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Now in its fourth year, Minnesota Public Radio's 89.3 the Current has been a breath of fresh air on an FM dial laden with commercial-heavy, sterile radio programming. The station has provided a home base for talented DJs like Mary Lucia and Mark Wheat, has given local bands a unique platform for exposure, and has earned a national reputation for its stellar archive of in-studio performances by national bands that have passed through the Twin Cities.
These accomplishments are impressive for such a young and forward-thinking radio station, but as new program director Jim McGuinn says, "The cement is still wet. We're still trying to figure it out."
McGuinn was recently hired to replace Steve Nelson, who left the station to become regional program director of MPR News last year. McGuinn's background seems to have prepared him well for the challenge. Before moving to Minnesota in January, McGuinn was working at Philadelphia public radio station WXPN and programming an internet broadcast for the station called YRock. "XPN is geared for a little bit older [audience] than the Current, and YRock would be a little bit younger," McGuinn explains, noting a similarity to the way the Current's online-only Radio Heartland reaches out to an older, more eclectic crowd than the indie-rock-heavy playlist on its airwaves.
Unlike the Current's former program director, McGuinn is already using his experience as a DJ to step into the booth and chat with the Current's DJs on air. "I like to do it," he says. "It enables me to see what's going on when the jocks do their shows, and talk to listeners. Sometimes you're making programming decisions and you're in this little office, and you're not really on the ground. It'd be like, what if you were an editor and you stopped writing?"
McGuinn's close involvement with the Current's DJs has already started pumping a new kind of energy into the station. "In his first month on the job he can jump on the air with Mary [Lucia] and sound like they've done it for years," remarks evening DJ Mark Wheat. "There's this huge surge of enthusiasm to try new things—a bottled-up energy."
"I feel like this is a cool opportunity to revisit what exactly the station can be," says Radio Free Current host David Campbell.
"He already has ideas for on-air features and developing new ideas with us," agrees Lucia. "He's clearly passionate about music and making good radio."
New features have already been added to the station: Every Monday, one of the station's DJs or music directors chooses a CD of the week and comes onto the morning show with Steve Seel to review the record and play tracks. The station's playlist—which was somewhat controversially slimmed down last year to focus on specific songs—is slowly being widened to include several cuts off of each album, instead of an artist's new single on repeat. And McGuinn has implemented a new feature called "Theft of the Dial," which invites musicians like Michael Franti to choose a set of songs and stand in as a guest DJ.
Slowly and quietly, McGuinn is making the station more accessible to its listeners, encouraging his staff to break down the barriers between listener and DJ, and, ultimately, giving a younger audience reason to dig into their pockets to support a station that relies on membership to thrive.
Since relocating to the Cities, McGuinn says, he's stumbled onto a music scene that is more vibrant than that of any other place he's lived, and he is looking forward to promoting local artists alongside national ones. "At any one time, there's always a couple dozen local tracks that are in rotation," he says. "On a non-college radio station, it's more commitment to local music than I've ever seen."
Though he hasn't been in town for long, he's already fallen in love with one local musician in particular. "I love Jeremy Messersmith," he says, grinning. "It's my favorite record of the last six months. My son got to play his Casio at the Rock the Cradle. So now my son basically loves the Beatles, the Clash, and Jeremy Messersmith. It's what he puts on every day at home."
For up-to-the-minute information about new programs and in-studios at the Current, visit thecurrent.org