Originally posted in The Sands Report
Date: February 13, 2020
Written by: Richard Sands

All this talk in the last few issues about playing more new songs from newer bands piqued the interest of Paragon’s Mike Henry. After all, he launched and/or relaunched a large group of non-comm “Music Discovery” stations, including Indie 102.3, The Current, and KUTX. These stations aren’t necessarily Alternative in the way we define the format. Some are labeled “Adult Alternative.” But they definitely are an alternative, much like college radio used to be an alternative to Alt stations back in the olden days.

Willobee Carlan

Willobee Carlan has been with Colorado public station Indie 102.3 as Program Director for exactly one year. His first professional gig was at New York’s famed WLIR, “the station that dared to be different.” In addition to programming a number of other Alternative stations, he also spent a decade in band management, so he has a great perspective on the landscape.

I asked how he would describe his station, and he told me they live mostly in the indie-rock world, dabbling in other genres. “We’re not afraid to play familiar artists surrounding all the new artists,” he says, before quickly adding, “We’re also committed to raising the awareness of the local music community. We focus on a handful of local artists every month and include them in regular rotation.”

While many of the stations on our Alt panel play maybe 10 to 15 new artists and are often at about 30 percent new music at a given time, Denver’s Indie 102.3 plays close to 100 current artists which puts them at roughly 65 percent new music. And since the station is non-comm, Willobee says they are able to play, “A ton of music with brief interruptions, which also very liberating for us as well as our listeners…the fact that we don’t have to play 18 to 20 minutes of commercials an hour is amazing. Yes, we have to do a few pledge drives throughout the year, but we make up for that with music-filled hours, all day, and every day.”


Mike Henry with Earworm feature ZZ Ward

Matt Reilly started out his career in Austin in 2002 and returned in 2008. Now PD of KUTX, the station is branded as “The Austin Music Experience.” They kind of play it all, as Reilly described to me, “We’re most concerned with great songs, so genre isn’t much of a factor.”

Their ratio of currents to gold is a little less bold than Willobee’s station—it’s more like 50/50. But playing new music is an important part of the formula. Reilly explains to me, “We’re a music discovery station. With listener-support comes the ability to be adventurous and try new music that you might not get away with on the commercial side. If something doesn’t resonate with our audience, don’t worry, they’ll let us know. A big chunk of our audience is NPR listeners and I think there’s an expectation that boundaries will get pushed.”

Being “listener-supported” gives them a big edge he thinks, because commercial Alt stations have one metric—ratings. But for KUTX they have two, ratings and donations.

Reilly says, “One can be down while the other is up and we’re OK. The listener support is more vital to me because it is a direct connection to the listeners. It’s a continual conversation and these are people that love what we do enough to give us their money. I value that conversation and pay particular attention to the member support piece.”

After 15 years programming such legendary Alt stations as The Point in St. Louis, WEQX, and Philadelphia’s WPLY, our old friend Jim McGuinn is now at the helm at The Current in Minneapolis. He says the station was, “Created by and serves listeners that love music, who are curious to discover while also dig celebrating a wide history of music.”

“It’s people that we sometimes call Musicheads,” he tells me with a smile. McGuinn says that indie rock is the middle ground for the station, but they’re always pushing the boundaries. The station is 45 percent current, 40 percent gold, and 15 percent recurrent.

Jim McGuinn

McGuinn states, “We sometimes ask ourselves in music meetings—is this an artist we’d play at home? Is this a song we think is moving music forward? Will we still want to listen to this in six months? Or six years?  That’s how you end up being the first rock station to play Chance the Rapper, a place where new Nick Cave can land in heavy rotation next to Pearl Jam, and where a Soccer Mommy, Sports Team, or beabadoobee can find a spot in rotation at the beginning of their careers, so we can foster a connection between new artists, our audience, and be a home to both for years to come.”

He harkens back to ye olde glory days of Alt, the early to mid-’90s. That’s back when programmers relied more on their gut and were having a grand time. But now he fears that joy of music discovery at Alt is gone, and it’s more about how to “not lose.”

McGuinn opines, “Non-Comm is the polar opposite. Instead of worrying about how to not lose, we’re driven to win—as in the hearts, minds, and ultimately, membership of each listener. That means working to create value in listener’s lives—to be a service they use and feel passionate about—passionate enough to voluntarily give us money for a product we’ve already given them for free. Thankfully, there are thousands of people who feel underserved and undervalued by commercial radio options…who have stepped up to support The Current.”

Read original article here.