Public pop radio comes to the town

The Current’s birth holds immense potential for local indie and alternative rock fans.

Anyone else excited about local radio for the first time in oh, approximately 36 years? At 9 a.m. sharp Monday, Minnesota Public Radio went live with something larger and similarly sized markets have enjoyed for decades: noncommercial, 24-hour FM pop radio!!

Yay!!!!!

Last year, MPR bought St. Olaf College’s classical music frequency, 89.3 WCAL-FM. A heated debate ensued, forging strange bedfellows in unlikely alliances. Classical purists linked up with stodgy St. Olaf College alumni and unsuccessfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to block the sale. Indie and college rock fans, traditionally virulently opposed to all things government, rejoiced in the prospect of artists such as Lucinda Williams and The Postal Service finally getting some high-band airplay.

The idea of public pop radio bodes well for a business model that has all but suffocated diversity in form and quality since Top 40 corporate clones ate up the spectrum in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, most commercial stations’ playlists rotate no more than 500 pathetic Billboard-approved 3 1/2-minute sludgefests at any given time.

By contrast, new public station KCMP-FM 89.3 (aptly named “The Current”) will spin from a library of more than 50,000 albums – not singles. Do you understand? Assuming at least 10 songs an album, that’s more than 100 times the variety of commercial stations.

New station program director Steve Nelson calls this concept “anti-format.” Besides playing young independent artists that teens and music snobs download by the millions, older critical favorites such as Johnny Cash and U2, and local heroes such as the Olympic Hopefuls, should enjoy airtime.

The new station also gives MPR a chance to expand its oft-neglected arts programming. Music, film and theater news and reviews will be featured from MPR’s local and national critics and correspondents, and the studio doors will remain open for guests from the arts scene to drop in and have their brains picked by those who have always done it with penetrating insight: public radio. Could this be? Is it too mind-blowingly magnificent to be true? There’s got to be a catch, right?

The first casualties are personnel directors for the University’s Radio K, who are wincing from the loss of not only award-winning DJ and student liaison Mark Wheat, but also founder Steve Nelson, who left the area in 2000 to develop programming for WNYC in New York and is returning only (gasp!) to set up a direct FM competitor to Radio K.

But the “K” will take its lumps for the team, because this is good for everyone. Fledgling local acts who rise up Radio K’s Top 7 chart will no doubt merit, at the very least, a sidelong glance from the folks at The Current, who have promised live in-studio performances a la Radio K’s “Off the Record.”

So, Radio K diehards shouldn’t fret – yet. Public radio has long deserved a shot at contemporary music programming. Sure, MPR’s news coverage on 91.1 FM might have wizened into the broadcast arm of the Democratic Party – mostly soulless because of its sponsors and moving further and further to the right – but this new initiative’s prospects are so high that they’ve earned the right to pluck the cream from the local alternative-radio crop.

Best of luck, The Current, you’ll need it. Here’s hoping your “channel” gets to be as “clear” as those other bastards.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]