Fresh radio music frees listeners from teen pop and shock talk

Even in big metropolitan areas with plenty of radio stations, one hears this common, increasingly loud lament: "There's nothing on the radio."

In the age of ownership consolidation and tight formatting, what's a listener who doesn't enjoy teen pop or shock talk to do?

In many cases, they're seeking alternatives offered by public radio stations or the occasional open-minded commercial station willing to program more-adventurous fare.

On syndicated public radio shows such as "Mountain Stage" and "World Cafe" - or "Acoustic Cafe," which airs on both commercial and public radio - listeners get a mix of lesser-known new musicians and "heritage" performers - respected veterans still doing innovative work. Often the artists are generating some buzz; but sometimes, they're new discoveries getting their first radio exposure.

These programs have been able to claim at least partial credit for giving first or early airings to musicians such as Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, and Shawn Mullins, as well as groups such as Ben Folds Five and Phish.

Though all three are singer-songwriter-oriented and focus on music that transcends any single genre, each has a distinct identity.

Mountain Stage, heard on 120 Public Radio International (PRI) stations, plus overseas on the Voice of America, is taped in front of a live audience.

Shows are staged at the West Virginia Cultural Center in Charleston, W.Va., and edited to two hours. The 17-year-old show, produced by West Virginia Public Radio with host Larry Groce, bills itself as public radio's first live contemporary music program.

"Mountain Stage" emphasizes "roots" music, but that category is so vast, it might mean Buckwheat Zydeco and the gospel group the Fairfield Four one week, and rockers Barenaked Ladies or banjo-picking folkie John Hartford the next.

Wide world of 'World Cafe'

Host David Dye's 10-year-old World Cafe, produced for PRI by WXPN-FM at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, features in-studio performances and interviews, occasionally recorded before a live audience. It airs in 106 markets, including Guam and 21 stations in Alaska.

Mr. Dye says his two-hour show follows the progressive AAA (Adult Album Alternative) format he helped establish. He doesn't characterize his program as eclectic, even though he airs a wide spectrum of music in nearly every genre, from blues and rock to world music and classical. (David Bowie, Willie Nelson, and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto have all appeared on "World Cafe.")

Acoustic Cafe, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., also airs interviews and studio performances, but the only audiences are listening in their cars and living rooms.

Hosted by Rob Reinhart, the seven-year-old show airs on 60 stations and on Voice of America. "Acoustic Cafe," as its name implies, features mostly acoustic music. Mr. Reinhart doesn't care if it's pop, blues, country, or soul.

"A good song is a good song," he says. "As a show about songwriters, it's really about people who make their livings writing songs, and who occasionally get lucky and have a hit."

He loves having composers perform songs someone else made famous, as he did with R.L. Castleman, the writer of "Forget About It," the title tune on Alison Krauss's latest, Grammy-nominated album. (The only time Mr. Castleman had ever performed his composition was for his friend Ms. Krauss at a birthday party two years previously.)

Reinhart also loves creating special segments, such as an hour of Elvis Costello songs performed by other artists, and showcasing new talents.

Each host says he tries to avoid mainstream commercial pop musicians.

"I'm looking for things that are unique or original or part of a time-honored tradition," "Mountain Stage" host Groce explains. "If you can sing well, that doesn't hurt, and if you can write a good song, that really helps.... [It's] about songs ... it's about words and music."

Style is less important; Groce says he firmly believes true music lovers don't care about formats and categories.

Mr. Dye agrees. But he also continues airing songs that have turned into commercial hits, instead of abandoning them once they do become mainstream.

"I don't let go of Ben Folds Five after they've been really successful because the music's still good," he says.

"World Cafe" producer Bruce Warren adds, "It's like we're tastemakers. If we're going to hang our hat on an unsigned band, or an independent [label] band that's kind of obscure, we have a sensibility about what's going to happen."

What happens is that when "World Cafe" airs a new artist, other stations pay attention. The show has become a trendsetter that influences programmers at both commercial and noncommercial stations.

Becoming 'appointment radio'

For many artists, these shows represent their only hope of getting radio airtime. Most commercial stations follow tight playlists derived from listener research, including how a song is doing in other markets. There isn't much room for experimentation.

But hearing something they can't get anywhere else is exactly what keeps listeners tuning in to "World Cafe," "Acoustic Cafe," "Mountain Stage," and similar shows. For their fans, these shows are "appointment radio," programs they'll plan their time around.

And that's beautiful music to the ears of the programs' directors, the musicians, and music fans alike.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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