A Real Rock 'n' Roll Radio Station... for Your Pledge of Just $10 a Month?

Paul Demko, Diablo Cody, and Dylan Hicks offer three takes on MPR's new baby

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see bottom of the page.]

This past weekend, while shopping at the Electric Fetus, I asked one of the record store's regular employees what the hot sellers were. "Anything on the Current," he chuckled, "catalog stuff, new stuff, anything they're playing." After just five weeks on the air, it seems that MPR's new alt-rock-and-variety station is already a significant tastemaker in town, as Rev-105 was in the mid-'90s. The Current could turn Entry bands into Mainroom bands, or turn Elliott Smith fans into Bessie Smith fans, or Bessie Smith fans into Smiths fans--they might even help turn a few local bands into national bands. What follows are three early takes on the five-week-old station. First, Paul Demko examines how the Current fits into MPR's history and business plan, and asks what effect the station might have on its commercial and nonprofit competitors. On page 22, Diablo Cody sits down with DJ Mark Wheat and gets at what makes the station exceptional. Then on page 24, I try to point out the limits of the Current's avowed eclecticism, especially with respect to racial and cultural diversity. --Dylan Hicks

A Prairie Home Rebellion
By Paul Demko

TWO WEEKS AGO SHARON JONES was enjoying breakfast at the Egg & I restaurant with her band, the Dap-Kings. The 47-year-old soul diva was in town for a gig at the 400 Bar that evening. During breakfast, a familiar song came over the restaurant's radio: "How Do I Let a Good Man Down," from her band's most recent
album, Naturally.

"I made the lady turn it up," Jones laughs. "I said, 'That's me on the radio.'" She then turned to the ladies in the next booth and giddily repeated the announcement. "Really, that's us on the radio."

Jones's ebullience is understandable. Her band's brand of old-school, James Brown-inspired funk-and-soul doesn't generate much radio airplay anywhere in the country. And it's pretty safe to say that prior to January 26--the day that Minnesota Public Radio launched the Current (KCMP, 89.3 FM)--there was little chance that Jones would have had such a fortuitous encounter with her own music in the Twin Cities.

Featuring an eclectic mix that ranges from freshly minted indie pop to vintage blues and emphasizes local music, the fledgling station has drawn rave reviews from Twin Cities music lovers. "I think you have to give them credit because they are exposing artists and music that have been rejected by basically every other radio station in the country," says Jeff Collins, program director for local alternative-rock station Drive 105 FM.

That compliment might be somewhat backhanded, but there's little doubt that the Current is shaking up the local radio landscape. For-profit stations such as Drive 105 and small public broadcasters such as the University of Minnesota's Radio K (770 AM, 106.5 FM) are watching closely to see how they will be affected (swept away?) by the Current.

There are already signs that the new MPR station will be a financial success. During the Current's first three weeks on the air, listeners contributed roughly $100,000 through the station's website. The money rolled in even though the DJs never made an explicit fundraising pitch over the airwaves. This week the Current kicked off its first official fund drive.

The initial response from potential underwriters (known in non-public-radio parlance as advertisers) has been impressive as well. MPR won't reveal how much money has been pledged, but as of last week, the station had signed up 39 new sponsors. "The underwriting people are going nuts," says Sarah Lutman, MPR's senior vice president for cultural programming and initiatives, who oversaw the creation of the station.

It's too early to determine exactly how many people are listening to the Current. The first Arbitron ratings period that could possibly reflect the station's market share won't be released until at least April. But there are anecdotal signs that the Current is drawing a lot of listeners. In its first two weeks the station received 6,000 song requests via e-mail. On Valentine's Day, when listeners were asked to send in their favorite love songs, the Current received 450 different suggestions. Program director Steve Nelson notes that he's done five interviews just with high school newspapers. "I think we're off to a good, strong start," Nelson says. "I think there's a lot of room to grow. We're constantly getting new music in. We're looking at different programming ideas."

 

MPR IS THE 800-POUND GORILLA
of public radio. The entity is actually just one of six nonprofit and for-profit companies organized under a conglomerate known as the American Public Media Group. With the purchase of classical station WCAL-FM (89.3) from St. Olaf College for $10.5 million in August, MPR now operates 38 radio stations spread across seven states. The organization employs almost 400 people and brings in more than $50 million in revenue annually. "They portray themselves as this little hometown radio station," says Collins of Drive 105, which is owned by ABC Radio. "Hell, they have more radio stations than ABC does."

But even with MPR's far-flung operations, there was little precedent for creating a high-power FM public-radio station that primarily plays rock 'n' roll. Traditionally, most public radio networks have kept their focus to less commercially viable formats of (non-smooth) jazz or classical music. Rock has been represented on the public-radio dial largely through generally low-wattage student-run college stations and a few community radio outfits. Here in town, Radio K is the tinny bastion of collegiate hip; KFAI (90.3, 106.7) offers some rock programs plus a few rock-friendly variety shows.

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