Photos of broadly smiling staffers at 89.3 the Current’s 10th anniversary festivities last weekend were still hitting Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday afternoon when news arrived that one of the smiliest, Barb Abney, had been canned. The midday host had been on air just a couple hours earlier, spinning, among other things, Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" and the Black Keys' "Strange Times."
And thus began the most troubled week the Current has seen in its heretofore prosperous and cheery 10-year history.
Minnesota Public Radio’s modern/indie-rock outlet went from a familial fortress to a broken home in the time it took the news to spread on social media — about as long as a Ramones song.
Predictably, the station’s abrupt firing of a parent of two and well-liked music-scene personality was met with boos. The breadth and fervor of the backlash, however, was surprising.
“The Current fired the hardest person to hate of their on-air staff,” comedian Ian Rans said on Facebook.
One of the station’s core artists, Lizzo, posted an emotional three-minute video crediting Abney’s “gift of gab” for buoying the local hip-hop star’s success. Many MPR members pledged to un-pledge the public station during its next fund-raising drive.
The Current’s management called the move a “programming decision” — and the Nielsen radio ratings, though ever-ambiguous, appear to provide justification.
Abney’s midday shift had lower ratings than the rest of the day. During the second half of 2014, the station averaged a 2.6 percent share of the Twin Cities radio audience from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, compared to a 3.2 share for the Current’s morning show, 3.9 for the late afternoon and early evening, and 4.4 for 7 p.m. to midnight.
However, those numbers probably say more about the Current audience’s listening habits and work schedules than Abney’s performance. Also, her ratings had been consistent and even improved a little over the past two years, so why fire her now?
It was only an unfortunate coincidence that her replacement by fill-in DJ and morning-show producer Jade Tittle came so soon after last weekend’s anniversary parties. The timing had more to do with the debut in early January of the station’s first viable local competitor, Go 96.3 FM — “where modern music is going,” according to its ads.
A Pohlad family operation previously known as K-TWIN, Go 96.3 launched a new format that is to the Current what pseudo-grunge copycats Candlebox were to Pearl Jam. If you aren’t getting enough Alt-J, Modest Mouse or Arctic Monkeys on your car ride home, here’s another station for you.
Not only is the Go team lifting heavily from the Current’s playlist, it has tried to hire away some of the Current’s staff.
Abney, it seems, was the first to be tossed overboard when the waters started getting rough at the Current.
“Obviously, we don’t elaborate on personnel decisions,” the Current’s program director Jim McGuinn said. He also declined to address Go 96.3’s tactics, except to add, “We’re going to continue to work to make the Current the best station it can be. That’s something we have to do for our listeners and members, regardless of competition.”
However realistic Go 96.3’s threat is — come April, the station will be stuck broadcasting 162 games by the not-so-rocking Twins — many of the Current’s most devout listeners seem to agree the station could use a tune-up after a decade in business.
Here are some ideas that might help the Current maintain its foothold:
Lessen the repetition. The most frequent complaint from longtime listeners is its increased overplay of certain hit songs, and they’re right. Scientific radio polls might tell commercial FM stations to play the same songs 20 times a day. Hearing Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” just three times in one day on the Current is too much, though — especially since all those commercial FM stations are now playing the same song 20 times a day.
Inform the audience (and the DJs) more. The Current has a smart — some might say nerdy — audience that craves insights into the artists being played, and appreciates every detail on their back story or upcoming gigs. Many of the Current’s jockeys don’t provide enough of this, sometimes providing a generic “NME likes this band” or “they’ll be in town soon” and leaving it at that.
Get out more. One thing that hasn’t changed amid everything else in the music business is true fans’ love of live music. The Current drives big crowds to shows, but the bulk of the station’s staffers aren’t often at shows themselves (we’ll give the 6 a.m. morning show hosts a pass). Live gigs are still the best way to discern a new band’s worth. More important, the station misses a lot of great bands not handed to them by labels and radio promoters.
Don’t be so corporate. Nixing Abney came off as a cutthroat move that didn’t look right for a community-oriented nonprofit. Worse, MPR reps issued a formal decree to volunteers on what to tell listeners about the move — corporate-spin PR that could have come from the Clear Channel playbook. Sample line: “Please refrain from making any disparaging comments about MPR, the Current, Jade or Barb, on social media or any other outlets.”
Don’t be a travel agency. Do we have to wait until his plane takes off to stop hearing those long promo ads for a trip to London led by DJ Mark Wheat? Is a tour of Jade’s native Kansas next? It seems like the kind of junket offered by MyTalk 107.1 or other commercial stations.
Broaden the playlist. Even Atmosphere and Lizzo, two of the station’s most-played rap acts, must agree that the station should dig deeper and deliver more hip-hop. It’s a clear way to differentiate the station from Go 96.3. It also fills a void, since the Twin Cities lacks a full-time hip-hop station despite the genre’s strong album and ticket sales. And enough with the mopey male electro-pop and bearded indie-folk — we loved the Postal Service and Bon Iver, too, but their many downbeat imitators make for boring radio.
Diversify the staff. The staff photo that kept flashing on the big screen during the First Avenue parties looked like something out of an American Eagle catalog, with only two non-white people out of about 20. This is important because a) the Current’s staff is more high-profile than those of most stations; b) it’s a publicly subsidized station, and c) it would legitimately build respect and ratings among the hip urbanites and millennials in its target audience.
Spread the local love. The Current has made a big difference in building audiences for dozens of Minnesota bands, but it could do more. How about just swapping in one untested local song per day in place of a single play of those Hozier tracks (or Father John Misty, Black Keys, Alt-J, etc. — or even one of the local hits by Jeremy Messersmith or Doomtree)? Will this attract a bigger audience? No, but it will keep the faithful happy and make things a lot more interesting.