Photos by Aaron Davidson
When 89.3 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.
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.
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: Were you with a commercial station in Philadelphia prior to joining The Current?
JM: I worked both. Much of my career I worked alternative commercial radio but the last several years in Philadelphia I worked for a radio station called WXPN, which would be kind of like The Current’s older, cool uncle.
As soon as I arrived in public media I felt like I was home.
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: How do you know when you’ve played a song people don’t like?
JM: It’s hard when there’s several hundred thousand listeners. You tend to react to one letter of anger or praise but you have to put it in context that a lot of people are listening and not all with the same experience or preferences. Often, we see the same song get hate and love mail.
G: It means you’ve struck people.
JM: It’s a stick, we’re poking people with a stick. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s part of our job. With so much media being afraid to poke with a stick, it’s college radio and people like us that can still do that.
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.
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