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

Wheat brightens when it's suggested that the Current's focus on albums might prompt listeners to look beyond $.99 downloads. "Maybe we'll help the renaissance of the album as an art form," he says. "The only reason people suggested the album was dead was because no one cared about albums anymore. You can put a single out on iTunes and get as much credit. But when we sat down and decided which bands out of all these we would play, one of our criteria was that if it doesn't have more than one or two songs on it that deserve to be on the radio, then maybe it's not a good enough album to rise above the others--because there are so many to choose from." Could it be that this radio station actually cares about the long-term value of this weekend's Cheapo haul? Wheat thinks so. "We're trying to suggest new artists to you that you'll want to spend your hard-earned money on."

The contagious gratitude felt by many new fans of the station is echoed by Wheat. "I had gotten to the point where I had become cynical," Wheat says, reflecting on a more fallow period in local radio. "I thought there were so few people who really cared about continually discovering new music that we weren't going to be catered to by a full-service FM radio station." Improbably, you might want to thank the Republican Party for that Death Cab for Cutie B-side you just heard. In Wheat's estimation, recent political events have alerted many formerly complacent consumers to the importance of supporting alternative media. "I've heard people say, 'To be honest, after the election I'd given up on believing that anything of any quality could be supported. Your station has renewed my faith.' We've actually had people saying that. A part of me believes that when a certain section of the population thinks things have gotten this bad, they'll double their efforts to support things that need support." He smiles. "I hope it's not too late."


Diana Watters

The Kids Are All White
Well, mostly anyway: Caucasian post-collegiates get a new radio savior

LET ME START BY SAYING THAT the Current is considerably better today than when it went on the air five weeks ago. During its first days, the station frolicked in waves of early-'90s alt-rock nostalgia, which didn't stop folks from heralding KCMP's "maverick" programming. The noisiest celebrants, predictably, were people left teary-eyed over the demise of Rev-105, Minneapolis's storied and short-lived '90s alt-rock station. Implicit in the hype was the longstanding prog-rock conviction that suburban mechanics and IT workers who want to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd's "That Smell" for the 1,000th time are Philistines, whereas urban advertising execs who want to hear the Smiths' "Hand in Glove" for the 645th time are pacesetters.

To anyone unconvinced that a public-radio empire playing Elliott Smith and Sam Cooke in the same set was a radical gesture, the hosannas greeting KMCP's arrival were irritating. "There's no question that for hip and eclectic music fans, 89.3 is a godsend," gushed Chris Riemenschneider in the Strib. The Pulse ran a fawning cover story/roundtable interview. City Pages' own Jim Walsh cautioned cranks not to rush to judgment--unless the judgment was kind. And on the Strib's op-ed page, Rochester writer Paul Scott issued a panegyric to the Current in which he also decried the state of mainstream pop music. "As the media companies kept trying to winnow the pickings in favor of more money," Scott wrote, "it seemed as if the radio has become a strange either/or choice between sanctimonious country music for suburban parents and hypersexed party music for their kids." Well, at least he didn't sound elitist or priggish. I've heard public-radio types can be like that.

Lately the Current has expanded its playlist, mostly by adding more new music. They're spinning England's great hip-hop-rooted storyteller the Streets, for instance, and Sri Lanka-born rap/dancehall/pop/ whatever buzz act M.I.A., who's no more innovative than Top 40 staples Missy Elliott and Timbaland but similarly outstanding. They're also playing a great deal of local music (see page 22), and deserving critics' darlings like Rilo Kiley, whose stuff could have been recorded in 1984 but is at least a sharply written and performed version of same-old-same-old. In other words, the Current is exposing people to some interesting music and they're moving away from being Rev-105 Mach 2, regular Smiths spins notwithstanding. MPR's new baby, however, still shares one defining quality with the Rev: Its programming is vastly overrated and far more conservative than its partisans like to let on.

Rev-105 was a better-than-average commercial alt-rock station. For a while they might have been a lot better than average, but they were hardly a force of musical truth in a sea of banality. They played some good records and gave unknown yokels a break, and sometimes they threw a curveball. They also toed the line on a lot of dull major-label alt-rock product and did their dutiful best to pass it off as cutting edge. During the Rev's 1994-95 heyday, hip hop was on a remarkable creative roll. The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Common, the Roots, and others were putting out fantastic albums and singles--much of the best music of the time in any genre. And except for Biggie, hardly any of it was being heard on commercial radio. And what of the Rev? They were playing Soul Coughing, G. Love and Special Sauce, the Beastie Boys, Beck, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Tricky. The implication was that hip hop is best when it is made by white people and isn't exactly hip hop, and occasionally by black Britons who aren't exactly making hip hop either. Normally that sort of thing is called racism.

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