By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
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It's 6:59 p.m. in Minnesota Public Radio's downtown St. Paul offices, and Mark Wheat is on in 40 seconds.
"I prefer to stand when I'm on air," says the long-limbed, shaven-headed Brit, a pair of headphones cradled in his spidery left hand. "In a way, this is a performance."
He turns his attention to a wide computer screen, finds his rhythm, and grabs the mic at precisely the right beat:
"Mark Wheat here, checking in for Mary Lucia on your Monday evening. It's a little gray out there, a little chilly, but not as much snow as perhaps we could have had. We've got new stuff on the way from Vampire Weekend...."
It's been just over three years since KCMP the Current debuted on 89.3 to mixed reviews. From the outset, many music insiders extolled the Current's self-avowed "anti-format" as a welcome antidote to the thin gruel served up by corporate radio.
"Over the past eight or nine years, FM stations in the Twin Cities—most of them owned by giant media corporations—rarely let their disc jockeys pick the music," music critic Chris Riemenschneider wrote in a 2006 Strib article recounting the station's first year. "The Current changed all that."
But with the station's ratings waning—since its first year, the average number of quarter-hour listeners has dropped 24 percent, while cumulative listeners have dropped 15 percent, according to Arbitron, a radio ratings service—MPR approached a consultant last fall to stanch the bleeding.
It's against MPR policy to divulge the names of consultants, says Steve Nelson, the Current's program director. As for the nuts and bolts of how the renovation unfolded, he describes it as a "collaborative patchwork" that includes the music department and DJs.
"We want to get more people to listen and listen longer while at the same time staying true to our mission, which is to play the best new music and the artists who influenced them," says Nelson.
A source of controversy is the tighter leash on DJs. Where once MPR prided itself on its eclectic playlist, the new mandate puts a handful of new indie hits in heavy rotation.
In a one-week stretch in mid-March, MGMT's "Electric Feel" was spun 15 times. The previous week, Vampire Weekend's "Mansard Roof" was played 17 times. By contrast, a look at a weekly playlist from late 2005 finds only a handful of songs played more than once a week: LCD Soundsystem's "Give It Up" and John Vanderslice's "Exodus Damage" were each played twice, and Sun Kil Moon's cover of "The Ocean Breathes Salty" saw three plays.
"We're playing newer songs more often to get more people familiar with the songs," says Nelson. "Of course, ratings are just one measure of the health of our organization, but I think we'd be irresponsible not to pay attention to them. Our goal has always been to make this the best radio station for the listeners. It's all about the audience."
Of course, some find these recent developments ironic for a station with the slogan, "Expand your playlist." The new mandate so frustrated Danny Sigelman, a Friday late-night jockey, that he broke off his relationship with the Current on Valentine's Day.
"I feel what we started out as isn't the direction we're going in," he says. "I started getting music programmed that wasn't Friday-night music. Melancholy, morose stuff. Regina Spektor wasn't my idea of party music."
Still, the Current is hardly going Top 40, which is just fine by Wheat. "Our playlist is still huge compared to anyone else," he says in the studio, while Fountains of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather" chugs cheerily along in the background. "We are expanding the average listener's playlist even though we might have tightened our own."