With listeners stuck at home, non-commercial radio plays a bigger role than ever

Life's on hold for many people, but radio keeps happening.

Life's on hold for many people, but radio keeps happening. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Turn on the radio and it sounds pretty much like any other old Monday morning in the Twin Cities. DJs are making jokes about weed—it’s 4/20, after all—and the music they’re playing fits the mood and the theme. But that-thing-we-can’t-help-but-talk-about keeps sneaking into the on-air banter, and even when it’s not mentioned explicitly there’s a subtle shift in the tone of these broadcasts.

At 89.3 the Current, DJ Sean McPherson, sitting in for a vacationing Jill Riley, is back-introducing D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” explaining why it’s an apt choice for this 20th of April. “Thanks for taking a break from the constant barrage of news headlines to listen to some music,” he adds.

As Lords of Acid’s “Marijuana in Your Brain” crackles to a close, the co-hosts of the KFAI’s A.M. Drive morning show exchange chatter, as morning show hosts are wont to do. Mason Butler plugs a guest’s upcoming performance—on Instagram Live because “We don’t go to places anymore,” he jokes. Barb Abney starts to announce who’ll “be coming in” tomorrow, then catches herself and says they “will be our guest.”

You have to listen to Radio K for a while to hear any difference from the college station’s usual fare. This morning’s playlist includes Pitchfork-approved electronic musician Yves Tumor and Canadian indie-rockers Braids. Then you realize what you haven’t heard: live voices. The mix is interrupted only by pre-recorded spots, including a message thanking donors to a recent pledge drive on behalf of the University of Minnesota students “who will one day walk through our halls again.”

With more people stuck in their houses, either working from home or laid off, radio has the potential to play a bigger role in public life than it has in years. Despite this, commercial radio struggles to maintain relevance, with conglomerates iHeartMedia and Entercom gutting their workforces in response to the current crisis. That leaves public and community radio stations in a position to form even stronger bonds with their audiences—even as these stations make the adjustments necessary for broadcasting during a pandemic.

For A.M. Drive, that means the co-hosts don’t get to be in the same room with each other. Barb Abney is working from home, while Mason Butler is in the KFAI studio, where there are never more than four people at the same time these days.

Abney says her commute has been simplified: “I walk downstairs and I Zoom in. I honestly have more time to prep now. I just have to walk down and open a laptop and I’m ready.” She sends Butler a list of songs and they work from there. “It’s not very much different than how we did it before,” Abney says, though using video conferencing tech took some getting used to. “I’ve always shied away from cameras in studios, but now I’m staring into one all morning because Mason’s putting everything up on Facebook Live.”

As a program that depends heavily on interview segments, A.M. Drive faces additional challenges. “Not having guests come in was an adjustment,” Abney says. And then there’s the matter of not centering every discussion on the pandemic or the stay-at-home order. “You talk about it, you get it out of the way. We’re trying to get the stories that aren’t all about that.”

DJs are still headed in to work at the Current these days, along with other essential personnel. The station has made some adjustments to our new musical landscape—with no live music scheduled, the station’s “gig list” has gone virtual, rounding up livestreamed events, including those the Current is sponsoring and putting on itself. But mostly, 89.3 is emphasizing its familiar voices and presence. “We’re trying to keep as much continuity as as possible,” says the station’s managing director, David Safar.

“We probably take it for granted, the fact that we’re all hearing the same songs together at the same time,” Safar says of the role radio plays in creating community. “But now people can’t gather and see live music together, so that shared experience is what we’re hearing a reaction to.”

Jim McGuinn, the Current’s program director, agrees that listeners are seeking out ”curation, companionship, a socializing experience. People are feeling freaked out, and a playlist doesn’t feel as connective as radio does.”

Over at Radio K, they’ve been broadcasting remotely since March 15, when the student-run station switched over to the overnight mix usually reserved for the 3 a.m to 6 a.m slot. The station’s CDs are still in Rarig Hall, so for the remote broadcast, music director Maddie Schwappach (who recently wrote about her final show on Radio K for City Pages) has been adding new digital files to the mix. Online, the DJ currently on-air is billed as “Social Distancing.”

The process is working so far, says program director Darby Ottoson, and even yields surprising moments of serendipity. “When I tuned in today I heard a song by Guided By Voices called ‘Hold on Hope,’” she says. “Even with an automated system, the radio can spit out music that means something.”

While keeping the station on air, the Radio K crew faces other challenges as well. They had to navigate a pledge drive, and, with the staff graduating, need to hire replacements. “We have a lot of chaotic energy—but in a good way,” Ottoson says. “We’re out of trial-and-error mode, and now we know what sticks.”

She adds, “It’s been a time to reevaluate our purpose in the community. We’re all asking how we can offer a comforting presence.” And that’s a message you hear repeated from everyone in non-commercial radio these days. “We’re all looking for something that takes you away from the everyday hell,” says Abney. “That’s why people keep tuning in.”