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In conversation with the “rock professor” 2006-10-18

Chris Prior – the “rock professor” – is a legend of South African radio. These days he can be heard on Radio Today and Die Vrye Afrikaan asked him on his career, radio, music today…


1. Much has been said on the destruction of serious music radio since the late 1980's. Why has this happened in your opinion, particularly in South Africa?


If I have gained one insight during the course of my career, it is this: music is simply not important to the majority of people.  Most listeners are content with music which doesn't require too much thought.  They don't want to be drawn away from the business of living their lives - all they really want is an easy-listening piece somewhere in the background, preferably with an easily-memorised hook with which they can sing along.  If this is provided, then there is no reason to delve any further into musical forms, or ponder the interaction between musicians in the process of creating their art.  The Recording Industry realised this all-important fact many years ago, and have, since then, devoted the bulk of their resources to churning out music which appeals to the majority, which requires no thought.  Now, in the 21st Century, the music which is commonly dispensed in lifts and supermarkets and on radio stations is all completely interchangeable, and this is exactly how the average listener wants it. 

World-wide, the Recording Industry is in the driving seat in a symbiotic relationship with music radio stations.  Airplay provides the Industry with a marketplace for their goods, whilst the stations would not survive without the Industry's input.  The Industry is aware that a Madonna album will sell in the millions, while a Ry Cooder album will only sell in the thousands.  The radio station will therefore receive a copy of the Madonna album and the hit tune will be played four times a day, but Ry, if he is lucky, will only ever receive airplay on 'specialist' shows where the DJ has gone out and bought the album himself.  Regrettably, South African commercial music stations have embraced the concept of 'music for the masses' wholeheartedly, and have seen fit to leave no room for shows catering to people for whom music is a vibrant, vital force.


2. Recently muscians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Elton John referred to the artistic liberation that came with the realisation that they won't receive mainstream radio time anymore. Do you think there is a new trend of alternative radio, especially linked with satellite and the Internet? And do you see this making rock in the broad sense freer and of a greater quality? One thinks, for example, of excellent recent work by veterans like Springsteen and Dylan, or younger bands like Interpol.


Personally, I think the future of 'specialist' music radio is in the Internet.  Commercial radio, certainly in this country, will never go back to providing music for specialists.  We've been driven underground, our only access to the airwaves via one tiny community station.  The way out is through the Internet.  Internet radio is still in its infancy, but as technology improves (more and more rapidly, it seems), I think some extremely interesting stations could set themselves up for a brilliant future.  I have no delusions regarding the number of listeners my show attracts in South Africa - in my heyday in the 80's, with a nation-wide FM signal, I doubt whether I ever had more than 100,000.  If I had a world-wide stage, it might be a different matter.  Once specialist stations start proliferating on the Internet, providing an outlet for music other than the commercial crud provided by the Industry, I'm sure alternative musicians and fringe record companies will be quick to see the advantages and possibilities.  As to whether this will spur musicians into making better music, I'm not entirely sure.  If I were a rock musician, and I heard my tune being played on the radio next to a tune by a peer which was undoubtedly better, I suspect that I would go back into the studio and try to improve my own music, and if I couldn't do that, I would probably abandon my musical ambitions and become a DJ!  


3. Your nickname of "The Rock Professor" says something of your remarkable ability over the years to expose excellent rock, folk and blues artists. Indeed, listening to a show of yours, that could include music from any decade from the 1950's onwards, one gets the idea that these genres are as vibrant and creative as ever, giving the lie to their much-proclaimed stagnation. How healthy are these genres in your opinion today? Are they worse off than previous, or is mainstream radio simply a very effective form of censorship?


This would have been easy to answer during my days as a front-line jock; it was reasonably easy for me to stay in touch with what was going on in the genres I play.  Obviously the record companies were of no assistance, but I had an excellent arrangement with Lenny at the now defunct Hillbrow Record Centre, and was able to purchase some 15 or 20 records or CD's every month.  To have truly been on top of it, I would have needed to buy 50 a month, but who can afford that except politicians and lawyers?  In the last five or six years I've been out of the business, so I have only bought personal favourites.  Recently, I have started buying music through Amazon, as there is nothing in the local music stores that I can use on-air.  Given my limited exposure to real music over the past few years, therefore, I can only say that the one area where I see and hear vibrant power, enthusiasm and energy is in the field of blues-rock boogie.  I'm convinced that if Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan and a host of others had survived the turbulence of the 60's and 70's, this is where they would be.  It's the one area where the musicians are actually having fun, as well as extending their skills.  And I'm not just talking about seasoned perfomers who have been in the field for decades; youngsters like Jonny Lang and Colin James have stepped up to the plate and performed heroically.  Catch my show for some fine examples!  And as far as mainstream radio being an effective form of censorship - absolutely!  Are the kids of today being provided with music outside of that which the Industry decrees as being fashionable and lucrative?  No, they're not.


4. In a country like South Africa serious music radio receives very little state funding, and is therefore often exposed to "the pressures of the marketplace", to quote Roger Waters. Currently you are attached to a community radio station, Radio Today AM1485. To what extent does community radio represent an economic alternative for serious music radio? Here one thinks of your club, The Rockfest, where listeners' membership fees help to finance the airtime.


At this point in time, it doesn't represent an economic alternative at all!  We are all doing this job simply for the fun of it.  There is no monthly stipend.  The money I spend on the new music I play - which I am impelled to buy in order to keep an element of freshness to the show - comes from my own pocket.  It's an anti-economic alternative!  However, I'm not complaining - the pleasure of playing Little Feat on air again far outweighs any of the disadvantages.  The revenue (such as it is) from the Rockfest Club will hopefully be used to upgrade equipment in the studio.  We already have two new CD players, which is a huge benefit.  When I first started on the station, the players had a habit of suddenly refusing to play tunes, or they would just stop at some point in the tune.  This leaves the hapless DJ with no alternative but to switch on the mike and chat cheerfully whilst attempting to kick the machines into action; an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least.  Financially, things might change if advertisers become aware of the specific markets we target - but I'm not holding my breath.

If I may digress for a moment, I would like to refer to the first sentence in your question.  It has always been my understanding that certain stations on the state-funded SABC had a mandate to cater for specialised segments of the country's listening population.  The Afrikaans Service (I'm sure it runs under a different name now) did just that and presumably still does.  All of the various African language stations presumably provide music which caters to their listeners' particular tastes.  Why is it, then, that the English Service (now SAFM) has seen fit to remove adult-oriented music shows and replace them with a bland, dull-as-dishwater playlist encompassing the entire station?  Commercial stations follow commercial trends - why must a state-funded station do the same?  Right, I'll jump off my hobby-horse now.


5. The French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, who has written extensively on culture and technology, maintains that since the Industrial Revolution music is much less performed, and much more listened to, primarily due to advances in recording technology. Where silence used to be omnipresent, music (often very poor) is  now everywhere. Indeed, we are all listeners today, often not by choice (ie in malls or supermarkets). In this context the serious DJ is something of an artist whose main technique is to listen and select, something of a mediator between the serious musician and the dedicated listener. What is your view on this?


The art of the DJ, for me, has always been in the 'mix'.  The way tunes are strung together, the way they blend one into another, the juxtaposition of certain styles to create a specific effect or mood, the quality of the music itself - these are the factors which differentiate a true 'music' DJ from a 'personality' DJ.  I was attracted to the business because it offered the possibility of exposing music which was receiving no air-time at all.


6. The Irish-Afrikaans rock historian Shiloh Noone has written a remarkable rock encyclopedia called Seeker's Guide to the Rhythms of Yesteryear. Noone maintains that rock during the 1950's, 60's and 70's had a spiritual quality that has now vanished. Listening to you one often gets the impression that your dedication to music is not only aesthetic, but also spiritual, even religious. Could you expound on this?


I won't deny that I have gained spiritual insights through music; I would like to think that everybody has.  If Gustav Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand does not uplift you spiritually, then I must revert to my point that music simply isn't important to the masses.  During the 60's and 70's, the words and music of bands and artists like Van Morrison, Jim Morrison and the Doors, Country Joe & The Fish, Pearls Before Swine and a multitude of others provided spiritual insights available to anybody who was prepared to hear them.  I think Shiloh Noone is correct when he says the rock of the 50's, 60's and 70's had a spiritual quality; he is obviously aware that a spiritual revolution was sweeping the world at that time, largely fuelled by marijuana and the psychedelics.  These had a profound spiritual influence on the young musicians of the day - hence the spiritual quality in some of their music.  For me, music is fundamental to Life - without it, we would be dessicated shadows of our true selves.


7. Which current musicians in rock, blues and folk would you single out?


Current rock?  I love The Subdudes, and The Blasters have just released a new album.  And there is a gentleman called Delbert McClinton, a harmonica player and singer from Texas, who has been recording his own brand of country-boogie for the past 30 years, and he's still doing it today.  The blues has a host of stars, my current favourites being Roy Rogers, Jimmy Thackery and Sonny Landreth.  In folk, I would recommend Patty Larkin. 


8. In closing perhaps a bit of an unfair question: in spite of unthinkable technological advances since the advent of chamber and symphonic music, remarkable avant-garde music is still created with the same instruments developed from the 15th to the 18th century, even though these genres are less linked to some form transcendence (the king, God) than previously. Could rock, blues and folk have the same longevity? After all their political and religious ideals were never quite as high as that of chamber and symphonic music.


I guess not.  Some music from the 60's and 70's still very much holds its own today, but much of it is dated. Some early rock tunes have achieved longevity via 'remixed' dance-oriented cover versions - but it's not much of a legacy. Classical works don't date; they just are.



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