The Current talks to Gimme Noise about their five year anniversary

Mary Lucia
Mary Lucia
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Minnesota Public Radio's indie rock-centric music station 89.3 the Current is turning five years old this week, but in some ways it feels like the station has always been here. Radio personalities like Mark Wheat and Mary Lucia were already familiar voices for area music lovers (Wheat was a longtime employee at Radio K, while Lucia bounced around several corporate stations and is most regarded for her work at Rev 105), and the station infiltrated the local scene so massively and effectively that it had already gained vocal supporters and critics within months of going on the air.

So while five years may not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, remember, this is rock 'n' roll we're talking about here -- few local bands manage to stay together that long without breaking up, and even Lucia herself jokes that this is the longest time she's held down a radio gig. Over the past few years, the Current has only grown in size and impact, and it can be hard to remember that five years ago a group of radio veterans were scurrying around an empty studio creating a brand new station from scratch.

"To be honest, if you'd have asked me six years ago, would there be a station like this, on the air for five years playing Vampire Weekend, I would have said you're crazy," laughs Wheat, who was the first DJ hired at the station. "It's been an unbelievable experience. And the whole organization was supportive of the idea from day one."

"We didn't even know what it was really going to be, even after we were on the air," adds Lucia. "We had like 13 CDs when I walked in the door, and two were Johnny Cash. We all brought in our own. We spent two weeks ripping music into the system like fiends."

The Current has since established itself as an omnipresent force in the music community - they frequently sponsor shows, throw parties like Rock the Garden at the Walker, and invite bands both local and national into their studio for high-quality, exclusive recordings of live performances. But while at times they can seem like the 10,000 pound gorilla in a town full of small-budget independent stations and monotonous commercial radio, they've made their own share of mistakes and missteps in a learning process that has gained them their broad (and financially supportive) audience.

"I got the numbers wrong on my first break ever on the station," jokes Wheat. "I didn't say 89.3, I said 83.9. But since then everything's gone really well."

One of the biggest criticisms the station has received from its listeners has been regarding its continuously fluctuating playlist -- in the past six months in particular, critics voiced concern over the station's increasing tendency play singles from a particular handful of artists into infinity. In other words, if you thought you were the only person screaming and groaning because, once again, that goddamn "Horchata" song was being played during your drive home from work, you weren't alone.

According to program manager Jim McGuinn, their most recent attempt to feature singles from certain artists was just another experiment to learn what their listeners expect from the station.

"If you only listen an hour a day, that means that if we play a song 15 times a week you might hear it once -- so there's this fine line between that person and the person that's listening non-stop," McGuinn explains. "How do you make both sides, both extremes happy, without upsetting or losing them?"

Jim McGuinn, Mary Lucia, and Mark Wheat
Jim McGuinn, Mary Lucia, and Mark Wheat
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Wheat says that part of their audience expects the kind of repetition one would hear on a Top 40 station, in part because the music that fits with the Current's overall aesthetic -- indie rock -- has become more popular with mainstream audiences since the station's inception. "We didn't plan this, and we don't take credit for it," Wheat says, "but we feel like we've been experiencing, in the last five years, an increase in visibility of our music in the mainstream. Whether it's Vampire Weekend, or whoever. So there's a lot more visibility. The audience who is consuming that music through the mainstream actually wants us to play stuff more. I will get people requesting the same Vampire Weekend track that Mary played two hours ago. So there's that part of the audience that is actually used to repetition... I feel like this last year we bit the bullet and said, if this music is good enough, it should be able to stand being programmed in a way that a mainstream audience expects hit music to be programmed."

Which isn't to say that the Current's longtime listeners are being overshadowed. Both Wheat and McGuinn stress that they listen to feedback from their listeners and take that feedback into account when making programming decisions -- whether it means playing a request from a caller or loosening up the entire playlist to have less repetition, something they have done in recent months.

"That whole process, in terms of the music department making choices, takes into account input from the audience all the time," says Wheat. "Whether it's direct emails that we get, or the calls that we get in the studio."

"Our listeners are so passionate," says McGuinn.

The station has also taken advantage of the wealth of local music at its fingertips, as evidenced by this weekend's birthday party showcase with Current favorites Solid Gold, P.O.S., Mason Jennings, Lookbook, and the Twilight Hours. Wheat says that promoting local music on the station is a way to show support for the community. "When people call us up and ask questions about local bands, whether they are in the business, or just audiences from other parts of the country, you know that you're serving the community. Which is what public radio is all about."

"I think some radio stations or some media put local music into this sort of ghetto or box, and they don't have confidence that it can be as big as it can be in the local community," says McGuinn. "But we feel, especially in this scene with the support from the press and an active audience that goes out and supports local music, it shouldn't matter. Why not? Why can't it be big? For us, doing this anniversary party was just a chance to see -- look at how big these artists are. We've got all these artists that can sell out First Avenue on their own in a local setting."

Sure enough, the Current's birthday party tickets were in such high demand that the pre-sale crashed First Ave's website. McGuinn estimates that roughly 8,000 people tried to buy tickets to the party -- over four times the amount that will actually fit into First Avenue Friday night.

"At 10 years, we'll be partying in the Target Center," Wheat jokes. "Or Xcel Energy. Why not?"

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