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

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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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13 comments
ashowr
ashowr

89.3 deserves some cred for bringing something worthwhile to our airwaves. However, I have a hard time reconciling it's platform as "public" radio. It's about themselves and how awesome they are. Bill Deville seems to be the only professional on the air. Many of the personalities think it's cool to sound unprepared. And when they tout their own presence at a sold-out show, I don't believe it's truly for the public... Just for those in the "in crowd." Radio K is far more ambitious, diverse and humble than this. If it's cool to be exclusive and self-congratulating, then I guess they really are a gift from the radio heavens.

rpaske
rpaske

Kudos to the Current on entering its 10th year, an accomplishment that certainly deserves a feature article in CP. But, wow, this sentence?

"Before the Current hit the airwaves in January 2005, local FM radio was a dead zone, and 89.3 was home to string orchestras."

Really, a "dead zone"? Have the article's authors ever listened to KFAI? A plethora of phrases could be used to describe KFAI, but "dead zone" is definitely not one of them. And while, yes, WCAL played plenty of string orchestra music over the years it also hosted "Black Voices, Black Sounds" on Saturday afternoons back when funk and both old school and contemporary R&B were hard to find on the dial. 'CAL played some jazz, too. And, wait a minute, what's wrong with string orchestras?

While it's true that The Current did shake up an MPR that resisted touching much in the popular realm for many years, it's also true that LA's KCRW cut that edge long, long ago. The Current a revolution? Maybe not so much.

Richard Paske

Host, Fresh Ears (KFAI) 1979-2004

Los Angeles

Karen1986
Karen1986

I love The Current so much. Seriously the only radio station I listen to in the Twin Cities and anywhere else for that matter. Thanks for this great article. It makes me proud to be a sustainer to 89.3!

gshetzer
gshetzer

No mention of Rev 105 which really set the stage for their success. Radio K still outdoes The Current with "current" music and is the go to station for something you haven't heard. The Current often sounds a bit too full of themselves and there seems an equal number of self referential promos to actual music played. The station is good but could be a lot better and 90% of the time Radio K is the station I prefer to listen to.

dugsterdiver
dugsterdiver

That was a great read. Makes me feel great to live here and to share in the local music scene, if only as a fan! Thanks to all the hard-working folks at The Current!

JCVN
JCVN

The Current reminded me of the music portions of KCRW, one of the two major NPR stations in Los Angeles. The other LA station, KPCC, is owned by American Public Media Group, the parent of Minnesota Public Radio (they bought it to get the popular show Marketplace). I have no doubt that their experience watching the massive success of KCRW (which has strong influence in music given it's west LA demographic) had some influence in starting The Current. 

Jenny Taber-Hanson
Jenny Taber-Hanson

As my husband and I have been talking over where to move when we start having kids we literally drive around testing how clearly we can get the Current on the radio. Such a big part of why the Twin Cities is such a fun and rewarding place to call home! Love seeing all the recognition going your way - it's so deserved!

CITYRIDERRT19
CITYRIDERRT19

Though I no longer live in the Twin Cities area I still stream the current online, so do some of my coworkers who can't believe a station like this still exists on fm.  Outside of maybe Sirius radio there really is nothing like it.

Alirox
Alirox

It's a great station but censoring the words "ass" and "whore" from the broadcast lyrics is a real insult to your listeners' intelligence.

Barb Palmer
Barb Palmer

best article EVER. i love the part about Prince air-guitaring to Mason Jennings

Alirox
Alirox

The FCC only acts on serious and multiple complaints. There is no law preventing a radio station from broadcasting those words. Especially "ass" and "whore".

 
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