Tucker Sterling Jensen loved the music and musicians of Minnesota.
Even when he was supposed to be talking about himself — his new song, his next performance, his band’s debut album — he found a way to turn the spotlight on other local artists.
The best way he knew to do that was Radio Five Watt. A tiny internet-only radio station, tucked in the corner of a northeast Minneapolis coffee shop, where the best song you never heard could be playing right now.
He was the station manager and he had big plans for the place. He just ran out of time.
On Tuesday, March 3 — a year after they lost him to cancer at age 29 — Jensen’s family, friends and fans will gather at a benefit concert to celebrate his life and continue his work with Radio Five Watt.
“I found out after he passed just how many artists Tucker encouraged,” said his father, blues and soul bandleader Mick Sterling. “This radio station is a reflection of his intent to just celebrate great music. It needs to be heard and this is the best way for it to be heard.”
Radio Five Watt runs on coffee and the goodwill of local artists who share their songs for free in exchange for airplay and exposure. It was the brainchild of Five Watt Coffee co-owner Caleb Garn, who came to the Twin Cities to study music and stayed to make music and coffee.
“A young kid in their bedroom in Bemidji could stumble into hearing about Radio Five Watt … send a song in, and quite literally have it on the air an hour later,” Garn said. “There’s no barrier. It’s so accessible.”
You can hear Radio Five Watt at any of the Five Watt Coffee shops around town, or stream it online at radiofivewatt.org, or download the Radio Five Watt app.
“There’s this huge gap between playing in your bedroom and playing main stage at First Avenue or getting on the Current,” Garn said. “We hope to fill this big hole in that trajectory.”
When Garn came up with the idea for Radio Five Watt, he knew exactly who he wanted to run it. Tucker Jensen grew up in the Twin Cities music scene, backstage and onstage with his father. He was a singer-songwriter and frontman for Dirt Train — a self-described “five-piece Americana Rock & Roll band greasy enough to spread on toast.”
Garn approached Jensen, who considered the idea for a moment, then agreed that running an Internet radio station out of a coffee shop sounded like fun.
“He ran with it,” Garn said. “All while being very ill.”
For almost three years, through six rounds of chemo, Jensen made music, played music and battled lymphoma.
“Tucker ran out of time. He just ran out of time. But these ideas are still solid,” Sterling said. At Tuesday’s benefit concert, he’ll perform with Dirt Train, standing in for Tucker.
For Sterling, the only way to cope with the loss of his talented, smart, kind son is to carry on his plans for Radio Five Watt. The station reminds him of the old days of radio, before commercial playlists and corporate gatekeepers, and he wants it to be heard by more than just the few hundred people who walk through the doors of the Five Watt Coffee houses around town.
“Radio Five Watt is it if you are a Minnesota songwriter,” Sterling said. “If you have material, Radio Five Watt is your best shot to actually have it heard.”
Laura Hugo, Jensen’s best friend, will be taking over for him as station manager. She grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, dreaming of becoming a musician. She arrived in the Twin Cities as a shy 18-year-old, afraid to sing in public until one of her aunts signed her up for an open mic night.
“Being heard, for someone who’s from the middle of nowhere, is huge,” she said.
Jensen, who had grown up in the music scene, mixing with performers like Jonny Lang and the Neville Brothers, encouraged her, collaborated with her, helped her make connections as she got established in the Twin Cities music scene.
“The community I was terrified of were the people who were pushing me forward and lifting me up,” she said. “It was one of the most beautiful things I ever experienced.”
Radio Five Watt is her chance to return the favor.
“If I love your music, I want to tell somebody about it,” she said.
The benefit concert for Radio Five Watt starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Parkway Theater. You can find more information at theparkwaytheater.com/all-events/radio-five-watt-benefit.
“It’s going to be a huge honoring of Tucker’s life,” Sterling said. “I think there’s going to be a lot more laughs than tears.”
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks