89.3 the Current: An oral history
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.
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.
Lucia: Here's just this suit sitting in this room, and we played it for him. He was listening intently and you could kind of read his face. We went from one song into "Fell in Love with a Girl" from the White Stripes. It starts off just like "Brawr!" really loud, and I remember him hitting the pause button and going, "Hmmm." Like, "What is that?" And we were all like, "Well, it's the White Stripes, it's a great song."
Kling: I vaguely remember it. I probably didn't smile very much.
Thorn: The one thing he said was, "Just make it good." It's a very Minnesotan and Minnesota Public Radio thing to say.
Lucia: And then next, we had no library. So we literally started bringing in our own CDs from home, and we built the music library from our own crap. For weeks and weeks and weeks leading up to the launch of the station, all we were doing was sitting in the back of the music library in the old building, and just ripping in every weird record we owned, and swear-checking. Sitting there listening for, "Was that ship or shit?"
Lozoff: It was like, Mary Lucia, Steve Seel, and Bill DeVille, and they all had this little ledge with computers on it. It was like they were doing homework.
Derrick Stevens, production manager: They didn't have a lot of hip-hop in the system, so I actually brought in a lot of hip-hop CDs to add in: Run DMC, LL Cool J, a lot of the classic hip-hop.
Lucia: I brought in a bunch of punk compilations, and every time we play this certain New York Dolls song, I'm like, "I remember bringing that in."
Jill Riley DJ and co-host of The Morning Show: I remember seeing, like, the Breeders, but then seeing the Smiths. It was so all over the place that all I could think was, "How is this ever gonna work?"
THE CURRENT HIT AIRWAVES on January 24, 2005, at 9:01 a.m. with the song "Say Shh ..." by local Rhymesayers rap duo Atmosphere.
R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minneapolis 2002 to 2013: The launching of the Current will be seen as one of the most important developments in the history of local music in Minneapolis. That's not an exaggeration.
Kling: The first song that we played when the station went on the air was Atmosphere. It went from Beethoven one minute to that the next minute.
Nelson: That morning, all the bigwigs had come up to gather around the studio. There were a lot of suits. We hit play on the first song, and it was a hip-hop song, which they did not expect. The look on some of the faces was just — you could see it like a thought bubble came up over their heads, "What have we done?"
Thorn: Atmosphere was Steve's choice. I'll give him full credit for that one.
Brent "Siddiq" Sayers, CEO of Rhymesayers and now co-host of H2: We had become pretty accustomed to not receiving radio support. I think they really affirmed their commitment to the Minnesota local music scene. For us to have had that honor was really special.
Wheat: I was at home listening, because my first shift was that night. I was at home like everybody else. I didn't know what the first song was going to be; they kept it secret. Hearing Thorn introduce it was huge. It just sent shivers up my spine.
Lucia: I'm standing in my kitchen in my boxers listening to the station launch. It went from the old morning show to — I think they said something like, "We're going to try something new here, and we're going to have fun." I remember them using the word "fun." I was so happy. And then the Atmosphere song came on and I just got goosebumps. Even when I play it to this day, I still flash back to that moment in my kitchen.
Thorn: Because of construction, power was out over that weekend. They literally ran an extension cable to power it up at one point. That's why one of the first songs was Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #3 Power Out." It was stressful. There were no running toilets. There was a Port-a-Potty out in the street.
Nelson: This entire building was running off of a big diesel generator that we have in the basement. The whole building was filled with diesel fumes.
Lucia: I just remember cracking the mic, and — ooooh — the nerves, like I had never done this before, all of that came flooding back. When I finished my show I just collapsed on the floor and lay down, and Steve Seel came by and was like, "All right, you did it!" And it was just like, "Yay! Day one, down."
Wheat: I'll always remember, I got the call letters the wrong way around. I said 89.9 when I first went on the air. I don't think I've done that since.
DeVille: We all botched our first break, every one of us. I had the wrong call letter shoot out of my mouth.
ONCE ON THE AIR, the Current's whirlwind production pace continued.
Riley: We were just throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick.
DeVille: I remember one of the things Steve Nelson said: "If you don't like this song, maybe you'll like the next one."
Chris Roberts, first host of The Local Show: Steve Nelson asked me to produce and host a local music show. It was just a week before, and I had never been a DJ before in my life. I was kind of nervous. I had to find my first band, so I got in touch with the Owls. It was a Friday. They were scheduled to come in, but then every single member of the band had the flu. This is why Dan Israel is a hero to me. He was working at his job at the state Capitol. He went home in rush-hour traffic to St. Louis Park and got his guitar, and came back and we recorded the show. He saved my ass.
Lucia: I was getting my feel for what would sound good, sitting down to program what was a five-hour show at that time. It was: "What would I like to hear if I was in my car? What would be surprising?" I've never had this much freedom at any radio station. Every other radio station, your music is programmed for you and it's just handed to you.
Nelson: They let us rock 'n' roll with it.
Lozoff: Everybody that worked on the Current was a music head. That's a big part of what staff meetings were devoted to, just hashing out exactly what felt like our sound, and what didn't feel like our sound. Fifteen or 20 people in a room, just arguing the release charts from 1977 forward.
Wheat: Get a room full of 15 music heads and try to get a decision made? That's crazy talk.
Lucia: We were running on pure adrenaline.
Barb Abney, midday DJ: I was working at WOXY [in Ohio], and when the Current came to be. I remember one time looking at the website and going, "What the hell is this station playing?" Because there was Robert Johnson into Zeppelin into the White Stripes. If you're not listening, you wouldn't get it, because you needed someone to curate it, and explain that the reason they were playing that was because the White Stripes stole a lick for that song from the Zeppelin song, and Zeppelin stole a lick for their song from Robert Johnson.
Nelson: We were trying to show where music is today and how it linked back to artists from the past, whether it was five years ago or 10 years ago or 40 years ago.
BY THE MONTH AFTER LAUNCH, the Current had gotten some feedback, but they still weren't sure if what they were doing was a success.
Lutman: We didn't know for a long time if people were listening. Our first indication was, well, critical reviews, blogs. And then — we were only on the air for not very long at all when they said there was going to be a fund drive. We were like, "You're kidding!" But we made a vinyl premium and said, "We'll put your name on a wall."
Lucia: That still blows this mind to this day. That was a real vote of confidence for us, because it just reinforced that people were starved for something fresh and something new.
Jeremy Messersmith, musician: In 2005, I'd just started working on writing some of my own songs for real, and the Current pops on. And I became a founding member. Immediately. I didn't know 90 percent of the bands they were playing, but I was like, "This is good. Whatever this is is not like the rest of the shit on the radio."
Alan Sparhawk, musician, Low: I think they probably consciously were like, "Okay we're gonna get the station going, we're gonna have some new stuff, we need to involve local music." In hindsight, over the years, that's exactly what's going on.
Nate Kranz, First Avenue general manager: It didn't take long for us to start working with the Current a lot, on a lot of our shows, and actually taking into account when we were booking shows what we could do, knowing that we were going to have a radio partner on a station that actually had good listenership and a good range.
Wheat: To get that feedback was huge. Coming up through alternative music, we always thought we would be left of the dial, small, insignificant. When I first would go out and have people come up to me.... When that first happened — that's not something you ever think.
ROCK THE GARDEN, the summer music festival held on the grounds of the Walker Art Center, became an important part of the station's presence in town. The Walker launched Rock the Garden in 1999, and began partnering with the Current for 2008's event.
Lozoff: The Current looked at what a signature rock series would look like for us, and they are really intensive and difficult. Meanwhile, the Walker took time off because of the expansion, so I approached Philip Bither and Doug Benidt to see what the plan was to bring Rock the Garden back. So we met, and it was just like, "This seems like a really smart partnership."
The first year, Andrew Bird, the New Pornographers, Cloud Cult, and Bon Iver played. By the next year, the stage was rotated, opening up attendance at Rock the Garden from about 6,500 people to more than 10,000.
Philip Bither, Walker Art Center's senior curator of performing arts: There was an immediate broader base of excitement from within the rock community. Before then, I don't remember as much "When are they gonna announce?" and "Who's gonna be in the lineup?" We did well, but those early years [before the Current's involvement], we never sold out. It was never a situation where we sold out in the first few hours.
Lozoff: It went from sold out in a couple weeks, to sold out in a couple of days, to sold out in a couple hours, to sold out in a couple minutes.
THREE YEARS INTO THE LIFE of the Current, the steady progress slowed. By 2008, listenership had dropped by nearly 40 percent. Not long after, ratings pegged the Current at dead last in the market.
Seel: We sort of coasted on this for two years. And then, after this initial boom when we came out of the chute, the ratings were sort of doing this slow, murr murr murr murr muuur, down. Not to anything lower than any station worth its salt would do anywhere, but nevertheless, MPR was kind of looking at it. Then the crash hit. Everybody freaked out.
Lozoff: America's had some tough years, as we all know. A lot of the companies that support public radio took hits.
Seel: MPR's firing people left and right because the economy is hemorrhaging money and jobs and everything. Then the company starts looking at the Current like, "Well, do you guys have a plan, because it's time for all of us to get very, very serious about what we're doing." Everybody started scrambling to try to figure out what we were supposed to do, and no one really knew.
DeVille: Yeah, the "dark era," or the "consultant era." This person was called in to try to fix it and try to make it sound more like a radio station. It was this guy from Colorado.
Wheat: We had a pretty intense meeting with a radio adviser from outside the company for the first time, and kind of had a re-think of where we were going.
Kling: I didn't make the decision to do that. But we bring in consultants regularly for everything, and playlists change. I think, with the Current, it was trying to understand a really complicated mix.
Abney: I'd been here for about a year and a half, and I remember when I came here I was like, I don't understand exactly how this place works, because you have music scheduling software, but everyone's just playing anything when they want to play it. It was just too vast.
Lucia: I won't lie, I think people's spirits were a little dashed at the time. A couple people left the station.
DeVille: Two pretty good part-timers, Tony Lopez and Danny Sigelman, both kind of dropped out when they lost control over picking the music.
Abney: I remember going to my boss and saying, "Listen, if you tell me that I have to play nothing but Celine Dion, I will do it, because I need to feed my kids. But that doesn't mean that I have to like everything that's going on right now."
Lucia: It was when things were a little rigid, and I just really wanted to play AC/DC. I was just dying. And I said, "What if I made a feature where I could play anything I wanted once a day?" That's how "No Apologies" started, because I wanted to play AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds." They were like, "Eh, it doesn't really fit," and I was like, "Well, how about I make it fit."
Seel: The nadir for me was one night, turning on the station and hearing "Dancing in the Dark" by Bruce Springsteen, and I thought, "Oh god, it's over. We don't know what we're doing at all anymore. We're just playing Top 40 radio now." Well, it was like a month later that Jim McGuinn came on.
AT THE END OF 2008, Steve Nelson decided to take a position as program director for MPR's news channel, and the Current began searching for a new PD. They found Jim McGuinn, a radio veteran working at WXPN in Philadelphia.
Abney: I like Jim's band, so I'm like, "Holy crap, Jim McGuinn? Really? He's huge in Philly!"
Wheat: Jim had the commercial radio experience, and the soul.
Jim McGuinn, program director: My first day of work was Obama's inauguration, which is an awesome marker.
Lozoff: I called him Obama for a while.
Seel: It was like a reboot of the station. Not to say creating something entirely different, but it was like a completely new operating system.
Kling: Jim needs to take enormous credit for what has happened. He is one of those people who just instinctively knows, and the station came together better.
Seel: He's also this rabid music geek. He came in and he was like, "Let's try this, if it fails who cares, let's try that!" He really infused a kind of new youthful enthusiasm about what we were doing.
BY JANUARY 2010, McGuinn had been at the station for one year. He decided to revive the Current's Birthday Party to celebrate the station's fifth anniversary.
Riley: The first year, 2006, I remember P.O.S. played, and that's all I remember. And we had, like, some pizzas, and it was a really light crowd. I would say the year-five birthday party is where we went, "Okay, this thing is selling out really fast."
Kling: I'm sure you've heard the story of when Prince stopped in?
McGuinn: The night's awesome and it's sold out. I'm watching Mason Jennings. I'm standing with the two mayors, who have just read a proclamation and thrown it into the crowd. My phone rings, and it's the guy, and he's like "We're here, we're in the owner's box, get up here." We're like, okay, and we get up there, and there's Prince. He's like, "I wanted to come out because I really support what you guys are doing."
Riley: I was DJing, and I look to my left just to look and then put my head down. Then I did like a quadruple take. He was probably five feet away and in this great, like, purple velvety suit jacket, and he still had pompadour hair and a fancy piece of glassware he was drinking out of with a straw. And white gloves. Jim waves me over and I just shook his little velvety gloved hand, and I kind of pulled him toward me, which was probably a no-no, and I just got right up in his ear, 'cause it was loud, and I was like, "It's really cool that you came by. Thank you." And then I maybe held him a little too long. And I went, "Whoa."
Abney: I immediately ran up there and I'm like, "I don't care, I love Prince." I made a complete ass of myself. I was like, "Can I give you a mix CD? Can I shake your hand?" He's got on this cashmere sweater that looks like it was made on him.
Kranz: He was playing air guitar to Mason Jennings, is something that's always been burned into my mind. He was just like a guy up in the DJ booth, and during one song all of a sudden he needed to jam.
BY 2011, the impact the Current was having on the local music scene became undeniable.
Manchita, musician, GRRRL PRTY: Many musicians in this city have the Current to thank for much of their local success. And their egos.
Andrea Swensson, Local Current music reporter: The biggest thing that I noticed, and I wrote about this, was when Mumford & Sons played their first big Twin Cities show [at the Varsity]. It sold out so fast.
Riley: I feel like we just played and played and played Mumford & Sons, and then you know, they sold out the Varsity. They practically got blown back off the stage from people singing along, and they were really shocked that they had broken in here.
Daniel Glass, founder of Glassnote Entertainment Group, Mumford & Sons' label: They were probably one of the first three radio stations in North America to present [Mumford & Sons] in pretty heavy rotation, and stick with it, which we're very grateful for.
Swensson: All of a sudden, if a band is in rotation, they book a show, the Current promotes it, and the Current talks about it, it's going to sell out instantly.
Grover: Take someone like Dawes. They're playing the Triple Rock, and then they come to First Ave opening for Edward Sharpe. It's a sold out show, and they're the opening band, and the whole crowd can sing along with "When My Time Comes." The look on the band's face was sort of like — holy — they had no idea this was coming. They stopped singing and the crowd sang along, and they had no idea.
Kranz: [Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is] another band. When they sold out at the Cabooze, I was talking to Alex [Ebert] after the show and he was just amazed. He was like, "How many people were here?" I told him, and he was like, "We can't even do that many people in L.A." And they understood. They knew. They'd been over to the Current, and they knew they were getting the support.
David Safar, music director: The first show that Father John Misty played, he played with Youth Lagoon. I remember getting an email passed to us through a fan of Youth Lagoon's, saying they were angry with the Current because after Father John Misty played his show, people left, because they were there to see the opening band, because that's what they had heard on the Current.
Grover: When it started out, it was more like, Nate and I telling these agents and managers, "Hey, you know, maybe we should try a different room or try a higher ticket price, because this cool radio station in town, the Current, is going to be on board with the band." Now, nine years later, the agent or manager will be like, "Hey, we weren't coming through town, but KCMP's on board, so we want to do this."
Glass: When I do get involved with a band, like Half Moon Run or CHVRCHES, I do subliminally think about the Current. We tell our agents when we're building tours, "You must go through Minneapolis."
David Campbell, DJ and host of The Local Show and Radio Free Current: Somebody was saying, "The people in this community that are making music are as important as what blah blah blah is doing in Brooklyn." If not more important.
Wheat: People go out and support bands we never thought would get big audiences, especially local bands. Local bands can get an immediate reaction now. Not because of us, but we're just part of the whole landscape of the Twin Cities, which allows a phenomenon like Poliça to happen, for example. They can sell out First Avenue before they even put the album out, before anyone's ever seen them. That never happened. Local bands would struggle for years to get to the point where they could sell out First Avenue.
Lucia: About six members of our staff have all hosted local shows at various radio stations, so we all have a really strong connection. Of course Doomtree would be huge on their own, but isn't it great that you can hear them at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a big public radio station?
Grover: It's not a common thing to have as many local bands as we do sell out First Avenue. That doesn't happen in many other cities.
Kranz: And it creates a buzz that turns them into national bands.
Lozoff: I feel like we've lived the mission that we set for ourselves at the time that we were going to add to the creative economy in the Twin Cities, that venues were going to benefit, that stores were going to benefit, and that artists were going to benefit.
Kling: It's changing the culture of the Cities.
AS THE CURRENT ENTERS its 10th year, the team behind the station is still experimenting and looking to the future.
Lucia: Every day I sit down in front of the computer, in front of the program we use, Music Master, and you hope that something inspires you.
Riley: When Mary's dog died, she played a song for Smudge and told the audience that her dog died, and that she was so distraught, so sad. She shared that really intimate part of herself with the audience. You could hear her voice breaking up. It's those moments — that's how you know that you're being real.
Lozoff: You should know a little bit about these people. People want to put a [bumper sticker] on their car because Mary Lucia has a pug, and she loves that pug.
Riley: Paul McCartney called us, because he wanted to talk to radio stations that he felt were the younger, hipper audience. It just feels like we're at a place after nine years where we've arrived a little bit. Which is pretty cool, 'cause it's been a lot of work.
McGuinn: Down the road, we think that what we're doing with the Current could work in other cities. We're seeing that. It's flattering when the Current has been included in radio station press releases. People saying, "We're gonna launch this new format, kinda like..." and they name-check us. More cities should have radio stations like this.
Glass: The Current makes local music resonate around the country and around the world. If we had 20 more Currents, we'd have a better business.
Wheat: It's a stream, it's 24/7, it can go anywhere now. People have asked us, "Is the Current gonna go national?" Well, we are national.
Riley: I am looking forward to the next couple of years, and thinking about how the Current can get more of a national reputation. Young people now don't have radios, they're streaming everything and they have so many choices. I want to think about a kid in Texas going through his choices and picking the Current.
Kling: Technology now allows the Current to be global.
Wheat: I'm the morning show in China.
McGuinn: More and more of our audience is coming from outside of the Twin Cities. But I can't see the Current in Minnesota taking the Minnesota out to chase the audience in China. What we don't ever want to do is compromise the [station's] basic value in search of new listeners. I can't imagine us doing "hot girl of the week" web features or talking all day about Kim Kardashian to get ratings.
Roberts: There are really creative people working there, and always have been. It is a station that can only be limited by its imagination.
McGuinn: So much of radio has lost that playfulness. Because we've got a pretty good-sized audience that trusts us to try things, we're going to keep trying things. Are there still people discovering us? Yeah. Every day.
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