Mixmasters of cool: Variety is what they spin

Originally published in Current, Dec. 17, 2007
By Jeremy Egner

Most people have experienced it — that moment when jangling guitars, a slinky bass groove, a thumping backbeat, a tricky turn of vocal phrasing or all of the above coalesce in just the right way to send a bright bolt of energy from your ears to your gut. Goosebumps rise on your arms, or maybe a dopey grin crosses your mug.

Throw in the thrill of discovery, when the visceral response comes courtesy of an artist you’ve never heard before, and the kicks herald something deeper and rewarding.

It’s an experience public radio’s eclectic-music stations, such as Seattle’s KEXP, WXPN in Philadelphia and the upstart RadioMilwaukee, as well as split-format outlets such as Austin’s KUT or KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., strive to produce over and over for listeners every day by mixing a kaleidoscopic array of smart, talented acts in ways that make disparate artists sound natural when played side by side.

Just over 30 pubradio stations call themselves full-time Triple A (Adult Album Alternative), according to Arbitron, and about 150 more say they’ve got eclectic formats at least part of the time.

Often lumped under the Triple A heading, these public radio stations venture far beyond the commercial Triple A format in playlist diversity, say their programmers and consultants who work with the stations.

They say these stations offer a clear public service to adventurous, open-minded music lovers ignored by commercial radio and appeal to the educated, culturally curious folks that consultants claim naturally gravitate toward pubradio.

The playlists encompass powerhouse pan-generational arena acts such as Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen, urban-flavored artists such the London dance-hop phenom M.I.A., alt-country songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, alterna-faves both old and new such as the Cure and the Silversun Pickups, and thousands of other artists from all over the musical map.

“It’s a somewhat formless format,” said Bruce Warren, assistant g.m. for programming at WXPN. “We’re into cool music and want others to be into cool music.”

Whatever you want to call it, the approach has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years, according to NPR Research.

The hours of Triple A programming on pubradio increased more than 85 percent between spring 1997 and spring 2007, according to Ben Robins, NPR research analyst. The number of stations that carry at least some of the programming has increased from 133 to 230 (including stations that don’t necessarily identify themselves as music stations).

“Cool music” is an appealing format to stations seeking younger audiences that don’t tend to tune in for classical music and jazz, pubradio’s traditional musical hallmarks.
“If you only play jazz or classical, your audience is going to be gray,” says Nic Harcourt, morning host and music director for KCRW, the Los Angeles-area crew oft-cited for its taste-making talents.

At Minnesota Public Radio, for example, the listener median age of its classical music service is 60, its news service, roughly 48, and its eclectic Twin Cities music-mixer, The Current, around 36, says Steve Nelson, p.d. of the latter.

Triple A’s origins lie in boomer rock, with plenty of singer-songwriters thrown in for good measure.

The Current is among a new breed of pubradio music stations that more aggressively target Gen-Xers with a stronger dose of indie rock and other buzz-heavy acts. Such outlets represent pubradio’s best chance to make inroads with the younger listeners that programmers crave, says Mike Henry, longtime consultant and owner and c.e.o. of Paragon Media Strategies in Denver. Henry, who helped develop the MPR station, was an architect of RadioMilwaukee and is working on similar projects with pubcasters in Portland and St. Louis.

Finally, eclectic-music programming also offers stations a less expensive way to build relevance and loyalty within their communities than local news, says Leslie Peters, v.p. for knowledge management at Audience Research Analysis.

Peters recently ran the numbers on stations that identified themselves as eclectic or Triple A music stations to look for successes for others to emulate. The stations she listened to “had a brilliant way of mixing stuff,” she says. “It’s very seductive.”

Though part of the charm of an eclectic format comes from its apparent formlessness, programmers acknowledge that they have to impose some consistency of sound while rewarding adventurous listeners.

Stations achieve this in various ways. Some use MusicMaster or other software to program hosts’ playlists (RadioMilwaukee), and others give deejays carte blanche to play what they want (KCRW).

Whatever the method, says Kevin Cole, afternoon host and program director for KEXP, the idea is to expose and promote favorite new acts within the listeners’ broad range of interest. Every hour of KEXP’s day, for example, its deejays play at least two tracks — whichever they want — from albums designated for heavy spins, plus two from medium albums, one from light albums, one from “new or recurrent” albums and one by a local artist.

“We want to balance the new with the old, the familiar with the unfamiliar,” he says. “You’ll quickly create listener fatigue if you don’t have some signposts.”

Beyond smoke and mirrors

The Triple A format was developed in commercial radio in the mid-1980s as a more locally malleable alternative to tightly codified rock formats. For an audience that grew up with progressive FM in the 1970s, the aim was to revisit the era’s esteemed artists while introducing new acts that fit with the classics—to use the familiar as a means to introduce new sounds, says John Schoenberger, Triple A editor for Radio & Records.

Triple A stations were also designed to reflect their regions more accurately than most commercial outlets do, he says — KGSR in Austin doesn’t sound like KFOG in San Francisco, for example.

That formula still thrives today on stations where Steely Dan leads into Wilco and Bonnie Raitt into Norah Jones, with local artists interspersed.

“A classic rock station has to own the classic rock image in its market; the alternative station has to own the alternative segment,” says Mike Henry, who helped develop the format. “In the case of Triple A, what it has to own is variety.”

Commercial Triple A’s playlists aren’t exceptionally deep, but careful packaging creates “a wonderful sense of adventure,” he says.

Noncommercial Triple A, on the other hand, “represents the opportunity to truly be a progressive music format, not smoke and mirrors,” Henry says.

That said, the strategy of mixing familiar, “heritage” artists with the new is largely the same.

“You’re trying to play the best new music alongside that music’s roots and influences,” says The Current’s Nelson.

When mixed effectively, the discovery works both ways. KEXP’s Cole remembers several years ago, before indie rock bands’ current fascination with early ’80s alternative and post-punk bands began to blossom, that he had second thoughts about following a song by the Rapture, an ’80s revivalist band, with a cut by the Cure — even though the segue made sonic sense — because the once-huge alt-band had fallen out of fashion.

“I thought listeners might hate it, but I made the mix and then all the phone lines lit up,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, here we go,’ but every caller asked, ‘Who is this?’”

“Younger listeners had no idea who the Cure were,” he says.

But what constitutes “the best new music” to play among the older acts?

With no national charts to guide them, eclectic pubradio programmers rely largely on gut feeling to determine what songs make it on air.

KCRW, for example, receives as many as 600 CDs a week, which Harcourt and music librarian Eric J. Lawrence split up and review.

“A song either has to have a lyric that connects with me or has a beat or a vibe that makes me want to tap my feet or jump up and down,” Harcourt says. “If I get two or more of those things, then I’m laughing.”

Choosing some bands is a no-brainer. Radiohead, one of the most revered in the world, combines weighty lyrics with jagged indie rock as well as lush electronica. The band practically embodies the intelligent, eclectic vibe favored by pubradio’s music-mix stations.

“We know listeners want to hear them,” Cole says. “That said, if we listened to their record and it sucked, we wouldn’t put it into heavy rotation.” (The band’s recently self-released In Rainbows has been widely lauded.)

Other core artists include Wilco, which sprang from alt-country roots in the mid-’90s but has since broadened its atmospheric sound to incorporate elements of power pop, psychedelia and soul, with string and horn flourishes among the electric guitars. Spoon’s spare, focused power pop features idiosyncratic arrangements and instrumentation.

WXPN’s Warren, recently named Triple A p.d. of the year by the trade mag Friday Morning Quarterback, says the format is fundamentally rock-based. “The songs start with the sound of an electric guitar seven out of 10 times,” he says.

It’s often the other three cuts that give stations their adventurous edge. WXPN and its cohorts embrace, for example, the buzz-heavy M.I.A., a London-born, Sri Lankan-bred MC who lays slangy, sweet-voiced vocals over thumping club beats and chaotic, impossibly catchy grooves from a dizzying sources. The rowdy dance rock outfit LCD Soundsystem pairs wry vocals and throbbing grooves with guitars and seemingly whatever else is laying around the studio.

Playlists also feature a wide array of bands and local acts with avant-garde leanings, as well as older musicians who rely on substance over sizzle, such as the endlessly admired British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.

What unifies these disparate artists is a tendency to eschew formulas and take modern rock, hip-hop, folk, electronica and other established genres in surprising new directions.

“There’s a huge middle ground between the outside edge of what commercial radio plays” and pubradio’s traditional offerings such as classical and jazz, Henry says. Since commercial radio has yet to show any interest in staking out that territory, pubradio stations shouldn’t be afraid to grab it for themselves, he says.

Which mix is our mix?

Some pubradio stations aspire to conquer entirely new ground. In perhaps the most unusual spin in the eclectic field, RadioMilwaukee aims to promote musical discovery across ethnic as well as generational boundaries. The station launched in February as a 50-50 split format between urban and progressive rock music, with a heavy local element.

“When you start to cross ethnic lines, a lot of people in radio and marketing very quickly tell you why it won’t work,” says Mikel Ellcessor, executive director of RadioMilwaukee (see his commentary).

The Milwaukee experiment is among the subset of eclectic stations that target younger adults with playlists that lean more heavily on indie and alternative acts than traditional rock artists.

All of pubradio’s eclectic stations draw from across various genres and eras.

WXPN’s Warren recalls a “major breakthrough moment” at a concert featuring the precocious alt-singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, who tours and records with a rotating lineup of musicians under the name Bright Eyes. Though Bright Eyes’ commercial airplay is minimal at best, all of the nearly 3,000 seats in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music were sold out.

“After the first five songs, I turned to my friend and said, ‘This is the future of Triple A,’” he recalls.

The significant divide among the stations, Henry says, is between those based on a classic-rock foundation—such as WXPN, Louisville’s WPFK and WTMD in Towson, Md.—and those that count the college-rock heroes of the late ’70s and early ’80s, such as R.E.M, as their heritage acts, as KEXP and The Current do (map, above right).

There’s plenty of overlap, but where the traditionally rock-based stations will play an underappreciated roots rocker such as Chuck Prophet, the younger mix stations will substitute an art-rock outfit such as Liars or whatever promising new band comes out of Brooklyn that week.

The former, not surprisingly, lures a generally older audience — WXPN’s median listener age is 46. KEXP’s and The Current’s are both about a decade younger.

The distinction comes down to a somewhat Shakespearean “musical line of demarcation,” Henry says: “To classic rock or not to classic rock.”

Web page posted Jan. 10, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

The eccentric orbits of public radio's music-mix stations: All five of the best known share Radiohead and a few other bands. But they head off in various musical directions and regularly feature local performers (marked *). Visit allmusic.com for song samples and info on artists. (Current makes no claims for this chart that could result in a loud, angry argument.)


Scruffier and heavier on the backbeat than typical public radio music, Triple A is striking a chord with listeners, 2003.

WXPN's World Cafe giving birth to an in-person music venue in Philadelphia, 2003.

Going by the gut, music stations craft mixes for their markets. Listeners to Minnesota Public Radio hear hip-hop and Neil Young in the same hour, while Juneau's Excellent Radio fans like their tunes on the poppier side, 2006.


In a Current commentary, Mikel Ellcessor tells where RadioMilwaukee got its sound.


KCRW's Nic Harcourt lists his top 10 albums of 2007.

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