89.3 the Current: An oral history

DJs, local artists, and the music community muse about what makes the radio station so revolutionary

89.3 the Current: An oral history
Erik Hamline

A Day in the Life of 89.3 the Current from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

This week, 89.3 the Current celebrates the start of its 10th year, having become the model for cutting-edge radio throughout the country. Not bad for a station built from the ground up in six weeks.

Behind the radio: 2010’s Current crew
courtesy of MPR
Behind the radio: 2010’s Current crew
Mark Wheat
courtesy of MPR
Mark Wheat

Details

89.3 THE CURRENT’S 9TH BIRTHDAY PARTY
Friday, January 24: Har Mar Superstar, Lizzo, Strange Names, and Actual Wolf; SOLD OUT
Saturday, January 25: Caroline Smith, Howler, Heiruspecs, and the Cactus Blossoms; $20
7 p.m., 18+, First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612-332-1775

Before the Current hit the airwaves in January 2005, local FM radio was a dead zone, and 89.3 was home to string orchestras. Flash forward to today, and the Current has revitalized the local music scene and been named the country's best non-commercial radio station by industry peers for four years running.

While other major-market stations long ago ceded the role of tastemaker to Bandcamp and Pitchfork, the streets of the Twin Cities remain crowded with cars bearing red 89.3 stickers.

So how has the Current managed to remain so ... current? This is the story so far — from the cast of characters who made it happen.

Mary Lucia, weekday afternoon DJ: The listening audience in this town was so starved for something that was not garbage. And I don't mean the band.

Bill DeVille, DJ and host of United States of Americana: Oh, God, it was bleak. It was bleak, bleak, bleak.

The summer of 2004, St. Olaf College announced that its 100,000-watt radio frequency, WCAL, was for sale.

Bill Kling, founder and president emeritus of Minnesota Public Radio: It was triggered by the decision of St. Olaf to sell their station. We knew that if they sold it, there really were only two buyers. One would be a religious broadcaster, who we find can afford that kind of a price, and the other was possibly MPR if we could find a way to raise the money. So our sense was, save it for public radio.

Steve Seel, DJ and co-host of The Morning Show: The station borrowed $10 million to buy the frequency. Everybody knew that the stakes were very, very high.

Mark Wheat, weeknight DJ: I asked some people who worked here at the time, "What are you guys going to do with the new station?" And bizarrely enough, the company didn't know what they were going to do with it. They bought the station because they knew that opportunities like that don't come up very often. They literally didn't know.

Thorn, first music director of the Current: There had been rumors of having a third service within MPR for years. I knew that they wanted to get a different demographic, and a younger audience for public radio. Should it be a jazz station? World music was one thing that was talked about. Vocal music. It ran the gamut.

Kling: The Current, I think, was the most unlikely one for us to choose. Sarah Lutman was really the key to this.

Sarah Lutman, former senior vice president of content and media at MPR: The idea I had for the third service was substantially different than what other people had thought about. What we needed was a different kind of music. My idea really started with, "What kind of station would connect MPR directly into the vein of the creative community here?"

Steve Nelson, first program director of the Current: I think it was December 7 that I got the job, and we basically had six weeks to put the thing together. Those weeks, we were hiring all the staff, and once we got them in we had so much work to do. People were working 12, 15 hours a day, seven days a week just to get things up and running so we had something to put on the air on January 24.

Thorn: It was just a matter of getting the band back together.

Ali Lozoff, marketing director for the Current, now for MPR: I sort of jokingly refer to the time before the Current as kind of radio diaspora. There were all these people who had been working at other radio stations and then either had crappy radio jobs or were not in radio anymore. If you weren't a student anymore, if you wanted to work professionally on alt-rock, there was nothing, you know?

Lucia: It was some of the same people I had worked with, and so I just shot Steve Nelson an email. I said, "Hey, I'm not dead yet or drinking Scope under a bridge, and I'm interested."

Sonia Grover, First Avenue booking manager: When we heard those names — Thorn, Steve Nelson, Mark Wheat, Mary Lucia, Ali Lozoff — we were like, "Holy shit, it's the radio heavyweights in town!" It was like, "Fuck, something good and big is going to happen!"

Lozoff: Sarah Lutman had the dream for the name while running next to the Mississippi.

Lutman: We were in the middle of really trying to come up with the name. The story goes, and it's true, I was running along the River Road, and just thought, well, voila, "the Current." Because I mean, "the River" had been taken, and "the Lakes?" No. "The Muskie?" [Laughs] No.

ON JANUARY 12, 2005, the staff of 89.3 brought their ideas to Bill Kling's office. It was 12 days before launch.

Seel: I remember a meeting that we had before the Current launched, and Mary, Mark, Nelson, Thorn, and I were called in to Bill Kling's office. Mary and I made a two-hour demo, and it was supposed to be an encapsulation of what the station was going to be.

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