Freedom of the Press, and of the Tunes

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I suppose it’s a part of growing up. There are some things my parents did that drove me crazy when I was a child but make perfect sense to me now. And as may be inevitable for a man squarely in the grip of middle age, I realize that I have become my father.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Anytime I’d be in the car with my father (and I was always thrilled with the opportunity to ride up front with him), he’d tune the radio to either news radio or to easy listening music. I could handle that, but what really bugged me was the way he’d either flip stations or turn off the radio whenever a commercial came on. He’d refer to the results of the latter alternative as his favorite song, “The Sound of Silence.” (I hadn’t yet discovered Simon and Garfunkel.) He made it clear that he wasn’t going to have the idiocy of Madison Avenue forced upon him. Occasionally, he’d leave the radio on just so he could mimic the ridiculous ads (“rub it in, in, IN!”), which he’d usually follow up with a stream of swear words that I’d try my hardest to ignore.

Well, I don’t do the swear words thing, but I’ve now reached the age where I find myself changing the station or turning off the radio as soon as I start to hear a commercial. In my little town, this is no small statement. I refuse to listen to the Spanish stations or the Christian stations, which leaves me with exactly two choices. There is a powerful country music station over in Arizona and there is our little hometown radio station that plays an eclectic variety of music. I find our local station charming. I never know what to expect and I am often delighted. Turning on the radio, I may be transported back to another era by one of my favorite doo-wops, followed by something from Kenny Chesney or Carrie Underwood, then a classic from the Stones and a tune by Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.

With entertainment like that, it seems the least I could do would be to support the station by listening to the commercials that pay their bills and then patronizing those businessess. Sorry, Charlie. Nothing doing. I may have been bopping and drumming to the song that just ended, but when a commercial comes on, I am gone. Out of there. Splitsville.

Too often, both our local station and the Arizona country people are playing advertisements at the same time. Like my father, I’ve come to accept and even enjoy “the sound of silence.”

Back in my college days, I used to argue about this with a friend of mine. He’d insist that radio stations are businesses, and that like any business, their sole purpose for existing is to make money. Bah humbug, I’d say. The purpose of radio is to entertain me. If a station ceases to do so, either because of its music selection or because an idiot commercial has come on, it’s adios, amigo. That’s not fair, my friend would respond. I’m receiving a service for free, while the radio station has to pay its bills. Not my problem, I’d tell him. No one is forcing the radio station to entertain me for free. The public has every right to take advantage of its largesse. If someone has dropped a quarter on the ground, why shouldn’t I pick it up?

When my wife and I purchased our current car, we found that it “came with” a six-month subscription to Sirius XM radio. Thus, we discovered the world of radio by paid subscription.

The technology fascinated me. Just to think that Sirius XM could send a signal specifically to our car antenna, a signal from a satellite orbiting the earth that we could pick up but the car in front of us and the car behind us could not. Amazing!

The best thing about paid subscription radio, of course, is no commercials. Well, sort of. I’d happily sha-la-la and whoa-woah along with Sixties on 6 and Seventies on 7 in commercial-free heaven, but when we switched to the comedy channel, we found the routines constantly interrupted for commercials. Not just any commercials, mind you. Commercials for . . . ah, um, er, products of an “intimate nature.” And we were paying for this!

Well, for the first six months it was free with our new car. But after that we were paying for it. Yes, we shelled out the bucks and renewed our subscription several times. This, of course, is exactly what Sirius XM hoped we would do. Get ‘em hooked, then send ‘em the bill.

After about a year of this, we figured out that it just wasn’t worth it, particularly with the idiot commercials that interrupted our favorite stations. We could get that for free on over-the-air stations.

That’s when we started keeping CDs in the car us. We’d slip them into the disc player to entertain us on our frequent trips between northern and southern California. Of course, the CDs weren’t free, but at least we only had to pay for them once rather than being billed every six months for a subscription. And no idiot commercials!

The downside of the CD solution is that you end up playing the same music over and over. Not only that, but we realized that we tended to buy a CD for one or two favorite songs, while the rest of the album really didn’t interest us.

iPhone to the rescue! We already had iPods, and when we purchased iPhones, we had our music right on our cell phones. With the aid of a little adapter cord, we were able to plug in, set the music on Shuffle and go rockin’ on down the highway. I’d be singing along at the top of my lungs (off-key, of course) and before I knew it we’d be past Bakersfield.

This was better than CDs. We had exactly the music we wanted to hear. No idiot commercials and no B-side boring stuff. Of course, this didn’t come free. Every time we thought of another song we wanted, we’d just go online and buy it. We found that most songs were 99 cents or $1.29 to download. Very reasonable, particularly when you build your music collection a little at a time.

I love reading newspapers almost as much as I enjoy listening to music, and I don’t think I should have to pay for either one, at least when I am not picking and choosing my content. Back in my New York days, on Sunday mornings we’d go out to buy fresh bagels and pick up The New York Times. The Sunday Times was truly a marvel. It was thick and heavy, with many sections. I’d head straight for the “magazine” section and the book review. Then I’d settle back with Section 2, the famed Arts and Leisure section, where I’d ogle the full-page announcements of Broadway shows with a mixture of awe and delight. Of course, the Times wasn’t free, and its price increased as the years went by. But it was a once-a-week indulgence, and we could skip a week or two anytime we felt like it. It’s not like we had a subscription.

My parents didn’t even subscribe to the local paper. Both they and I knew that it would largely go unread and back issues would inevitably be stacked up in heaps to be carted out to the curb on recycling day.

But that was back in the Stone Age before the internet came along. Soon, I found myself being able to read The New York Times online for free anytime I liked, weekday or Sunday. This was wonderful, particularly after I moved to California, and then to a remote area of the desert where I couldn’t go to the corner and pick up the Times with my bagels and cream cheese.

Like all good things, this one didn’t last. It didn’t take long before the Times realized there was money to be made out there in the wilds of cyberspace. Inevitably, the Times began charging for its service. But you know me. I’m not going to pay for it if I don’t have to.

This is how I worked it out: First, I downloaded The New York Times on my iPhone. As I am constantly reminded by the insipid pop-ups, “Top News is Free. Subscribe for full access.” I don’t think so!

First phase accomplished: I get to read about a dozen top news stories on my phone for free every morning. Of course, the Times attempts to tantalize me into paying by dangling what I’m missing in front of my nose. I can click the “Sections” icon and view the headlines and the first sentences of all the great articles I’m missing in Opinion, Books, Travel, Arts, Dining, and on and on.

And so on to the second phase: Grab a scratch paper and make note of the titles of the articles I am really interested in reading but don’t have access to. Then I log into www.nyt.com on my laptop, find the articles I’m looking for, and read to my heart’s content.

Well, not exactly. Surely you don’t think the venerable Times will make you pay on the iPhone but give it up for free on Windows? Of course not. I am able to read ten articles per month for free on my laptop. After that, I am blocked by the ubiquitous message to subscribe in order to continue reading.

Fortunately for me, my wife doesn’t object when I log onto her account on her laptop and get to read another ten articles in the Times.

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “he’ll take what he’s given as long as it’s free.”

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