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.

Perhaps the closest precedent to what MPR is attempting is Seattle's KEXP-FM (90.3, 91.7), where former Rev-105 program director Kevin Cole hosts an eclectic afternoon drive-time show. That station initially started as a 10-watt blip on the airwaves in 1972, but has grown to cover all of Puget Sound and now brings in more than $2 million in revenue annually.

The Current will undoubtedly grow much more quickly, and that has some of MPR's smaller siblings on the public-radio dial concerned. MPR has a long history of bullying less financially robust nonprofit stations. In the early '70s, many public broadcasters grew exasperated by the monopolization of government dollars by MPR and Twin Cities Public Television. Kevin Barnes, marketing director for jazz station KBEM-FM (88.5), recalls that there was a widespread perception that those two entities represented the entirety of nonprofit broadcasting in the state. "They really were the only entities that were being funded," Barnes says. In 1971, in order to better market their stations, several small public broadcasters across the state joined forces to form the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations, or AMPERS.

MPR also ardently fought the creation of KFAI in the mid-'70s, arguing that the low-power station--formed by a group of volunteer activists and based out of Walker Community Church--would somehow interfere with the larger station's ability to broadcast. After five years of fighting, KFAI was finally granted a broadcast license by the Federal Communications Commission in 1978. In more recent memory, MPR joined its commercial counterparts in lobbying fiercely against a federal proposal to open up the FM dial to low-power stations. The nonprofit radio conglomerate argued that the new stations would interfere with its existing signals. Ultimately the FCC scuttled the low-power FM proposal.

"MPR is very powerful and they do a great job," says Barnes. "But they've always been very aggressive business-wise. They don't like competitors."

"They have this long track record of essentially trying to be all of public radio for the state," echoes Andy Marlow, station manager at Radio K. "They've really encouraged and promoted that idea, and anybody who calls themselves public radio and is not part of MPR, they don't particularly appreciate."

This track record led to a lot of grumbling when MPR announced the purchase of WCAL, a member of the AMPERS network. Some public radio stations, such as KFAI, even wrote letters to the FCC opposing the sale. "It was important to present our view, but also to have some sense of solidarity with our sister station," says Janis Lane-Ewart, KFAI's executive director.

In reaction to MPR's daunting presence, smaller public radio stations are taking steps to ensure their financial survival. In 2003, AMPERS, which now has 12 member stations, secured a three-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to hire an employee to oversee statewide underwriting efforts. In its first year, the initiative brought in more than $100,000 in sponsorships from such clients as the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco and UCare Minnesota, a nonprofit health care provider.

In addition, in November AMPERS rebranded itself Independent Public Radio, to better distinguish its member stations from MPR.

Some independent public radio stations have already been struggling financially. In December, for instance, KBEM learned that it was losing a $400,000 annual contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to provide traffic updates, potentially crippling the tiny jazz station. But a $25,000 grant from Clear Channel Communications and $125,000 raised in an emergency fund drive have put the station back on firm financial footing for now.

The nonprofit station that is most likely to feel the impact of the Current--both in terms of finances and listeners--is Radio K. The Current and the K share a baseline indie-pop aesthetic, and many staff members at the MPR startup have roots in Radio K. Nelson, the Current's program director, was a co-founder of the U of M station, while Thorn Skroch, now a DJ at the Current, served as Radio K's first program director. Both were on the student-run station's advisory committee up until the launch of the new MPR station. DJ Mark Wheat, once a volunteer programmer at KFAI, was also pinched from Radio K.

"It really kind of blindsided me that they were doing something that closely parallels what we do," says Radio K's Andy Marlow. But he insists that the college station will survive, noting that previous alternative-rock stations such as Rev-105 and the Edge were also expected to cause problems for Radio K. "They're both gone and we're still here," says Marlow. "So there is no lack of optimism over here."

Radio K is also taking steps to become more commercially viable. The station is in the process of getting permission from Minneapolis to move its antennae to a 22-story apartment building in the city. That would expand the reach of the station's FM signal from two to six kilometers. The station also has plans to install a translator in Falcon Heights that would provide FM coverage to the U of M's St. Paul campus. The station hopes to have the improvements in place by spring.

MPR officials maintain that the Current and Radio K serve different audiences. "Radio K is of the students, by the students, for the students," says Lutman. "It's a wonderful training ground." She further argues that the Current won't exclusively draw listeners away from other stations, but will also attract people who had stopped listening to radio altogether or switched to cable providers such as XM. "I'm the mother of two college-age students, neither of whom listen to the radio at all," Lutman notes. "They don't need to. They have every other device. If our station makes them curious to even turn on their car radio, that would be a huge win to me."

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."

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."

 

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

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.

Of course the great black artists have a somewhat easier time getting played on the Current, if by "great" you mean the dead ones. They play Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, Aretha Franklin (technically living)--all brilliant, and all exemplars of the worst kind of tokenism on a station that routinely ignores contemporary African American artists. Often the black ancients will set up a tune by a later white artist who was profoundly influenced by black styles--so Louis Armstrong might lead into Tom Waits, or Howlin' Wolf might give way to Nick Cave. All of this jibes with two tenets held dear, if rarely spoken, by hip white people: One, black music died at some point in the mid-'70s, but the old stuff sure is fun to dance or make out to. Two, black music's main contribution is to generate ideas that more "cerebral" and arty white performers can then pilfer.

But, you say, isn't the Current playing that Nas tune all the time, and didn't I hear an old Boogie Down Productions tune the other day? Aren't they playing TV on the Radio and Atmosphere and other mixed-race groups (with mostly white fans)? Aren't they playing Sage Francis and Eyedea and Abilities and RJD2 and other hip hoppers and so what if a lot of them happen to have white skin? I'll give you all that; part of the fun of pop music is getting lost in the skein of crossing influences. But we should still ask why white hip-hop artists have so much easier a time getting played by indie/alternative/ collegiate tastemakers and devotees.

All of this would matter less if the Current presented itself as an alt-rock station that just happened to have an eclectic streak and an out-of-place folkie morning show. But the Current doesn't present itself that way. From the KCMP website: "The Current is a music station with a deep and wide playlist. The Current plays the best, authentic new music alongside music that explores roots and influences." Who knows what that "authentic" means--could, say, Canadian hip hop possibly qualify? This is a station proud to proclaim that anything goes. Ella Fitzgerald and the Postal Service! Johnny Cash and Pere Ubu! Other famous musicians who are probably in your dictionary and lots of bored singer-songwriters and writerly light rockers! And all of it programmed with devil-may-care heart and soul by knowledgeable music lovers. I know a few of the Current's DJs, and they are passionate about music. But public radio is loaded with passionate music lovers--the volunteers at KFAI, KMOJ, and Radio K, for instance. And what makes everyone so certain that all those commercial radio jocks don't love music? In most cases, it's not a terribly lucrative gig, you know. From listening to B96's Tony Fly or Kool 108's Dan Donovan or K102's Donna Valentine, it seems quite clear that they, too, love and know about music. They probably aren't starry-eyed over each and every single they have to play and their listeners want to hear, but God, does Thorn really love all that weepy folk-rock and recycled Anglo pop he plays? Maybe he does.

 

BACK IN THE LATE '80S, I DID A hip-hop show at KFAI. I originally envisioned it as a variety show based on hip hop. Rap with roots and diversions, Public Enemy and MC Lyte and James Brown and let's throw in Sonic Youth as well. After a few months of taking calls from listeners, I sensed that people didn't want to hear that old stuff, or that rock shit, or anything but hip hop. (They also, wisely, wanted me to talk less.) So I'll concede that if I ran a radio station, it would almost certainly be an unpopular radio station. I'd want the indie-rock kids to open up to metal, or the alt-country faithful to really listen to Alan Jackson's voice, or the smart-pop snobs to hear Britney Spears's "Toxic" not as corporate effluvium, but as an inventive, complex, silly, and damn fun piece of dance music--like the Postal Service, only better. And maybe that wouldn't work.

But public radio listeners are supposed to be open-minded, right? If Current fans don't mind Al Green here and there, they might like younger R&B bohemians like Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, D'Angelo, Rahsaan Patterson, Erykah Badu. Maybe they'd even go for some less arty but equally good tracks by Teedra Moses or Mary J. Blige. I'm pretty sure they'd dig more Latin and world music. I think they'd tolerate some metal. I know a lot of them already like the not underexposed but perfect-for-the-format Kanye West and OutKast. They might come to appreciate the strange and funny New Orleans assembly-line hip hop of Mannie Fresh, or figure out what the kids see in 50 Cent. (Too pop? On a station that just played "Kung Fu Fighting"?) And with all due respect to Leigh Kammon, MPR could really use a jazz show that's living in the present.

Some of these are idiosyncratic examples. You could pick entirely different ones, music that would push the Current's "anti-format" further and move the station to better reflect our multicultural reality and the breadth of music out there. That seems like a good thing for a public-radio station to do. KFAI, warts and all, has been doing it for years.

And, while I wouldn't want a steady diet of it, there is another home for multiculturalism on the radio, where you can hear rap and rock and dance and pop and occasional country by men and women of assorted ethnicities. It's called Top 40 radio--often lousy, often great, more rainbow-quilt than ever, and indeed beloved by hypersexed suburban teens. Maybe those idiots are the real progressives.

Correction published online Wednesday, March 2, 2005:
The story "A Prairie Home Rebellion" (3/2/05) misstated the title of Janis Lane-Ewart. She is the executive director of KFAI-FM (90.3, 106.7), not the program director. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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