Sparks Plug

On Sunday night from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Jack K. Sparks will host The Other Side of Country for the last time on New Richmond, Wisconsin's WIXK-FM (107.1). Anyone who has stumbled upon the show since it debuted last July knows that this is a cultural tragedy.

Sparks, a lapsed lawyer and radio novice, spins an eclectic mix of country music that can't be heard anywhere else on the dial. He blends local and national acts, twang neophytes and old-school crooners, and he has a particular affection for drinking songs. Call it alt-country, Americana, roots music, or, as Sparks occasionally dubs it, "twang and guts." Either way it's quality entertainment, made all the better by Sparks's hilarious homespun banter: For two hours every Sunday night, listeners are encouraged to call up on the "pig whistle," local country music is called "salt-truck twang," and the weather report consists of phrases like "windy, crappy, and 34."

On June 3 WIXK will switch to a talk-radio format aimed at women. Whatever this might mean, Sparks is certain of one thing: It won't fit with his audience. "The people who listen to my show buy snowmobiles instead of tampons," he quips. Anybody who cares a whit about country radio already knows the story of its sad downward trajectory. Suffice it to say that the end result is that most country programming is aimed exclusively at 30-year-old suburbans with 2.3 kids, an SUV, and enough disposable income to buy a lot more than tampons.

The saddest thing about the demise of Sparks's show is that it actually was succeeding in crude commercial terms. Between the fall and winter Arbitron ratings, Sparks doubled his audience, drawing 3.5 per cent of Twin Cities listeners and ranking eighth in its (godforsaken) time slot. This is all the more impressive considering that many folks in the metro area have a difficult time picking up WIXK, and that the station's normal audience is less than 1 percent of the market. "I'm on a shitty little antenna in western Wisconsin and I'm in the middle of the [Twin Cities] pack," he says.

Sparks will probably resurface on the country dial somewhere. He's talked with Gregg Swedberg, station manager at KEEY-FM (102.1), about working with the station in some capacity. He's also approached BOB 106 (KLCI-FM), a country station in Princeton, about picking up the show, and he hopes to pitch it to KFAI-FM (90.3 and 106.7) and Drive 105 (105.1, 105.3, and 105.7 FM) as well.

In the meantime, Sunday nights on the dial will be a lot less interesting. So one of you radio bigwigs out there: Give Jack K. Sparks a holler on the pig whistle and get the show back on the air.

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