Sacramento has a short list of public radio stations that actually do something for the community, such as helping local independent artists. While public radio can be found in every city, not every city has public radio stations that offer diverse programming or a chance for local artists to shine. This past week I decided to visit a few public radio stations in town. On Thursday, January 17, I was interviewed by Pablo Baxter at Sac State’s student run station KSSU (1580 AM). Then on Saturday I went to Access Sacramento’s station 88.7 The Voice where Mike Lidskin hosts a freeform music show every Saturday from 4 to 6 pm called Twirl Radio. I also interviewed Mike before the show for my local video website, SacTV.com.
My experience was enjoyable at both stations. In fact, I enjoyed it more than what I did on the air in the 1980s and 1990s on commercial radio. When I look back on my radio career I can definitely find many highlights such as artist interviews, but it was still within the realm of restrictions, such as most of the talk was brief between songs or over intros. I couldn’t just play all my favorite songs, since ratings pressure in the commercial radio world dictates serving specific demographics with hits they expect to hear. At the same time, when I went to high school in the late seventies and early eighties, commercial radio was a lot more flexible than it is today, which is interesting because it was much more popular back then. Through the eighties, when I began working in radio, formatting became strict, DJs lost control of the music and advertising began to shape programming instead of just interrupting it.
KWOD 106.5, where I made my mark from 1984 to 1996, was unique from most of the market because it was independently owned at the time. We were allowed to break the rules that made radio sound so corporate and redundant. During that time I had written public radio off public station KPFA, which became one of my favorite stations in the Bay. I found that I could turn it on at any time and be surprised, even if it was music I had never heard before. I had always enjoyed the concept of freeform radio, in which imagination and intelligence are welcome. Sacramento had great freeform stations in the seventies, such as KZAP and Earth Radio, which gave me a lot of ideas for alternative radio on KWOD in the nineties.
The past few years I have explored public radio stations around the country, such as KCRW from Santa Monica College. It has been part of my research project for my other site, PlaylistResearch.com, to document the best places in America for indie artists to send their music. Former Bee and SacPress writer David Barton, who also worked at Capital Public Radio last year, had told me in a SacTV interview that Capital Public Radio helps sell music at The Beat Records in Midtown. It made me realize how important public radio really is to local communities, especially in an era when most of the commercial radio dial not only ignores its local artists, but ignores its local community in order to promote national music and national sponsors.
Pablo Baxter is a student at Sac State with media aspirations. His weekly talk show on KSSU is called "Shuffle," which airs every Thursday from 2 to 3pm. Last Thursday we spent most of the hour talking about my radio career here in Sacramento and how I have made the transition into online media. What impressed me about his show was that he was able to keep a long conversation flowing without all the tricks that commercial radio talk hosts use to keep people listening. In other words, he didn’t rely on repeating the same material over and over. Instead of AM radio’s typical dumbed down presentation that usually give one narrow viewpoint supported by big advertisers, I felt that I was free to talk about anything, including how stale commercial radio has become.
I felt the same sense of freedom on Saturday talking with Mike Lidskin on his show Twirl Radio. We were able to discuss many topics that revolve around independent music and the attitude behind freeform radio. He even played a few of my original songs from my band, Tangent Sunset, and let me do a live performance on acoustic guitar, in which I did a song called "Sky Blue Heaven." Then he asked me questions about the song, which dovetailed into interesting social views. It was actually the type of radio I had always wanted to do: a mix of cultural talk and homegrown music.
Lidskin grew up listening to freeform radio in Los Angeles and Chicago, which has been a major inspiration for his show. He likes to play music created by his listeners, as well as mixing popular rock with indie music. He also likes to tell stories about the songs, which is exactly what makes a music show interesting. The experience was uplifiting, much like my visit to UC Davis freeform station 90.3 KDVS last November, when I covered the KZAP reunion for SacTV. Commercial radio was fun within its rigid boundaries, but being allowed to talk in depth on music, including my own original work, was much more satisfying. That’s why I would encourage other local indie artists who have something to say to consider approaching public radio as a forum for reaching the community.