A year ago, the staff at 89.3 FM, the Current, set out to turn corporate radio on end and give good music a chance. How'd they do?
A bunch of Current DJs gathered at the station's St. Paul studios recently for a photo. Front row, from left: Ellen Lynde, Jill Riley, Jim Ed Poole and Danny Sigelman. Back row, from left: Tony Lopez, Steve Nelson, Mary Lucia, Brandt Williams, Bill DeVille, Mark Wheat, Tarik Moody and Dale Connelly. Missing are Steve Seel, who was on the air, and Thorn, who was out sick.
It takes Steve Seel a minute or two to browse the Current's computer catalog and find a listener's requested track by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. What do you expect when your station's playlist contains 13,165 songs (and counting)?
While he's browsing, a tune by the Twin Cities band the Hang Ups -- which Seel picked himself -- fills the small radio studio on its way out to the rest of the world. Or at least out past Hopkins.
"The Hang Ups were the first act I played here," the DJ says proudly. "To me, they're one of the quintessential bands that should have gotten airplay all those years."
He's referring to the long stretch before Jan. 24, 2005, the day the Current (89.3 FM) hit the airwaves and, at least in theory, started a revolution.
Over the past eight or nine years, FM stations in the Twin Cities -- most of them owned by giant media corporations -- rarely let their disc jockeys pick the music. They didn't often play songs by bands that lacked major recording contracts. They almost never paid attention to acts from the vibrant Twin Cities scene. And they definitely didn't have a playlist of 13,165 songs. More like 130.
The Current changed all that. Launched by Minnesota Public Radio a year ago this week, the "antiformat" station unquestionably marked a seismic shift in Twin Cities radio options.
But beyond the wildly divergent playlist, what has the Current's impact really been?
Many Twin Cities nightclubs report that the commercial-free station -- spinning everything from vintage country to underground hip-hop to Icelandic folk to lots and lots of indie-rock -- has been good for business.
"We knew it was going to be a good thing right away," said Nate Kranz, booker at First Avenue, remembering a concert by Duluth band Low just weeks after the station went on the air. Buoyed by heavy airplay on the Current, the show sold out.
"That's about twice the business that Low had ever done here before," Kranz said.
Musicians have noticed, too.
"I think the Current has made a big difference," said Craig Finn, a Twin Cities native who fronts the New York-based Hold Steady. Had it not been for the Current, his band's record -- ranked high among Rolling Stone magazine's best of 2005 -- probably would not have been played on his hometown FM dial. "Every significant label person I've talked to this year was aware of our Current airplay. They've helped us reach an older, maybe less hipster audience -- people who go to four shows a year, rather than four a week."
Johnny Risan, store manager at Cheapo Records in St. Paul, has seen increased CD sales for indie bands, especially among "older-than-college-radio buyers," he said. "A lot of times they heard it on the Current and don't know much about the bands, which is great."
Jackie Nalpant, a booking agent at Monterey Peninsula Artists in California, says the Current has helped one of her acts, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The New York-based band's upcoming Twin Cities debut April 1 at the 400 Bar is one of the year's most anticipated club gigs thanks to regular 89.3 airplay, she said.
"Minneapolis has always been one of the best second-tier markets for touring indie bands," she said. The Current's influence "moves your city up to right behind New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago."
Funding riles competitors
On a recent weekday, Mary Lucia got a first glimpse of construction at Minnesota Public Radio's offices in downtown St. Paul -- work that includes a new soundstage with room for 100 listeners and several fancy new studios.
Of all the radio studios in town, MPR's space is arguably the nicest.