When The Current hit the airwaves at 9:01am on Jan. 24, 2005 to the beat of Atmosphere’s “Say Shh,” nothing was a sure thing. Alternative stations come and go, and will continue to, but with the backing of Minnesota Public Radio, The Current is not just another station. It has a different business model and a unique personality. Matching the base of MPR, The Current’s listeners are curious, open-minded, and generally passionate about the content.
A decade of broadcasting has proven it’s a winning formula. The station not only represents the local music scene by helping to break such artists as Lizzo, Dessa, and Jeremy Messersmith, but it spans genres in a way that mirrors the larger Minnesota music scene: a unique landscape where a concert can feature both Atmosphere and Tramped by Turtles and nobody will bat an eye. While it favors some genres more than others, The Current embraces and promotes local culture as a whole. The Current isn’t a radio station that simply tells Minnesotans what is going on, it’s a part of what’s going on.
The Growler joined Program Director Jim McGuinn, who has been at the station since January 2009, to get a deeper understanding of what drives and motivates the familiar on-air voices who introduce new bands and share familiar oldies to an audience no longer just in Minnesota, but thanks to streaming options, across the world.
Read the full interview here or continue below for the top ten questions.
The Growler: Where did the idea for The Current come from?
Jim McGuinn: I wasn’t here at the time, but Minnesota Public Radio acquired the frequency from St. Olaf College. It was a classical station at 89.3. The head of content was Sarah Lutman and she, along with the original Programming Director Steve Nelson, and others decided that we would do this rock station. Steve set out assembling the staff, many of whom are still here like Mark Wheat, Mary Lucia, Bill DeVille, and Jill Riley. They all came in right off the bat. Steve Seel was actually a classical host who segued over to the rock side.
At the time, the hope was that maybe the third service, along with News and Classical, could help bring younger generations to public media. It was still viewed at that moment as helping make the news station bigger. Now I think people are realizing that it’s got its own life. And it does help make the news bigger but it’s also stands alone pretty well. Or at least not to compete with that demographic and to bring in new audiences that might not already engage with Minnesota Public Radio. And it worked shockingly well.
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G: As a public station are there unique challenges?
JM: It is different primarily because the business model is flipped upside down. In commercial media you try to gather a large audience and hope and pray that you don’t play anything that offends them that makes them turn off the radio dial. That doesn’t work in public media because over half of our revenue comes from voluntary contributions. Instead you have to play content that is unique enough that it motivates listeners to voluntarily support the radio station. In my experience, working in public media brings out people that are more passionate about the content and are really driven to create this community thing.
G: Was there ever a time where things almost fell apart at The Current?
JM: Everyday. [Laughs.]
It’s constantly falling apart and then we put it back together. That’s sort of the fun. One of the things I love is that we can take music very seriously and also very playfully at the same time. We’re not curing cancer. What’s the worst we can do? Play a song somebody doesn’t like? At the same time we really take a lot of pride in trying to cover new bands or celebrate great music made throughout the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
G: Do you feel that taking risks is a large part of your identity?
JM: Having worked in commercial media, most stations try to create a safe template of expectations and we try to wire into the listener expectations that we are going to play something that you might not know, that might challenge you, that you might not like. Fortunately, we live in the great Twin Cities and there’s been an audience that appreciates that.
One of the weirdest, yet coolest, things we hear often from listeners when they’re becoming members is, “Sometimes you play songs I don’t like, but I stick around because I know you’re probably going to follow it with something I love.” That’s mind blowing when you hear that in an age where people have so much choice at the push of a button.
G: How do you choose when to follow music programming software and when to take the risk?
JM: Programming software is really just keeping track of what we play, not telling us what to play. If you were on an air shift before me and you played a song by David Bowie in 1972, I probably shouldn’t play the same song four hours later. The software is really just managing what gets played. We set rules and parameters to help us but it’s really human based. We have a weekly music meeting to talk about new music. We go through piles and piles of new music to come up with a handful of releases each week that we think will work best. You never know if a song is going to work or not before you play it. After you put it on the radio you start to get the feedback, to see those reactions. Then you can judge: should we play it more, less, or stop playing it? The hosts hand-schedule their shows every day.
G: People get access to things now with the click of a button. Is it a challenge to stay relevant in the age of Spotify and streaming services?
JM: There are a million of them out there. When I got started in radio you were just competing with radio and it was easier to see the differences, but now we’re really dealing with listeners that have a lot more choices of where to go for music. A station like The Current only succeeds if the curation that we create is unique and valued and also if the things that we provide that you can’t get from those services is valued. So that could be the context that a host gives to a song or a band. It could be the way that we integrate local music in a mix. It could be the shared communal experience of you and I both listening to Mary Lucia play a No Apologies track and laughing and then talking about it later. You don’t get that from Pandora. Hopefully you value it from The Current.
G: Do you have a favorite moment in The Current’s history?
JM: Every year at Rock the Garden near the end of the show a couple of the staff likes to go up to the top of the hill and look over the city and the crowd and the band on stage and that’s always a great thing.
I also have a lot of memories of seeing my son who’s now nine—when we moved here he was three—grow up at various Rock the Cradle events.
Hearing from artists that we’ve supported locally, nationally, and internationally that Minneapolis has become maybe their favorite city thanks in part to the support that we’ve given them.
Then also meeting great artists. We had this dinner a couple of years ago with Ian McLagan who was the keyboard player in The Faces. Getting to meet someone who had been through so much in the ‘60s and ‘70s and regaling us with stories was one of those pinch myself moments that I’ll never forget, particularly when he then passed away a few months ago which brought it all back home.
G: What excites you about this year’s Rock the Garden?
JM: I’m excited to see Babes in Toyland reunite and bring the rock. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Modest Mouse. I’ve never seen Sean Lennon in this band, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. I love the eclecticism of having Seun Kuti, JD McPherson, Babes in Toyland, and Modest Mouse on a bill on Sunday. Every year it’s fun. This year the line-up seems more eclectic.
G: There aren’t too many copycat stations in ten years. Why do you think it works so well in Minnesota?
JM: We think it could work in a lot of places and there are a few stations that have launched in the last few years that definitely share some attributes with The Current in places like Colorado, Dallas, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and others.
Clearly there’s something special here. Whether the passionate audience of music fans here exceeds other cities per capita or something about the fact that we’re big enough and isolated enough and cold enough that we already have a tendency to favor our own music scene. It just seems to have worked.
G: Your staff’s enthusiasm seems to be part of what sets you apart. How do you keep that up ten years into the station?
JM: Because we focus so much on new music it’s always changing. Living in this century, the technology is changing so there’s new challenges, new opportunities, new music to discover and celebrate. I think when you get positive feedback from an audience that fuels all of us. You feel like, “I’m just picking songs to play on the radio,” and then you hear the impact it’s had on somebody’s life and it fuels you. There’s a lot to be enthusiastic about: I’m not digging ditches. I get to open boxes of records every day.
Read the full interview here.