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Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Radio is sound salvation in traffic hell.

Touch That Dial

Stay tuned for more crappy music, but first, here's traffic

By Gina Arnold

IN THE movie Amélie, which I highly recommend, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet introduces each new character with a catalog of their likes and dislikes. We find out that Amélie's mother is fond of men's ice skating outfits, that a client at her job enjoys popping bubble wrap and that Amelie herself gets great pleasure in plunging her bare arms elbow-deep in bins of nuts, grains and rice at the market.

It's a great way to describe people without wasting time on prose or conversations, and ever since seeing the film, I've been trying to describe myself and others in a similar way. It amuses me to note, for instance, that one of my friends really likes the burnt ends of toast, another takes solace in rearranging her furniture and a third loves to read Prince Valiant in the Sunday paper. As for me, I like working out complex games of solitaire, those ads for Coke where someone unexpected makes the ski team at the last moment, and listening to the traffic report, particularly when I'm not driving.

The traffic report is an addiction. Some people have it, some don't--and those who don't, like my brother--are irked by it. "It only tells me things I either know--like I'm in traffic--or don't need to know," he grouses, but I feel totally different. I like to find out what's going on on the Sunol Grade, or at Coyote Valley or "the Maze" or Hospital Curve--all places I'm not likely to be heading.

I'm not quite as bad as people who actually join the KCBS "phone force," I really only lurk there--but I do listen obsessively, even going so far as to change the station every eight minutes, interrupting whatever song I'm listening to.

I'm not sure what the attraction is. Omnipotence? Coincidence? Fatalism? But it did occur to me the other day that this obsessive channel-hopping to traffic was more of a comment on how bad commercial radio is than how interested I am in traffic. If I actually liked the music on the radio, I might not be so eager to punch the buttons.

My FM buttons are set at KISS FM, which lately has been playing way too much bad new soul music, 101.3 ("Your upbeat listen-at-work station!"), 89.9 (Estereo Sol), 104.9, 106.5 and the nearest NPR affiliate.

I sometimes hop to KFOG, Alice and Live-105, but basically, when it turns to 8, 18, 28, 38, 48 or 58 past the hour, I'll be hopping away from a song by Jill Scott, Joan Sebastian, Flock of Seagulls, Incubus, Sheryl Crow or Blink 182--and this is no great loss. I never seem to be hopping toward something anymore, and that's sad.

The problem is that I have such high expectations. When I was little, I loved listening to the radio--but then, I also loved Top 40. I believed in the miracle of phoning in your request. We had a rule in our house: "Driver has radio control." How sad I used to be when my mom wanted to hear the news or my brother wanted to listen to FM or my sister changed the station because she thought the music of Duran Duran was boring and vulgar and tacky. How right she was!

Later on, I listened to college radio, and its playlists were full of bands I loved. Nowadays, college radio annoys me almost as much as commercial radio does. The DJs seem bent on being willfully obscure, and so many of the songs they play are unlistenable.

Of course not all college radio is bad or pretentious; in fact, not all commercial radio is either. But it is uninteresting, and it used to be so cool. Now, in my head there is an imaginary radio station, that plays all kinds of great music--albeit music that I haven't heard yet and don't know I want to. Isn't that what radio's for? Digital downloading and Internet radio should have changed the paradigm by now, but the truth is, they haven't. One day, I hope to find something on the dial via one of those outlets, but until then, I'll just have to dream--and go on listening to the traffic report.

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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