Save Internet Radio from the "Bumbaclots"

The Jerk Chicken Guys

Just twenty minutes ago — it’s 2:40 a.m. as I write this — I left a club called The Apothecary, where the weekly “Chicks Dig It” all-female DJ night is held. About a half-block away from the club, I started to smell something really delicious. I got closer and recognized it — the Jerk Chicken Guys have returned!

“‘ccordion mon, from the Philippine is-land. ‘ave some jerk chicken an’ rice an’ pe-as.”

The Jerk Chicken Guys are street vendors who set up shop sporadically, usually close by a club that’s having a reggae or dub night. As you’ve probably guessed, they serve jerk chicken, “jerk” being a peppery spice marinade rubbed onto chicken that is then barbecued over a smoky wood-and-charcoal fire. It’s served with “rice and peas” (which is actually rice and beans). The Jerk Chicken guys also serve pepperpot soup, salt fish and ackee (a mild fruit with huge black seeds native to Jamaica), and on precious few occasions, fried plaintains.

The Jerk Chicken Guys break every biz school rule in the book. They don’t keep any kind of regular schedule, nor do they have any particular location where they set up shop. They don’t observe strict quantity control; ask them really nicely (or play Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds on the accordion) and they’ll give you a little extra rice and peas (or in my case, throw in a free fried plantain). A time-and-motion expert would have a conniption watching them work — they go with the flow of the moment, rather than following a procedure that has been determined to increase their efficiency throughput. These guys operate on Island Time (or “Filipino Time“, as I call it). It takes a while to prepare proper Jamaican food — when you consider the ratio of money taken in to preparation time, jerk chicken with all the fixin’s has got to be way behind a Big Mac and fries. It’s the kind of operation that would never make it past “due diligence“. Considering the kinds of companies that have made it, that’s saying something.

You know what? Screw due diligence, screw market research and screw maximizing return on investment. When the Jerk Chicken Guys open up shop, the McDonald’s down the street takes a hit. That’s because all of us late-nighters know how much better spent five dollars is on a fresh-off-the-barbecue Jamaican food is than on a greasy Big Mac and a straight-from-the-heat-lamp paper bag of pre-molded fries. McDonald’s may have wider appeal, but its popularity comes from its food’s inoffensiveness; like hit radio, it’s paid for its popularity at the expense of any character. Rather than go with the universally accepted but bland McFood, all of us who’d just left the club were smacking our lips at char-broiled chicken legs in fiery jerk sauce matched with the mild flavour and rich texture of rice and peas. Same goes for the sea bass on rice in Chinatown, or the chicken-and-pesto pizza at Amato’s down the street.

The little guys do customer service better too. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re not victims of Taylor’sscientific management” like the McDrones are. The roboticization of the employees — a side effect of the “less thinking, more doing” ethos of Taylorism — means that even though I’ve been a neighbourhood regular for eight years, they still have no idea who the hell I am. However, the Jerk Chicken Guys know me even though I’ve only bought food from them half a dozen times. The guys at the 24-hour hot dog stand — another idea that would never have passed muster with a business analyst — also know me and know that my favourite soft drink is Diet Coke. I don’t even have to place an order when I sit down at Excellent chinese restaurant; the waiters there look at me and say “Yeung Chow fried rice and Diet Coke, right?” with a smile. The guys at the Italian coffee shop, Lettieri, know that I prefer hot chocolate and mochaccinos to lattes. Walter, the manager of Amato pizza, walks among the club goers gathered outside his store, asking them if they liked their pizza, and if there’s anything he can do to make it better. And I like that the waitress at the new diner down the street, Shanghai Cowgirl, struck up a conversation with me about how The Hives and The White Stripes are going to save rock and roll. The most communication I’ve ever had from McDonald’s while at my table is a little sign that says my stay is limited to a maximum of twenty minutes.

As the Jerk Chicken Guys would say “Dere’s some t’ings still best done by de li’l guys, seen?”


Back in the 80’s and early ’90’s, the Toronto radio station now known as Egde 102 used to go by its actual call latters, CFNY. Back then, the range of music they played was considerably wider: from Camper van Beethoven to Classical to Captain Beefheart to Kate Bush to Cabaret Voltaire to Christian Rock to KMFDM. I remember waking up to the radio to hear Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance bookended by Public Image Limited’s Disappointed and Pop Will Eat Itself’s Wise Up Sucker and being quite pleased. They had a policy of not playing the same song twice between 9 and 5, and would never play a song more than twice a day, no matter how big a “hit” it was. They played stuff no one else would play: Public Enemy’s 911 is a Joke (considered “too controversial” by other stations), Laurie Anderson’s Language is a Virus, stuff by Game Theory’s terribly underrated Lolita Nation and in 1991, they tracks off an obscure little album called Gish by a then-unknown group called Smashing Pumpkins.

Today, in its pursuit of the larger demographic known as “mainstream alternative” — which consists largely of means poor rip-offs of hip-hop-meets-metal that Public Enemy and Anthrax did together with style and skill over a decade ago — Edge 102 is a mere shadow of its former self. They still have a few bright spots — namely the New Music Show, where they actually played The Hives’ Hate To Say I Told You So, and Martin Streek’s entertaining and informative History of New Music show. However, I’m getting tired of all the repetition. I don’t want to hear Creed, never mind the same damned Creed song every time I turn on the radio, and I’m this close to offering a cash reward to whoever can bring me the head of Dave Matthews.

The problem is that a lot of radio stations, especially those abominations owned by broadcasting networks like Clear Channel, think every day is Sadie Hawkins Day, where everything is topsy-turvy. Like Satanists who invert the cross and use urine for holy water, they treat the commercials as the main event and the music as the filler.

To them, the music is just the cheese in the trap. Since music is one of those idiosyncratic things, it’s better for them to play the musical equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger — nothing terribly special, but inoffensive enough to appeal to a large number of palates. Both McDonald’s and radio know that if they can train you, Pavlov-style, to like and even crave their product, especially if you’re young, they’ll have have coming back. Radio stations are simply doing the math. Market research has shown that the average amount of time that someone actively listens to FM radio is about 15 minutes. In order to keep your attention long enough to expose you to a commercial, they have to increase the likeliness that you’ll hear a popular song or hit during that sliver of time. The only way to do that is to saturate the schedule with a handful of songs played in high rotation. If you’re getting bored by the repetition, it’s because you’re listening to more than your allotted share.

(And that’s the above-the-board stuff. Another reason you’re hearing the same stuff over and over again: payola.)

Another McTrick is to guarantee that you can get the exact same food at every branch; a Big Mac tastes the same whether you buy it in Toledo, Toronto or Tokyo. Broadcasting companies like Clear Channel use the same trick. Clear Channel classic rock station’s playlist will be the same no matter what city you’re in; in some cases, they use the same syndicated DJs during peak listening periods (although they make sure to record city-specific comments to give a little “local colour”).

Slag the McRadio formula all you want; it works. Clear Channel’s fourth quarter 2001 results show a 49% increase in revenue, meaning that they raked in 8 billion dollars.

Jerk chicken radio

Internet radio isn’t driven by business plans, but by the music. They’re not jockeying for market share; they’re just filling a hard drive with their favourite music and letting broadcasting software like Shoutcast or Icecast randomly select songs for playback. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re suddenly exposed to music chosen because someone liked it rather than because it’s just enough bait to make you listen to a commercial. A world of new and not-necessarily-radio-friendly music — Stereolab, Le Tigre, the Appalaichian strains from the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? album, to name a few — opens up. Like any little-guy operation, each Internet radio station is simply producing what they lovem and there’s a station for every taste, no matter how offbeat. Even better, I can immediately find out what I’m listening to simply by looking at the display — the song’s name appears right there on iTunes’ or WinAmp’s display. If it’s something new, I can switch to my browser and Google the artist’s name to find out more. In the three years I’ve been listening to it, I’ve discovered new music (and rediscovered some old stuff) and bought what I really liked. You’d think that the music industry would like this development.

Not a chance.

(More later, gotta get back to work…)

One reply on “Save Internet Radio from the "Bumbaclots"”

You make some very good points there accordianguy. I’ve known several radio stations which started off with the best of intentions and made high quality shows but as their popularity grows they face pressure the dumb down (and the financial rewards associated with this) just become too great and after a while the station just becomes a bland, faceless “100 hits per hour” station like all the rest.

Let’s hope that internet radio stations (and jerk chicken vendors) don’t start to follow the same pattern!

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