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Peterson: Becoming own DJ evokes operatic memories

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 10:20 p.m. CDT

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I don’t know how long it has been exactly – maybe a year – but I have a new favorite radio station thanks to columnist colleague Michael Penkava.

I’ve been listening to music on the radio steadily for about 45 years, and I have had to chose the stations I tuned in based on the kind and the amount of music they played, unless I was interested in news or a ball game, and that’s a whole other story.

I couldn’t choose my own station until I was in seventh or eighth grade and I had my own transistor radio. Before that, I had to listen to what my parents listened to, and that led to appreciation of music and news I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Or not.

I often didn’t want to listen to the music they listened to, so I tuned it out and let my imagination play, and worse things could have happened to me.

The last blowup I had with my parents’ music came when I was 14 years old, and it was a wintry spring Saturday afternoon, and we were making the eight-hour drive from Donnellson, Iowa, to South St. Paul, Minn. My mom, dad and I were squeezed in the front seat, and my four younger brothers and sisters were squeezed in the backseat of the Impala station wagon.

And playing on the radio was the live Metropolitan Opera of New York, brought to you by Texaco every Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t a fan of opera, and the sound was particularly excruciating that afternoon. My imagination wouldn’t play. I was trapped, and the arias pounded in my head.

After two or three hours of that, I vowed never to travel again long distances with my parents. If they were going to visit relatives in Minnesota, I would stay home in Iowa. I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Whether my vow was carried out, I don’t remember. We didn’t make that many trips to Minnesota. But I don’t remember any other operas, so I’m thinking I won out one way or another.

Move ahead 45 years, and that wouldn’t happen because of the proliferation of personal music on MP3 players and cellphones that really are powerful computers. You can have a full load of kids in the car, and they won’t hear the music you are listening to on the radio. Their heads will be plugged into their earbuds and their own music, completely unaware of what you are saying or listening to.

Talk about soothing the savage beast.

The new radio station really isn’t a radio station but a website, Pandora.com. You create your own radio stations based on the kind of music you like. Yes, that’s plural. And it’s free, although for $3.99 a month, you can pay for the service, and you get imprecise benefits.

The price is low enough, but I’m satisfied with free. You listen to commercials for 15 or 30 seconds occasionally, but it’s nothing that is long or intrusive.

I have created ambient new age, classical, contemporary Christian, country, Christmas, jazz and two rock ‘n’ roll stations. Something for almost every mood.

To create a station, you start typing in the name of artists you like, and it starts playing their music, along with music by similar artists. You can add to your list by giving songs and artists a thumbs-up. And if you don’t like where the music is taking you, you can always give it a thumbs-down, and it stops the song and moves on to the next piece.

My favorite station is the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s rock, playing upbeat familiar classics. But over the year, it has become a grab bag of musical genres. Give guitarist Leo Kotke a thumbs-up, and it gives the computer the idea that you like similar artists, and if you like them and give them a thumbs-up, too, soon enough Pandora will be playing sets of guitarists.

Same goes with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and soon enough you will be getting sets filled with John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Or Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

That takes you away from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Steve Miller Band, Led Zeppelin, Journey, Gordon Lightfoot and Dire Straits. To get back on track, you might have to thumbs-down perfectly good music, one piece after another, to get back to classic rock.

But sometimes, I like the mix of genres and I let it go, which only feeds the other sets.

Listening to Pandora ties you down to a computer, although I am sure smartphones can pick it up, and you probably can get a device to listen to it in your car, but that comes with a fee and we’re not willing to play that. There are enough radio stations available on the car radio to keep us happy.

Even on Saturday afternoons. But no Metropolitan Opera. I’d gladly pay Pandora a handsome premium if it came down to that.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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