ROSS: What’s that SOUND? Edmonton’s lowest-rated station has potential for greatness

Random question asked of 10 random “alternative adults” in a random shopping mall on a random evening in recent history: Do you listen to The Sound?

Their answers, in order (guaranteed real!):
1. No.
2. Sorry, man … (walks away quickly).
3. (Smirks) I don’t listen to the radio.
4. I listen to my iPod.
5. The Sound? No.
6. No, sorry.
7. Never heard of it.
8. No … (looks at me like I have a chicken on my head)
9. No.
10. No, probably not. I listen to the Bear.

Not encouraging. The Sound – 95.7 CKEA FM – is Edmonton’s newest FM radio station, and also its lowest rated, clocking in at just 0.00001 units. Can that be right? OK, just did the research. The monthly summary that came out Feb. 3 pegged the Sound at 0.8 (whatever that means) up 0.1 from the last report. The station is No. 4 among females aged 18 to 24, but in the overall “age two and up” ratings, the Sound still the lowest rated local radio station of all reporting broadcasters.

So of course I had to glue my dial to 95.7 and study the Sound closely over the course of several weeks. This is the only way to get a feel for a radio station. The song selection is just the beginning. You have to listen to everything, all the time, the drive, the morning zoo, at 3 a.m. You have to pay attention to the promos, the quirky DJ banter (from the likes of Matt Schichter, above), the commercials, the traffic reports, the type of callers they get, the events they sponsor, the way they take ownership of whatever new artist they’re helping to break, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they disdain other music formats or snipe at other radio stations. All combine to give a radio station its distinct personality, its unique “brand,” if you want to call it that and cheapen the holy, ancient bond between radio station and listener.

Lifetime Edmontonians know these frequencies like old friends. Take, for example, the manly manliness that oozes from the sweaty pores of the Bear 100.3. It’s basically the same vibe you get from K-97, just fatter, balder and with more grey hair. Consider the moral compass of such stations as the Bounce 91.7, whose identity is forged by the fact that every song is either about getting drunk, having sex or both. Little girls love it. Hot 107 – another new station on the local dial – is establishing its brand by trying to steal listeners from the Bounce. Now, now, there’s plenty enough Katy Perry to go around.

The Sound isn’t like other radio stations that Edmonton has heard before. OK, so it’s sort of like Sonic 102.9. It’s Sonic’s younger, geekier brother who’s been afflicted with ‘90s nostalgia and never got into punk or electronic music. The Sound is all over the map. The overall effect over time is like listening to the mix-tapes your ditzy ex girlfriend still sends you because you’ve remained “just friends,” though you hold out secret hope you’ll get back together 10 years after the ugly breakup, and it’s all the music you happen to have at the moment because she took most of your shared record collection when she left, including the Dave Matthews and the Smashing Pumpkins and all the old U2 – it was in fact was your mutual love of music that brought you together, though your tastes and your passions inevitably drifted apart; you never really did get into Cake and you secretly don’t like the Violent Femmes – and then someone stole your iPod with all your classic Nickelback that she never liked from your coat at the bar, so the damned mix tapes are all you have left and you’re too depressed and broke to buy any of your own new music. Yes, listening to the Sound is exactly like that.

It’s a bunch of cool tunes sprinkled with jarring surprises: Bedouin Soundclash next to Bob Dylan, Moist in a non-stop cock block with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even Baba wouldn’t get that silly. And you’ll find few local stations that will play selections from Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough album Jagged Little Shrieking Harpy. Thank goodness for that. And while Sound champions great new artists like Florence + the Machine and Mumford and Sons, plays the heck out of the Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon and Beck and you name it, they have no qualms about announcing a head-to-head battle between Matchbox 20 and Hootie and the Blowfish. There is no option to vote both of them off.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the audience the Sound is going for. Led Zeppelin next to Blind Melon? That’s crazy! If I Had $1,000,000 back to back with Statesboro Blues? Madness! The Sound is running a blues show (a syndicated job) – because for some reason the Sound is required to play 15% blues (and I’d like to see the suits at the CRTC decide what constitutes a “blues” song) – but I heard a DJ mispronounce the name of Edmonton blues legend Lester Quitzau. It’s not Quit-zoo, it’s Quit-zow. On the Sound website, they also misspelled (and since corrected) the headliner in show they’re promoting: “Sarah McLaughlin” at the Jube on March 4. That’s a little embarrassing.

Enough nit-picking. Stability and direction will come, we hope. The best thing about this unusual music station whose slogan is “good music is good music, period” seemingly regardless of genre and despite the eccentric time-warping segues, is that you can be very sure – and reassured — that real human beings are picking these songs, not some corporate robot for soulless satellite radio. And indeed: upon critical examination, an unusually high quantity of the Sound playlist could be considered “good.”

Consider this list of 10 songs taken at random from the Sound’s play log:

Travelling Riverside Blues, Led Zeppelin
Call It Off, Tegan & Sara
Better Man, Pearl Jam
Thief, Our Lady Peace
Lie To Me, Jonny Lang
Brother Down, Sam Roberts
Dead American Writers, Tired Pony
Smile, Wide Mouth Mason
Fly Away, Lenny Kravitz
Long Road Home, Sheryl Crow

It ain’t CBC Radio 2 Drive, but it’s not bad. Whatever her other faults, your ex had good taste in music – and likewise, the Sound could become a great radio station one day. There is always that secret hope.

Except for Alanis. That stuff doesn’t hold up well at all.