For as much as I love radio I have to admit that there’s very few programs that I might consider appointment listening. Sure, I tune in to NPR daily to catch up on the news with Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but they’re pretty interchangeable to me. If, for some reason, the BBC News Hour were on instead I’d notice the difference, but I wouldn’t turn off the radio.
My #5 is not appointment listening. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I do know when it’s on, and if I happen to be in a radio listening mood at that time, I will be sure to tune it in. In fact, when it comes to commercial radio–especially syndicated commercial radio–it’s my favorite program currently on the air.
Little Steven’s Underground Garage stands out from most commercial music radio because it still shows the idosyncratic touch of its namesake host. Focused on the somewhat ill-defined subgenre of garage rock, the program plays rough-edged rock and roll that finds its roots with 1960s bands like the Troggs who went on to inspire early punks like the Ramones and later rockers such as the White Stripes. While this sort of rock is a mainstay of the Underground Garage, Little Steven takes a kind of “I know it when I see it” approach to the show, including a healthy does of Motown and other early rock nuggets alongside the more catholic selections. But his approach is not a hodge podge, like any real music DJ he draws connections between the songs he plays, often explaining why he deems an unorthodox choice worthy of inclusion.
Host Little Steven Van Zandt is otherwise known as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but in his off time has dedicated himself to the promotion and preservation of garage rock. While I certainly like most of the music labeled garage rock, I would never have considered myself a particular fan, as such. I first became aware of Little Steven’s campaign for the subgenre when a band local to Champaign-Urbana, IL, where I used to live, The Blackouts (now The Living Blue) won his first Underground Garage Battle of the Bands. That’s when I first tuned in to the program Sunday nights on the local classic rock station.
I keep tuning in to the program because Little Steven doesn’t keep trotting out the same lineup of so-called classics each week, just changing up the order. Sure, you’ll hear some of his favorites like the Dictators way more often than you would on any other commercial program, but that’s a good thing. It really sounds like he digs into the archives to pull out lesser-known gems. He also features newer bands, such as the Raveonettes, who receive little if any commercial radio play.
As a host, Little Steven is definitely unique, bringing a sometimes cheesy sense of humor to bare, backed up with sound clips from 50s and 60s horror and science fiction b-movies. At times his attempts at relevant commentary and humor are a little awkward and hackneyed, but they’re also sincere, and mercyfully short. The music is still front and center.
This being syndicated commercial radio there’s a fair share of bad national commercials to sit through, in addition to local spots. But the fact that the Underground Garage is on the air in the first place is bit of triumph. Little Steven started the program in 2002 without the help of the usual national radio syndicators like Westwood One, enlisting the sponsorship of the Hard Rock Cafe to get started.
There’s an Underground Garage channel on satellite radio, too, managing to survive the merger of XM and Sirius. When I had Sirius as part of my Dish Network package I’d occasionally listen to the UG channel. It features a range of guest hosts, like Joan Jett and Handsome Dick Manitoba (of the aforementioned Dictators), in addition to slots hosted by Little Steven. As I recall the playlist was looser than many other Sirius channels, but still had a definite rotation.
I’ve most appreciated the Underground Garage those times when I’m driving across the middle of the country on a weekend night and in between the same uninspired pop country and adult contemporary fare I stumble upon Little Steven’s mushmouthed Jersey accent. Thanks to Mr. Van Zandt for keeping rock n roll radio alive for at least a couple of hours a week.
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