Really Fresh Air

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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.

Bill DeVille is a 20-year veteran of the Twin Cities radio biz who’s been with the Current since its launch in early 2005. A normal shift might find him spinning known indie-rock quantities such as M. Ward, Built to Spill, and Andrew Bird between vintage cuts by the Clash, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan. Lest that sound too white-bread, you’ll also hear Professor Longhair, Bettye LaVette, and Manu Chao in the same hour.

“They never asked you what you think,” DeVille says of his previous commercial-radio overseers. “It was all driven by research or whatever scored highest in auditorium testing. Here, we’re all very active musical minds, and we have a lot of input.”

“We don’t do any of the traditional surveying–it’s all based on gut instincts,” says Melanie Walker, the Current’s music director. To keep those guts properly fed, she and her colleagues scour a wealth of rock blogs, music sites, specialty magazines, and promo CDs in search of fresh musical meat. (“I read Pitchfork every day,” Walker confesses, “though I don’t take all of it to heart.”)

“We listen to feedback from our audience,” she says, “but we’re trying to take chances here, too. We always say that every couple of songs or so you might hear something you don’t like, but if you stick around you’ll be surprised how much you do like.”

The Current’s genesis dates back to MPR’s acquisition of a small Minnesota college station in 2004. The goal was to augment the network’s existing classical-music and news-and-information formats by reaching beyond their established baby boomer audience to attract new, younger listeners. While the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area already had numerous commercial and noncommercial music stations, program director Steve Nelson was among the MPR operatives who saw room for something different.

“Our aim is to play the best new music alongside that music’s roots and influences,” Nelson says, which nails it well enough, particularly if you appreciate the aesthetic kinship between Gram Parsons and Ryan Adams, Nina Simone and Feist, Public Enemy and TV on the Radio. “It’s a little different from having your iPod on ‘shuffle,’ ” Nelson adds. “We’re trying to be thoughtful about what we play. We’re all music lovers here.”

As befits a public media outlet with a local community to serve, the Current also gives its listeners regular doses of locally made music throughout the day. That includes Minneapolis scene legends (Prince, the Replacements), latter-day breakouts (the Jayhawks, Atmosphere), and emerging indie favorites (Tapes ‘n Tapes, Haley Bonar).

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of new music you aren’t likely to hear on the Current: contemporary country, pop-R&B hits, and glowering mall-metal, all of which are well represented on neighboring signals. In any case, no audiophile is likely to be offended by 89.3’s most glaring omission: commercial advertising. Indeed, the far-reaching success of older-skewing programs like A Prairie Home Companion, The Splendid Table, and Speaking of Faith have made MPR an atypically well-heeled public broadcaster. So while Gen Y denizens may have no appetite for Keillor’s sleepy yarns about Lutheran potlucks, they can take heart knowing that his continued success helps to provide a high-powered FM showcase for indie-rock comers such as Grizzly Bear and Bat for Lashes.

Whether its DJs are playing your favorite song or not, the Current appears to be meeting its demographic objective, with a median listener age around 38. As if that weren’t young enough, the station last year introduced a parallel HD signal dedicated to Wonderground, a lineup of “noncommercial music for kids and their grown-ups.” (Rather than grit their teeth through another Blue’s Clues disc or singsong Disney sound track, music-loving parents can crank up a melodic, kid-friendly mix that might include the Flaming Lips, Zap Mama, and Billie Holiday.)

The station is also attracting ears from well outside its home community. A round-the-clock web stream, podcasts, and playlists at mpr.org/thecurrent draw an average of 345,000 page views each month. The station also broadcasts live from South by Southwest each spring, capturing interviews and concert highlights. This cross-media approach has helped place the Current alongside kindred stations such as Seattle’s KEXP and Los Angeles’ KCRW as a leader in adventurous, eclectic, musically relevant public radio.

Despite the Current’s lineup of affable DJs and inclusive tastes, some commercial and noncommercial competitors have openly groused about its deep MPR pockets, suggesting that its nonprofit status and populist music-geek mystique belie a grabby market beast of Clear Channel proportions–an unlikely indie Goliath in faded Levi’s and a Neko Case T-shirt. But while its comfy, high-end studio facilities and healthy funding don’t pack the underdog chic of your average independent record shop, the people behind its diverse playlists are staking more than most FM stalwarts to map a viable, valuable future for the medium.

“There are so many cities out there that don’t have public radio stations like the Current,” Walker says. “The next step is to spread the word and really promote the format. I think what we and KCRW and KEXP are doing is a national movement, to support and experiment with this kind of format. Hopefully we’ll be able to carry it forward to future generations.”

James Diers is a freelance writer and a member of the Minneapolis-based band Halloween, Alaska.

About The Artist

Amy Jo (missamyjo.com) creates and hand screen-prints posters for musicians as varied as Patti Smith, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Vandermark Five, and the Bellrays. Her work has been published in The Art of Modern Rock, Venus magazine, and the upcoming Gingko Press release Lucky Disasters in Printing. She recently opened a design studio and store, Who Made Who, in Minneapolis.

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