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

Some local radio observers speculate that, given MPR's expansionist ethos, the organization will eventually transform the Current into an entire network of rock-oriented stations, much like it has done with its classical and news networks. But Lutman says there are no plans at present to take the Current's programming to other markets. "Right now we're just trying to figure out what we're doing next week," she says. "We didn't start this in order to start another network. Might there be, someday? All kinds of things might happen someday."

Something's wrong with my radio - it actually sounds good
Mark Wheat and the Current's righteous musical mission
BY DIABLO CODY

 

LIKE AN ASTHMATIC VICTROLA morphing into an iPod, the dear old warhorse that is Minnesota Public Radio has undergone a sudden (and sexy) image overhaul. Is it any wonder everyone and her drummer's girlfriend is talking about it? Since the January 25 launch of the Current, the enfant terrible of the MPR roster, the Twin Cities music scene has percolated with more positive buzz than an organic beehive. Not only is every playlist a lovably schizoid collision of musical genres (the sweet ambiguity of the Postal Service might be followed by neo-crooner Michael Buble, who might be followed by the Beastie Boys), local artists are also promoted with a zeal not seen since the days of the fondly remembered Rev-105. Suddenly, Mark Mallman, Olympic Hopefuls, and Atmosphere are scoring the kind of choice airtime usually reserved for corporate sock puppets like Jessica Simpson. Many local bands are hoping for a return of the "Rev effect"--the defunct station's support of local bands such as the Beatifics, Polara, and several others increased the acts' draw and made for a healthier local rock scene. Presumably, the Current's dedication to Twin Cities musicians will have a similar effect.

Despite this seemingly noble mission, the station has developed its share of detractors (see "The Kids Are All White," p. 24), including listeners who feel that minority artists are underrepresented, that the piecemeal format is annoying and unfocused, or that the hosts are pedantic Trebeks who treat the studio like a lecture hall. However, any haters out there have a formidable Current fan base with which to contend: Newly minted Current groupies have mobilized on the station's online message boards. "Chris Roberts totally works out at my gym," one post gushes (Roberts hosts The Local Show on Sunday evenings). Another recent post speaks of "mass multiple orgasms" brought on by the Current's frequency. This is possibly the first time anyone's ever dropped their panties over public radio, Garrison Keillor fetishists notwithstanding. And if the Current's supporters seem evangelical, you ought to meet DJ Mark Wheat.

Wheat may be originally from England, but his distinct adenoidal voice has become emblematic of Twin Cities radio. A veteran of Zone105 and KFAI and Radio K, Wheat probably knows way more about music than you do, and he offers no apologies. "I've been a music head all my life," he says. "It took me years to figure out that I was weird, that not everybody is like that." He grins ruefully. "I'm 45 and I still read music magazines voraciously. I still follow the Libertines in the NME. That might be immature, but that has always been my life."

At the airy MPR headquarters in downtown St. Paul, Wheat's workstation is dwarfed by a massive music library. The famously bald DJ, wearing an orange corduroy shirt over a mock turtleneck, looks pleased to be ensconced behind the stacks. "It feels like the right place for us to be," he says, gesturing to the library's cramped-but-sunny environs. "It feels like we're in our own little clubhouse. We call it 'the 'hood.'"

The dawgs in this 'hood bear impressive pedigrees. Down the hall in the studio, scene idol and Rev-105 vet Mary Lucia works the board, and a few hours ago, music director/host Thorn held listeners rapt. This ain't no ragtag assemblage of passionate amateurs; the Current's on-air staff is made up of the kind of folks who can debate the relative merits of Les Savy Fav, Juana Molina, and the Shaggs without overusing the word "seminal" or relying on hearsay. Some might argue that this scholarly tack treads dangerously close to Snobville city limits, but Wheat takes offense at the accusation: "Academic has got a kind of dirty connotation," he says. "Universities in the past had a printing press where they printed works by academics or literary figures that they thought deserved support. I would justify this in exactly the same way. We can't expect a commercial structure to support quality musical artists that way. [Local and independent musicians] do deserve some kind of funding either through public funding or philanthropy. I don't think 'academic' should be ghettoized into elitist."

The unlikely marriage of the highbrow MPR vibe and indie-rock grit has proved fruitful thus far. An austere, state-of-the-art studio space often used for classical recordings has recently been the site of on-air performances by the Owls and Olympic Hopefuls. (Who says superior acoustics are wasted on the devil's music?) Wheat feels that this kind of exposure for local bands should be one of the station's primary motives: "Pepsi commercials and billboards don't work for local artists," he says, referring to the A&R machine that's probably date-stamping another pop star as we speak. "They need some other form of support. That's what a public institution is designed to do. The local part of it, for us, is huge."

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