Sunday, November 23, 2008

Radio, Radio

Music was always an important part of my childhood, and it's fair to say that my personal relationship with it can be directly traced to my relationship with radio. Even before The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964, I was hearing their first singles on Boston AM radio, and I was hooked.

I was six years old, and I became a loyal radio listener. I remember many New Year's eve, avidly listening to the year's Top 100 countdowns for the rest of the decade.

In 1970 my family moved to Ohio, and over the next few years my musical horizons were dramatically broadened through late-night public radio. One key program was "WCLV Saturday Night," which was broadcast for 27 years until morphing into the nationally syndicated Weekend Radio with Robert Conrad, and, particularly, another late-night program on the public radio station at Kent State University (WKSU FM) called "Fresh Aire," which introduced me to obscure progressive rock (anyone for Hatfield and the North?)

...and even more eclectic, experimental music. This is when I grew to love radio for its opportunity for discovery.

Nowadays my relationship with music radio is pretty complicated. I'm enjoying the world of podcasts, Pandora and some internet radio... and I'll write more about podcasts in another entry some time. But I still long for the simple act of turning on my radio at any given time, and feeling like I have a chance to listen to something new and interesting. Here's how I currently see my options for doing that with Twin Cities non-commercial radio:

1. Radio K: Probably the most reliable source for discovering new music, at least in the rock idiom. It is college radio, and it sure can feel like it, but its main limitations are that they only broadcast during daylight hours, and the gloriously awful fidelity of am radio.

2. KBEM FM: Saturdays are an acoustic music oasis on the station devoted to "Real Jazz and Real Traffic" during the week, with Bluegrass Saturday Morning, String Theory and the nationally syndicated Mountain Stage.

3. KFAI FM: Coincidentally "Fresh Air" radio. Our neighbors and friends, and the model of what public radio is meant to be, with a diversity of programming not found anywhere, community access, and shows in different languages catering to many different ethnic groups, primarily immigrant communities from the neighborhood. They also have many shows catering to world and folk music, great shows like Century Song with Dan Rein, Women Folk with Ellen Stanley, Global Beat with Doug Cain, and Fubar Omniverse with Blanche, to name just a few. And just last week they boosted their signal so that it can now be heard by more people, and reception is better for those of us that have already been listening.

4. Last but not least, that enigmatic local powerhouse, Minnesota Public Radio's The Current, which is, with a few notable exceptions, the most disappointing broken promise for innovative radio this region has had in a good ten years.

Nearly four years ago, MPR launched this new music service with what felt like a breakthrough re-inventing of 70's-style free-form eclectic music programming, largely reflecting the tastes of individual DJs with little to no restrictions or forced playlists. The slant was always decidedly towards modern alternative rock, but there was constant deviation... enough that listening to almost any DJ shift for 30 minutes was likely to bring discovery and surprise.

You can still get lucky with a handful of the DJs (Mark Wheat, Bill DeVille, Dave Campbell come to mind), and they have retained a commendable commitment to local music (kudos to Chris Robert's The Local Show, but Sunday at 5 is not my optimal radio listening time, so I'm grateful for the archived stream). But in general, the playlist has become so narrow that I find myself turning to it less and less.

The Current also became MPR's host station for the perennial Minnesota radio program The Morning Show with Dale Connely and Jim Ed Poole. Jim Ed is now retiring, and rather than re-tool the program with Dale, the folks at The Current have decided to retire the program as well (the final broadcast will take place live from the Fitzgerald Theater on December 11).

It was never a comfortable fit on The Current. And while I personally found Dale and Jim Ed's musical tastes too often punctuated by the sappy and the just plain awful, and their comedy sketches varying from just mildly amusing to embarrasingly bad, I think it's a tragically missed opportunity that The Current has completely turned their back on what is one of the last places for truly eclectic and free-form music programming on their own station.

Their stated intent to replace The Morning Show with content "similar to programming heard throughout the day on The Current" is just further evidence that their original promise to bring adventurous, truly free-form programming back to FM radio is largely empty. Their range is becoming as narrow as most of the commercial rock stations in town.

So, honestly, I mostly turn on my radio these days to listen to the news on KNOW FM, MPR's News and Information station. I'll still be renewing my MPR membership, but I'll shrink my gift this year in proportion to the shrinking range of The Current's offerings, and increase my donation to KFAI in support of their wattage increase.

What I had hoped that The Current represented four years ago was a sign that "the radio powers that be" were finally waking up to the reality that established models of music radio programming had become hopelessly irrelevant to what many of us saw as an explosion of creativity and adventure in cross-genre music in recent years. Instead, it appears that The Current has turned more and more to the same tired script of chasing "alt rock" trends, playing the same narrow range of tunes more frequently, and eschewing creative, free-form DJs not afraid to string together a "dance" mini-set such as Madeleine Peyroux's "Dance Me to the End of Love," The Mountain Goats "Dance Music" and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals' "Dance All Night." (From Dale and Jim Ed's playlist, 5:23 to 5:33 am on 10/3/08).

So, while those of us in the Twin Cities have reason to be thankful for greater diversity in non-commercial music radio than the vast majority of most metro areas, my personal choice for where to go for music discovery is becoming more and more oriented to internet options, particularly podcasts of actual terrestrial radio programs. I'll visit that in the future...


Angel of Rock said...

Actually, Radio K is on the air all the time, just not on the AM. It's on the internets all the time, and on FM when the AM goes off the air. The FM call numbers are 106.5 and 107.1 I think.

just sayin'.

Angel of Rock said...

Just kidding. I mean 100.7

Main Figurehead said...

I know Radio K has those FM frequencies, but I have never been able to tune them in (or even get a pulse!). And those internets are a whole other ball of wax.

Randy said...

The other strange thing is hearing Radio K on the internet in glorious undistorted digital sound. I actually prefer the AM version, because the static-less feed on the internet is very disturbing.

Well put on the Current. I was one of the charter members but I can't remember the last time I listened to it. I'm glad it's there, I'd be unhappy if it wasn't, but I never listen to it. To me it's like Minneapolis. It's something I know is out there, I appreciate what it does, but I don't ever go there.

Angel of Rock said...

Once Radio K gets the new translator, I bet you will be able to get the FM signal.

But to be honest, I prefer the AM fuzz too.

Mama E Dub said...

I'm with you on the Current. Yeah it's programed into the car radio, and I skim by sometimes if perchance I don't have my I-Pod or a cd along,(i.e. almost never...) but really, they're so safe, so predictable. You only need so much New Pornographers and Devotchka. Do they think their listeners might run screaming from the room if they played some real Balkan music, or are they just not doing the research and checking out bands outside of their comfort (safe, white, English-lyric) zone?

Anonymous said...

Kudos to recognizing Independent Public Radio stations Radio K, KBEM-Jazz 88 and KFAI. Please note there are 11 stations in Minnesota that are Independent Public Radio. I manage KVSC in St. Cloud and love the diversity of our network statewide. You can listen to most stations via stream. is my station, but a roster of all stations is available at Cheers!