New MPR station 89.3 FM The Current is ready to reclaim Minnesota’s alternative music airwaves
by Rob van Alstyne
Nearly a quarter-century ago the Buggles declared that “video killed the radio star,” as MTV first hit the airwaves. Little did they know the horrible truth, that the radio star was about to be pummeled into a shell of its former self by the vicious, combined consolidation of radio station and major record label ownership.
merger this summer between Sony Music Group and BMG means that there are now just
four “major” record labels left on the playing field (Sony BMG, Universal
Music Group, WEA, and EMI.), down from more than twice that number just a decade
ago. What does that actually mean? Since commercial FM radio has gargantuan promoting
costs, only artists signed to major labels have a shot at the airwaves. As each
subsequent merger results in scores of “unprofitable” artists being
dropped, the talent pool of artists on the radio becomes absurdly small.
As anyone with a pair of ears and a head on their shoulders could tell you, finding
adventurous pop music on the airwaves today is tantamount to capturing that ever-elusive
needle in a haystack. It would be nice to think that the Twin Cities would be
safe from commercial radio’s consistently accelerated dumbing down over
the last decade—nice, but false.
Even as the current “alternative” station in our market, Drive 105,
boldly proclaims itself not owned or operated by Clear Channel communications”
at seemingly every ad break, the DJs neglect to mention that Drive is owned by
the country’s second largest radio conglomerate, ABC/Disney. Featuring a
rotation that only sparingly plays music from independent labels, runs the same
five “new” songs into the ground and claims to offer “more local
music” by spinning something off Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancer’s
Union or the Jayhawks’ “Blue,” it’s pretty hard for any
informed rock listener to honestly feel Drive 105 is doing right by them.
all a far cry from the halcyon days of yore—or so I’m told, as someone
who didn’t elocate to Minnesota until the tail-end of the ’90s. Former
alternative rock station REV 105 lives on in the hearts and minds of most Twin
Cities music lovers as a radio station that had it right, playing a mix of old
and new, independent and major-label music. When the station was sold to ABC/Disney
in the wake of the Telecommunications act of 1996 —which effectively loosened
restrictions on radio station ownership and allowed Clear Channel to gobble up
a dominating share—a local collective, Americans for Radio Diversity, sprung
up to try to protest the sale. The buy out of REV 105 even made the pages of Rolling
Stone, where then-Soul Coughing front man M. Doughty was quoted as saying, “Having
officially walked through every radio station in North America, I can honestly
say REV was the only one that had a cause that was righteous.”
Now, in what is undoubtedly Minnesota rock radio’s darkest FM hour, Minnesota
Public Radio (with the aid of many former REV 105 staffers) has come to right
our music-loving ship. In the final days of 2004, it was announced that MPR had
bought out 89.3 on the FM dial and was replacing that station’s current
classical music format with a new “anti-format” station, KCMP, The
Current. The good news for Twin Cities music lovers has been pouring in ever since,
as a virtual who’s-who of Twin Cities radio has quickly been assembled for
the new 89.3 staff. Steve Nelson, who helped found Radio K, was named program
director. Thorn, former assistant program director at REV 105, was named 89.3’s
music director. Longtime local music scene fixtures Mary Lucia (former REV 105
DJ and current “Soundtrack to Mary” columnist for the Rake), Mark
Wheat (the famed British voice of Radio K) and Steve Seel (most recently employed
by MPR as host of its national classical music service) were named full-time DJs.
took to the airwaves Monday morning at 9 a.m. and hit the ground running—playing
a mix of high-profile national indie artists (Death Cab for Cutie, Iron &
Wine), local stalwarts (The Replacements, Atmosphere), musical legends (Hank Williams,
Bob Dylan) and a good deal of interesting music in between (Spearhead, Matt Pond
PA, the Specials). And that was just the first 90 minutes on the air.
With the roll-out of the new station at that time just four days away, I got the
chance to meet up with the aforementioned staffers along with longtime MPR Morning
Show host Dale Connelly (whose show will be moving to the new station) and Minnesota
Public Radio senior vice president for cultural programming and initiatives Sarah
Lutman at MPR’s downtown St. Paul headquarters to discuss the future of
Pulse: When most music-loving people I know talk about radio now, it
tends to be in terms of Clear Channel and just all the negative effects of consolidation
that are happening. Sadly, most of the people I know who are really passionate
about music have kind of given up on radio completely. We’re sort of in
this IPOD age where people program their own radio stations and just use the
Internet to find out about new music. Do you see a similar decline in radio
maybe not being as big a force as it was for passionate music lovers? How do
you go about having that same impact that radio used to have in this sort of
Steve Nelson: I think, first of all, everyone of us around this table
kind of falls into that category of being a music-head and really loving music
and seeking out ways to discover new music. I think one of the things missing
from the commercial dial in the Twin Cities is a station that has that broad
and deep playlist to help introduce people to new stuff and play things you
might not expect to hear on a commercial radio station. When we’re searching
for new music personally we have sources that we all trust, and I think that
this new station is going to end up being a source for music lovers to trust
and tune in and listen to what’s cool and what’s going on.
Wheat: And to specifically answer the question about the IPOD age, I think
we’re all radio-heads as well as music-heads, so there’s a part
of us that doesn’t want to see radio as a medium die. I think that’s
part of what we’re doing, trying to reinvigorate people’s passion
for radio and trust in it as a medium where they can find out about music.
Steve Seel: Not because we work in it … well partly (laughs).
We’re also radio listeners, we have very strong feelings about what good
radio is when we’ve heard it. And we think there could be more. We relish
the opportunity to be able to create more and we’re listening to people
as well. What do you miss? What should be done? We want to do it.
Sarah Lutman: The only thing you’ll ever hear on your IPOD is
what you program into it. On the radio you don’t know what’s going
to happen next. Radio has more people involved and there’s just that opportunity
to be surprised.
Dale Connelly: There’s a relationship that develops between the
people who are doing the programming and the people who are listening that your
IPOD can’t duplicate. We hope that the relationship is going to go both
ways. We’re really interested in hearing what the people on the other
end of the line’s ideas are.
Pulse: One of the big things that got people buzzing about this new
station is sort of the ghost of REV 105 coming back to life with a lot of the
people who worked for that station (Steve Thorn, Mary Lucia) playing a major
part in the new 89.3. As someone who moved to the Twin Cities in 1999 I don’t
know much about REV 105 beyond the folklore and the fact that it was obviously
a revered local institution. Do you see KCMP as sort of picking up the torch
from where REV 105 left off in some respects? In what ways do you think the
two stations will differ?
Steve Nelson: I think that REV was a wonderful station, but the new
station is going to be pretty different from what REV was. For one thing, it’s
just a different time. You’ve already made mention about the digital music
age we’re living in now, and music is really in just a different place
altogether than when REV was still on the air.
When REV went off the air, music was becoming kind of stinky. It was right
when the whole sort of rap-rock monster and bands like Limp Bizkit were taking
over. The whole alt. scene, its time had passed in a lot of ways. Even if REV
had stuck around I don’t know what we would have played during that period
… those were pretty dark times (laughs).
Mary Lucia: The reason people loved REV had a lot to do with the music
but also with the people who were on the air. I think people regarded REV 105
as sort of a personal friend. I still to this day have people talk to me about
it and it’s always very personal. I’ve never worked at a station
since where I’ve had that sense that people felt really hurt when it went
off the air.
Steve Nelson: I think that the playlist on this new station is going
to be broader and wider than the playlist was on REV. We have a giant news department
here at Minnesota Public Radio that we’re going to draw on for this new
station, which is something that REV didn’t have. Of course the big difference
is that we’re going to be a listener-supported public radio station whereas
REV was a commercial radio station. So I think that there are quite a few differences
between the two stations, not just in terms of time and place, but in terms
of philosophy as a whole.
Pulse: Do you have other public radio stations in mind that you’re
hoping to emulate in terms of the way KCMP is programmed?
Steve Nelson: Today you can buy radio stations with a catalog of 600
songs and on-air voices pre-programmed. This station can’t be like that
because all of our DJs are entwined in the community, we all live here—we’re
going to be supporting local music. In those respects there are some other public
radio stations that have those same values and goals, but in terms of what they
sound like, I think this station’s going to sound very different than
any other station that’s out there. There are some great public radio
stations out there, but I don’t think we would ever pick one and say,
“we want to copy that station.” We want to create something for
the Twin Cities that is really new and unique and serves this community.
Mark Wheat: From a non-commercial radio industry point of view, there’s
obviously been examples of where formats that played contemporary music have
succeeded in the non-com area, and that’s inspired Minnesota Public Radio
to go along with this for their third stream. News and classical is sort of
the classic double bill of public radio but this is a new format that’s
been shown to be supported by enough people to be wired.
There are some people within the Twin Cities music community who are worried
how this new station will affect Radio K (770 AM, the University of Minnesota’s
long-standing college-rock leaning station). Given that some of you have worked
for Radio K and even helped found it, how do you address those people and their
fears? How do you see the relationship between KCMP and Radio K sorting out?
I personally don’t feel like there’s that much of a conflict just
because Radio K is inherently limited in some of the things it can do because
of being on the AM dial and having a license that only allows it to be on the
air during daylight hours.
Mark Wheat: Well there’s going to be some overlap, obviously,
in terms of the type of music that we play, but again, we’re all music-heads
and radio-heads and we’ve been living in this city for a long time and
saying that it’s been known, really internationally, as a great town for
local music and for bands coming through on tour. Music is a huge part of the
culture here. And I think we’ve all thought that the audience in the Twin
Cities deserves a bigger range of choices. It’s our hope that there is
a big enough audience in the Twin Cities to support this new station and to
maintain Radio K and KFAI who play some of the same music as well. That being
said, there are some people who simply won’t listen to AM ever—
they just don’t go there. So for them there has never been the kind of
station that’s going to play the type of music we’re going to play,
we’re going to be on FM and broadcasting 24/7. I hope that it will be
a mutually beneficial relationship. I think that this station has the potential
to turn on a whole new audience that never listens to non-com, so then if they
find out about us and then find out that Radio K plays some of the same music,
we could even be the gateway to helping new people discover non-commercial radio
in the Twin Cities. That’s how I feel anyway.
Pulse: I know it’s a little early to have all of the programming
set in stone, but I’m wondering at this point if you have certain programming
guidelines in place. Are you planning on bringing in any of the sort of “big
names” in syndicated public radio programming of pop music, like say,
“World Café,” “Morning Becomes Eclectic” or “Mt
Stage”? Is there any sort of percentage you guys have in mind in terms
of how much local music you plan on spinning?
Steve Nelson: First off, I can give you the schedule for our weekdays.
Dale Connelly’s Morning show will be on from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.; 9 a.m.
to 2.pm. is Thorn’s shift. 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. is Lucia’s; 7 p.m. to
12 a.m. is Wheat’s and Midnight to 5 a.m. is Steve Seel’s shift,
then it starts off all over again. In terms of national programming there are
a couple of shows that we have looked at and we’re probably going to end
up airing one or two of them, but we really want to build some specialty shows
of our own to take advantage of the talents of the people here in the Twin Cities
to make some great radio. That’s a process that’s growing, it’s
going to start slowly and build from there, just because we had to get the station
set up and launched relatively quickly. As far as local music goes, we don’t
really have any kind of percentage in mind. We’re going to be committed
to playing local music throughout the day. It’s not just going to live
in one little spot. We’ll probably have a local show, but that’s
not the only time that you’re going to hear it on our station.
And it’s not just going to be the Replacements and Soul Asylum (laughs).
Steve Nelson: Who we love …
Steve Thorn: Yeah, but, you know … that’s why Mark moved
Mark Wheat: Uh huh.
Mary Lucia: That is so weird, that’s just too weird (laughs).
Pulse: I know Mark mentioned earlier that this station might get people
listening to non-commercial radio who previously hadn’t, but one of the
things that has me excited about 89.3 is the idea that you could maybe draw
some of the more traditional public radio news and classical listeners into
the fold. I know there’s a lot of people out there who feel like commercial
radio has really fallen by the wayside and who just aren’t engaged with
pop music at all currently. They feel like the last good record they bought
was in 1991 and that nothing good has happened since. I’m excited at the
idea of older listeners or just people outside of the typical indie-rock person
getting exposed to the fact there’s all of this exciting music going on
Thorn: I remember the last local radio show that Mary did and she closed
by encouraging people not to lower their expectations. Sadly, I don’t
think that happened. I think in a lot of ways what people demanded from radio
kind of did lessen. I feel like we’re kind of trying to raise the bar
Sarah Lutman: I also feel that just naturally in your life you have
less time as you get older. You take on more responsibilities—children,
a house, gutters to clean out—all different types of things. And you don’t
have the same appetite to go out and discover pop music for yourself. So for
people who are maybe a little bit older it’s really easy to write off
pop music. Because if you say, “oh I want to learn a little bit about
what’s going on” and you turn on the radio—I mean forget it,
it’s horrible! So therefore you become ossified in your musical tastes
and only want to listen to classic rock because just sorting through to find
quality music today is just plain too much work. The signal-to-noise ratio is
just way too distorted. I think this station will present a strong opportunity
for people of all ages who are musically curious. To
be able to open up the New York Times and see a review of something you’ve
never heard of and then turn your radio on and actually get to hear it and discover
that you like it and realize there are things happening currently that really
do appeal to you that you just don’t know about, I think that’s
Steve Seel: Especially in a community such as this, where there’s
such a vibrant music scene, there’s no reason a station like this shouldn’t
exit. It’s amazing to think, and sad to think, that some people who live
in the metro area might not even be aware of it. Why is that? There’s
so much happening here and that should be reflected on the radio. We’re
extremely excited to be able to do that and it’s about time.
Pulse: How does 89.3 being a public radio station enable it to operate
differently than its commercial competitors?
Steve Seel: We have the privilege and the responsibility to have a mission.
It’s a privilege and an expectation that we will have a mission. Uh, someone
pick up on that … (laughs).
Sarah Lutman: Well basically Minnesota Public Radio’s mission
is to enrich the mind and nourish the spirit, and that’s a very tall charge.
We respect the listeners’ deep intelligence and we want them to have their
curiosity fostered. We think that when people are curious and informed that
they make a better society. We just sort of wake up in the morning with different
ideas than a commercial station.
Dale Connelly: The other thing about public radio, and the thing that
attracted me to it, is that we start out without the drive that a commercial
station must have to get the largest possible audience and be the number-one
station in town. While I think that we would all enjoy it, if we found suddenly
that we were the number-one station in town, we’d also have to ask ourselves
if we were doing our job (whole room erupts into laughter). We have the chance
to really honor music with this station by being music lovers and appealing
to music lovers, and so you go to the music first and then you see who comes
with you and that’s the audience that you end up serving. What you get
with that if it all works out right is that the listeners understand how the
station works as a public station and they’re willing to support it. If
we can get that all going, then we’re doing our jobs.
Steve Thorn: That’s what I was going to say (laughs).
Sarah Lutman: Our [future] listeners’ standards for us are so
high. I mean, just by reading the blog they are already so passionate and they
already know what they think we should be doing. They’re like the best
watchdogs we’ll ever have.
Mary Lucia: One of the expectations I think with listener-supported
radio is that you have the responsibility to give them something they can’t
necessarily get otherwise. I always come up with the analogy that no one ever
washes a rental car. A commercial radio station is like a rental car, you have
no stake in it. But when it’s yours, it becomes much more personal and
you care about it.
Pulse: I want to look ahead into the future a bit. A year from now where
do you hope the station will be?
Nelson: That’s a good question. I think we want to make something
Steve Thorn: … the community’s proud of.
Steve Nelson: Yeah, I want it to be a situation where you meet someone
and say, “Hey, I’m from the Twin Cities,” and the next words
out of your mouth are, “and we’ve got this great radio station.”
I think that would be spectacular.
Sarah Lutman: Just some evidence that we struck a chord and are getting
things right, that the station feels like a musical home to people and makes
for a stronger musical community in the Cities. Good radio stations have a way
of sustaining a creative community around them in terms of venues and musicians.
I think we can do that. ||