Left Off The Dial: Radio Republic, Pinoytuner, Dig Radio — and Their OPM “Revolution”

Alex Almario

Thomas Hawk

After NU 107 stopped airing, the advocates of Pinoy rock migrated to the internet. Alex Almario assesses the online OPM revolution

On November 7, 2010, FM radio station NU 107 made its final broadcast to a mournful fan base. It was an end of an era whose peak coincided with, or perhaps was responsible for, the Pinoy alternative music explosion of the early 1990s. NU 107 was leaving behind a legacy forever tied to a golden age in OPM—a legacy that a generation continues to hold dear and mythologize.

For those of us who are part of that generation, we experienced two layers of sadness. On the surface was a collective grief over the loss of something that had been a huge part of our lives— a grief shared by the DJs, the listeners, and even the musical artists that achieved popularity through the station. It was a moving farewell, marked by the songs we used to love and the voices of DJs who came back to say goodbye. It took us back to a specific time in our music-listening lives. We felt a nostalgic comfort that eased our indignation over the seemingly unfair dissolution of a Pinoy music institution. The more we listened to their retrospective playlists that featured “Thank You” by The Pale Fountains, “Na Naman” by Color it Red, and anything by the Eraserheads, the more our indignation was tempered by the other sadness lurking underneath.

Our reminiscing eventually brought us to the sadder, less obvious truth: NU 107 hadn’t been relevant in years. Most of us who tuned in to that final broadcast tuned in for the first time in months, if not years. We weren’t really sad because it was an end of an era; the era ended a long time ago. We were sad because its funeral had come too late.

 Pioneers of a  new revolution

A few months later, NU 107 made its unofficial comeback, and it fell way under the radar, way outside the radio dial, and far beyond the public consciousness. Dig Radio, an internet radio service specializing in modern rock was launched by live streaming website Pinoytuner on February the following year, inheriting some familiar names off of NU 107’s roster—Joystick Jay, Trish, and Francis Brew—and even its programming format. Those distinct “noo one-oh-seven” and “the home of new rock” breakers were nowhere to be heard, but the familiar voices and songs made it a passable facsimile of the defunct radio station.

A year later, Radio Republic followed suit, with former NU 107 station manager Ron Titular as its Chief Operating Officer, personally hand-picked by visionaries Twinky Lagdameo and Ryan Cayabyab of 7101 Music Nation, a musical collective of veteran musicians and songwriters aiming to cultivate Original Pinoy Music from the grassroots. Unlike Dig Radio and Pinoytuner as a whole, Radio Republic exists solely as a vehicle designed to support, promote, and foster Original Pinoy Music. It plays only OPM. It features new local albums, samples a few cuts, and tells people where to buy them. It goes by a mantra that mirrors its noble and ambitious thrust:

“Join the movement. Start the revolution.
Radio Republic. This is OPM.”

There are absolutely no precedents for what Radio Republic and Pinoytuner are doing to champion OPM. Both combine the basic radio format of NU 107, with a live performance tradition that stretches back to the days of ABC 5’s Music Bureau, MYX’s Halo-Halo, and its current incarnation MYX Live, with music reviews and features that channel Western hipster bibles Pitchfork and Stereogum. Their method is thorough and all-encompassing; their tools are modern, and their aim is admirable.

Yet, as of this writing, they remain insignificant in Philippine pop culture, and in almost every way, even more irrelevant than NU 107 was in its dying years.

Status quo 1, Revolution 0.

 OPM: dead or alive

“FM radio is dead” is a tempting statement to make for a middle class music fan whose tastes skew towards modern rock. After all, claiming the death of anything these days is a surefire way to create a meme. But FM radio has been thriving in recent years; masa radio stations like Love Radio, Yes FM, and Barangay LS have long captured the imagination of the FX-driving, FX-riding, sari-sari-store-tending public. You hear these stations everywhere, as they have attained a ubiquity that can only be equaled by billboards and the whir of motorcycles.

So why is OPM “dead”? Or at least: why did that assertion even gain enough legs to warrant a protracted debate?

The latter is the more interesting question, since it leads to a more important point: we cared about that debate because we made it up—“we”, meaning the middle to upper classes. We’re the only ones who care about whether OPM is dead or alive, deteriorating or improving, truly “Pinoy” or westernized. While we’re busy arguing about these things, the masa are busy not caring to an inversely proportional degree as they sing along to Bryan Termulo and Angeline Quinto. Our concern is strictly one-way. Among the two major social classes, we are the ones who care about our music being liked by the other class.

The last time they liked “our” music, NU 107 was still at its peak—the time when a band called the Eraserheads broke out with two straight singles that transcended class lines: “Ligaya” then “Pare Ko.” These songs were first heard on an upstart radio station called LA 105, which at the time, was only known to a handful of underground scenesters, until they were picked up by NU 107 and DWLS FM (then known as “Campus Radio”). Soon enough, the Eraserheads were everywhere. Their rise to fame had a Nirvana-like effect on the Pinoy music industry: suddenly, radio stations were playing Pinoy rock, record labels were signing underground bands left and right, if not manufacturing ones from thin air (i.e., Rivermaya).

It was a sea change for a musical landscape that was heretofore dominated by 80s-style power ballads. The larger implication, of course, was that OPM finally cut across class divisions— it appealed to the chongs of gated exclusive villages, the punks of college campuses and urban neighborhoods, and the jeepney drivers who listened to Barry Manilow and Scorpion.

So why don’t we have that now? What happened to OPM? The answer to this question is far simpler: nothing happened to OPM; it’s alive and well.

But everything happened to radio.

Tama Na Ang Drama

For a solid three to four week stretch at the end of last year, both Radio Republic and Dig Radio featured the same album aggressively, giving it the full promotional treatment that only these two websites could give. The album, Tama na ang Drama by Ang Bandang Shirley, was a curious choice, considering that Up Dharma Down’s newly-released “Capacities”—an album armed with years of anticipation and a Paul-Buchanan-guest-vocals PR juiciness—never achieved the same headline status. This is pure conjecture, of course, but the reason may be that Ang Bandang Shirley is a living, breathing rebuttal to the “OPM is dead/irrelevant/inaccessible” argument. To an agenda-based vehicle like Radio Republic, this means everything.

Ang Bandang Shirley, at their best, sounds like an evolved progeny of the Eraserheads—the next step at perfecting a sound and sensibility carried on by Sugarfree in the aughts. They marry the indie pop preciousness of Buzz Nights-era bands like Soft Pillow Kisses with the accessibility of the same 80s-style OPM ballads that used to dominate Pinoy radio. In fact, some of their songs (“Patintero/Habulan/Larong Kalye”, “Di Na Babalik”, “Sa Madaling Salita” come to mind) are more polished than any Eraserheads song, while teeming with the same local references and colloquialisms. When they sing “patintero, sa tapat ng bahay niyo tayo maglalaro, kung saan nahahati ang daan ng mga linyang nagtuturo na kahit laro ay mayroon ding hangganan” they elicit the same chills of homegrown familiarity reminiscent of “field trip sa may pagawaan ng lapis ay katulad ng buhay natin – isang mahabang pila, mabagal, at walang katuturan.”

OPM is perhaps in better shape now than it’s ever been in its history. Ang Bandang Shirley is just the tip of an iceberg that is loaded with great music that will forever be submerged and frozen in waters inaccessible to themasa. But accessible bands like Ang Bandang Shirley do exist and the people behind Radio Republic and Dig Radio know this, which is why they’re doing everything in their power to promote and support this brand of Pinoy Pop which seems destined for mass relevance. Unfortunately, what Ang Bandang Shirley needs is radio. And perhaps a time machine that will take them back to 1992.

Nothing like the Eraserheads circa Ultraelectromagneticpop will ever happen again in our musical landscape that has been forever changed by digital media and the internet. What we have now is an industry limbo that exists between the real-life comfort of piracy in the third world and a risk-averse radio/recording industry that has become even more concerned with the bottom line, forcing a local music scene to cling to the social class that can afford to exist in this limbo. Majority of Pinoys have stopped paying for music, so the task of sustaining it has fallen on the ones who have pockets deep enough to keep buying guitars, drum sets, drum machines, and music editing equipment without the help of lucrative record deals. The result is a social gap between the music listeners and the music makers that has become increasingly hard to ignore. It is a gap that Radio Republic, Pinoytuner, and Dig Radio are trying their damnedest to bridge.

It’s ironic that the Pinoy band scene is now wider, more diverse, and more in step with its western influences than ever before—a development that can easily be attributed to the internet and digital media technology. We don’t have to rely on radio stations anymore to tell us what’s out there; modern technology has opened us up to a world previously shrouded by FM radio and local record distributors. Not only has our access to pop music knowledge multiplied exponentially, so has our access to the musical products themselves. In the 80s, you could’ve only read about a band like The Replacements in a photocopied fanzine you got from some drunken punk sitting outside Mayric’s. Today you can download videos and entire albums of a band like Yuck without even leaving your room.

The internet’s effect on music is as promising as it is confusing. But a band scene abandoned by a bleeding recording industry has had no choice but to seek the internet for refuge. Internet radio may not be as powerful as FM radio was in the 90s, but it’s all they’ve got. It’s one of the few mouthpieces left for a scene that has shrunk to a mutual admiration society, which, because of its complete divorce from old business structures, has been all the better for it. When you take away the prospect of rock stardom, all you are left with is an enterprise that puts music first. And it’s a formula that has historically led to great music.

But the fact that we’re experiencing an unacknowledged golden age of OPM is not ironic; it makes complete sense. There’s a reason that the pre-Nirvana 80s underground movement in America produced the best post-punk music and not 90s alternative; an environment that has little to no commercial rewards will always be more conducive to risks and, consequently, greatness. And greatness sometimes has a way of emerging one way or another. No one thought Sonic Youth would ever sign to a major label in 1986. No one imagined the Eraserheads would be bigger than Francis Magalona in 1990. But they had radio and it homogenized the revolution. Now bands have live streaming websites. And torrent sites. And YouTube. And social media. And music blogs. Ad infinitum.

It’s hard to predict where and how the revolution will come in a cultural environment that fragments into infinitesimal digital and cyber pieces. Pinoytuner, Dig Radio, and Radio Republic are not just competing against FM radio for relevance, they’re competing against an entire universe of new listening habits and music consumption. A revolution is happening, only it isn’t the one they’re hoping for. It’s a revolution that’s keeping them irrelevant, while making their playlists exceedingly sublime.