Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Left of the Dial, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mom Jeans Radio


On a recent morning, listeners of WFPK radio in Louisville heard indie-band-of-the moment Helio Sequence sing "Can't Say No." They heard the Black Keys tear though "Strange Times." They heard local band Wax Fang's sonic adventure "Cannibal Summer." They heard the always unpredictable Cat Power cover "Aretha, Sing One for Me."

In that same span, they also heard Starbucks icon Sheryl Crow ("Love Is All There Is"), a 20-year-old trifle from Edie Brickell and New Bohemians ("What I Am"), a 2003 novelty hit by Fountains of Wayne ("Stacy's Mom") and Train ("Drops of Jupiter," a song that even corporate radio seems weary of).

Tuning in can be a maddening experience. It's possible that WFPK's listeners are just that eclectic, happy to groove to a playlist that swings wildly from Arcade Fire to Eagle Eye Cherry, from the Velvet Underground to Counting Crows. Someone who doesn't change the station when Vampire Weekend gives way to Blues Traveler.

But if you're 23-year-old barista Kane Holbrook, it's the kind of thing that makes you just turn the radio off entirely, turning instead to websites like Last.fm and Pandora.com for new music.

"They're okay, but my mom really likes them," said Holbrook, who works at Sunergos Coffee in Germantown, with a shrug. "They're not my main source of music."

Billy Petot, a 30-year-old insurance agent and part-time musician, is less diplomatic.

"WFPK is too white, and often times too stale," he said. "A lot of the music lacks flavor. I don't feel like the station introduces us to anything or promotes something that hasn't already been tested. It's like Hillary Clinton waiting for the poll numbers to decide her stance on an issue."

Long viewed as the city's most adventurous radio station, the WFPK that you now get depends on when you tune in. Dial up 91.9-FM and you might get to sample what the early adopters are listening to. Or you may get the soundtrack to "Grey's Anatomy" -- or worse, "Closing Time" by Semisonic. All within the same set.

How did the station that reinvigorated public radio back in the 1990s find itself in such a muddle?

Stacy's mom

We're at the Louisville Public Media building on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville, where programming and music director Stacy Owen is giving me a tour.

"It all starts with me," Owen explains. "All of the new music that's mailed to us comes to me. I don't ever get to all of it. We get 50 to 100 new CDs in the mail every week. Sometimes, I'll share them with other staff members, to get their review -- if they think it's something we ought to take a serious look at."

At the door to the music library, we run into afternoon DJ Marion Dries.

"Stacy, did I hear that Moby has a new CD out?"

On this day, Moby's latest CD has been out for two weeks. Owen dryly acknowledges this to Dries, and the tour moves on.

A decidedly thoughtful, warm person, Owen, 44, has presided over what she claims is 15-percent membership growth since advancing to program director in 2004, replacing Dan Reed, who is credited with establishing the format known as adult album alternative at WFPK. Reed is now the music director at WXPN in Philadelphia, one of the nation's more influential AAA public stations and home of the popular syndicated show "World Café."

A thick musical stew, with pop, rock, alt-country, folk, blues, alternative rock, bluegrass, world music, classic rock, electronica, jazz, new wave, reggae and punk rock, the AAA format's eclecticness is both a blessing and a curse, an unfocused array of music that defies the niche-driven, long-tail culture we live in today. Even Owen is hard-pressed to put her finger on exactly what it is.

"AAA can mean a lot of things depending on what city you're in, and the flavor you're trying to create," she said. "For Louisville, I think it means a bit of classic rock, because it's a classic rock town. Maybe dig a little deeper into some of those albums instead of just hearing the Top-40 hits that our 40- and 50-year old listeners grew up with. I like to call them the 'wow factor' songs. 'Ooh! I haven't heard that on the radio in years!' Also, being based in the singer-songwriter (genre) … and also the Louisville music -- that's definitely a mission of the station, is to play music from here in our own city, and not just an hour on the weekend, but in the mix with everything else."

Before 1996, Louisville listeners were relegated to commercial stations that concentrated on Top-40, modern country, oldies, hard rock and the like, or the city's three public stations: WFPK-FM and WUOL-FM, which both played classical music, and WFPL-FM, which concentrated on jazz and news programs like "All Things Considered," with the occasional alt-rock or blues show.

That year, the public stations merged to become the Public Radio Partnership (now Louisville Public Media), shuffling their formats in the process. WUOL stayed classical, while WFPL dropped jazz and added more of news and talk shows. WFPK, meanwhile, dropped classical, picked up jazz and, in a most drastic change for staid public radio, began playing pop and rock music in regular rotation.

But as WFPK and the AAA format have aged, it has become increasingly difficult to please the audience that wants to hear the Indigo Girls and Lyle Lovett -- two icons who helped build the format -- and a younger crowd that questions why Sea Wolf and Winterpills must compete for airtime with Los Lonely Boys, Tracy Chapman and David Crosby's umpteenth musical incarnation.

"I feel like WFPK only introduces me to new music from old artists," Petot said. "If Louisville is the cultural center it claims to be, why don't we encourage that culture by introducing folks to new art that is starving for promotion?"

If anyone understands the problems facing WFPK, it is Reed, who oversaw the station when it began its fan-friendly "Live Lunch" program and the hugely popular Waterfront Wednesday concerts. He is also infamous for clashing with local jazz buffs who were upset with his decision to slash jazz programming in 2003.

"It's absolutely imperative to cultivate a younger audience with this format (but) it's a hell of a lot harder to cultivate that audience now," he said. "This is not just a problem for 'FPK. You have to work twice as hard, it seems, to get the under-40s to switch the radio on."

This is radio clash

One of those "under-40s" is Justin Schotter-Davis. A 26-year-old student, musician and apprentice electrician, Schotter-Davis says WFPK pays lip service to new music by relegating "their few good DJs to the late-night hours and put the older, complacent ones on during peak listening times. Their DJs seem to lean more to the old and white side of the spectrum."

Schotter-Davis likens those DJs to an "old fart sitting on his front porch trying to teach the young 'uns about the good old days. I think the worst crime might be that they've actually lowered young people's attitudes towards local radio."

The reality is more complicated, of course.

DJ Nick James, 25, handles the 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, not quite drive-time but hardly a musical ghetto. A former record store clerk, James says he has freedom to play music he likes. For example, though, like the other jocks, he must play what Owen tells him to, that rule loosens up as his shift progresses into the night.

"I've got six picks out of eight, which is a significant chunk in that last hour," he said. "It allows me to stick more to what I know, which allows me to relate more to the younger crowd."

He doesn't always toe the party line. Looking through recent releases, he gets excited about the new Nick Cave disc, which isn't receiving much play, but he's not interested in the Van Morrison song that the older jocks are pushing. Finally he notes, "Here's Moby. Moby is... well, Moby...," trailing off.

Of all the jocks at WFPK, none may be more enthusiastic than Duke Meyer. A local FM radio veteran, he had been off the air for several years when WFPK hired him for the 9 a.m. to noon shift. For that, he arrives at 6:30 a.m.

"They couldn't pry me out of here," said Meyer, who credits WFPK with opening his eyes to artists like My Morning Jacket, Nick Drake and Laura Veirs. "I love it. I love it!"

Still, new music can be a struggle for 55-year-old Meyer, an unabashed fan of Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Seger and graying Louisville singer-songwriter Tim Krekel. When the male singer Cass McCombs was heading towards town last fall, it took Meyer a few days to stop referring to "her new album."

James and Meyer, two earnest, enthusiastic but very different music lovers, symbolize the two-headed nature of WFPK, which seems determined to please everybody in an era when popular culture gets more and more fragmented each day.

Listeners like Carrie Butler reflect the ambivalence that such an approach can engender.

"I think WFPK is very good, but I just wouldn't ever call it awesome," said Butler, a 35-year-old mother of two who works as an operations planning manager for TARC. "However, I wouldn't want to be seen as complaining about it, since it is heads and shoulders above the rest of the dial. I may not be exactly the right demographic for WFPK. I'll happily listen to dance, electronica, rap or new/alternative rock … For me, I want more rock."

John Mayer? Really?

It is a point of pride at WFPK to talk about the major artists who got their big break thanks to heavy rotation on AAA stations. Without WFPK and other public radio powerhouses, Norah Jones, John Mayer and David Gray, to name just a few, might never have crossed over to mainstream success.

But unlike the mother bird, who pushes her babies out of the nest when the time comes, WFPK continues to play million-selling artists in slots that could be occupied by newer, more exciting bands.

"If we break an artist, we want to claim that artist. Someone like John Mayer, for example," Owen said. "We played him for over a year before he broke really big.

"It's like, well, why should I just turn him over to commercial radio? Dave Matthews initially got his play on public radio and then crossed over."

Laura Shine, WFPK assistant program director and afternoon drive-time DJ, cites the case of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae singer who enjoyed chart success in 2006.

"We were playing him probably about a year before the Max picked him up," she said. "We have so many listeners who just kind of stick with us, they don't go down the dial very much. So why not cater to them and let them hear what's going on with these artists as well, instead of getting all worried about competition and trying to be just real exclusive? There's so many artists that we play that other stations wouldn't touch no matter what."

But some people feel that the station plays it too safe.

"I think it is a bummer that a station that has the chance to be progressive and take risks doesn't take full advantage of that opportunity," said Craig Lile, a Louisville native who runs the influential music website My Old Kentucky Blog. "However, I know the struggles a public radio station has, and I understand the unfortunate need to cater to the audience that will actually fund the station through donations."

Reed, who deals with the same problem in Philadelphia, believes adventurousness need not be a problem when the pledge drive rolls around.

"You're always taking a risk of alienating your long-time listeners and members by trying too hard to sound 'young,' " he said. "I may be wrong, but I think good music is good music, whether it be My Morning Jacket or Muddy Waters or Vampire Weekend."

The Jeans Gap

The staff of WFPK takes pride in trying to unite what could best be described as the "mom jeans" and the "skinny jeans" crowds.

"It's an interesting balance," said Shine, who talks about "appeasing your core audience -- the 40-year-olds and up" with tracks from the latest Steve Winwood record, while not completely scaring away the "younger audience (that doesn't) have that reference point."

The station's website was revamped this year, as part of a re-branding effort to help keep up with changing technology. Playlists are now updated on the spot, which can be especially helpful for younger listeners unfamiliar with the station's 1988-heavy roster of core artists such as the Waterboys, the Smithereens, Edie Brickell, Crowded House, U2 and 10,000 Maniacs.

Shine cites a section on the website called My Source, which focuses on how WFPK bridges the gap between older and younger listeners.

"You'll see someone who says, 'I can always listen to you when my 13-year-old's in the car.' It's always interesting how our listeners compare to their kids," Shine said. "They'll say, 'I know about an artist that my kid just told me about, and they'll be really surprised that I knew.' So that's a compliment that comes up quite a bit."

"So, it's parents commenting?" I ask. "No kids writing in?"

"Yeah, it's parents commenting," Shine responded

"Maybe the kids are commenting to their friends on their Facebook pages," I offer.

Shine laughs. "Yeah."

Owen, meanwhile, has been working with James to cultivate the younger audience.

"There's research that shows that our younger demographic is listening, and they're also listening online, while they're on the computer at night. So they're playing on the computer … blogging, or whatever," she said with a laugh, throwing up her hands in mock exasperation. "It is a concerted effort on my part to attract some younger listeners to the station. You don't want your listeners to die off, you know?"

We want the airwaves

WFPK gives people what they want. It truly is our radio station. If enough people call and say what they like, it will continue to be played. The opposite is also true. If 20 people call each day and say that they no longer want Dave Matthews, WFPK will listen. They don't answer to corporate headquarters back in New York.

The real question is: What does Louisville want? A non-commercial station heavily tailored to mainstream, middle-aged sonic safety blankets like Paula Cole, James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett, or newer, more challenging artists such as M.I.A., Animal Collective or Hot Chip? Can they coexist? Do all those teenagers and all those parents really listen to John Prine and John Hiatt together?

The first song the new WFPK played back in 1996 was "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," a 1986 hit by Timbuk 3. Owen shares this fact with me as I'm leaving her office. She's busy and can't always dwell on the small stuff. She's obviously been inside these walls for a long time because she turns to me, a writer whom she's only just met, and asks:
"Is Timbuk 3 still cool anymore?"

c. Velocity Weekly, 14 May 2008.

photos by John Rott

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