it wasn't long ago that I read a quick review of Brian Eno's "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" - I listened to some streaming bits over the desktop computer's speakers, decided that I liked it, bought the record. It may not be your cup of tea, or it might - but this is a good process to engage in regardless of what you may think of Brian Eno.



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