Really Fresh Air

A public radio station that seriously rocks


| Mar.-Apr. 2008


This article is part of a package called “For the Love of Music.” For more, read Good Karma in Stereo and Play That Funky Vinyl .

These are a few of the things Mary Lucia loves talking about: bad TV, shaggy guitar bands, the weird dream she had last night, and cats.

“I just got a kitten and I named it Muse,” she tells me on a typical Wednesday afternoon. “It’s like I got a wild squirrel and let it loose in my apartment.”

She’s not talking just to me. This observation is dropped lovingly amid an eclectic four-hour mix of music during Lucia’s slot as a drive-time host on 89.3 the Current, a public radio station that is heard by a weekly audience of 150,000 listeners in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This afternoon’s playlist, as fashioned by Lucia herself, includes Spoon, M.I.A., the Faces, Brother Ali, and Radiohead, plus an affecting in-studio performance and interview with Grammy-winning songwriter Dan Wilson. It’s an average day on a not-so-average station that’s changing expectations for public radio in America.

With her vintage cardigans, tattered jeans, two-tone hair, and leather wrist cuff, Lucia may look better suited to some hipster coffee klatch than to the erudite airwaves of Minnesota Public Radio. But there she sits inside MPR’s low-rise headquarters in downtown St. Paul—a place more often associated with Garrison Keillor than with Thom Yorke—raving about the Redwalls’ latest album, recounting her most embarrassing moment of the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and asking local musicians about their favorite Prince sighting. This much is true of every DJ on the Current: They’re crazy about music, and they can’t believe they’re actually paid to share their fanaticism with so much autonomy.

The freedom of DJs to program their own sets, song for song, is the clearest difference between the Current and its commercial-radio counterparts. As corporate-controlled stations of all formats have increasingly automated or templated their programming, the role of professional disc jockeys in sharing and promoting a sincere love for music has audibly diminished. By restoring a measure of faith in the DJ-as-passionate-tastemaker, the Current has attracted a new wave of listeners (and, ideally, paying members) to noncommercial radio.