Column 26 — Radio Days; Kite Pilot, Simon Joyner tonight; Bunnygrunt tomorrow?

Category: Blog — @ 12:32 pm May 19, 2005

There was a ton more info gleaned from my interview with Sophia John that wasn’t included in this week’s column. So much, in fact, I’m toying with the idea of doing a second part next week that discusses the station’s advertising and other nifty things. As stated below, I noticed the programming changes just driving around, but another indicator was talking to one of the guys who puts together New Day Rising, the indie show on The River late Sunday nights. I asked if he was going to play the new Kasabian. “Nope, it’s on The River’s regular playlist now. We don’t play stuff that they’re already playing.” Makes sense. How ’bout Tegan & Sara? “Same story.” Okay, how ’bout the new Beck? “Same thing.” Etc…

Column 26: Heavy Rotation
Has The River changed its course?
It may be time to turn the radio back on again.

I turned mine off years ago, when all I could find on the dial was freedom rock, goon rock, C&W warblers and gansta hate-hop. Why should I devote even a scintilla of my time to that noise when I have a CD player and an i-Pod in my car? The irony about Omaha radio has always been that we live in the nationally recognized indie rock capital of the world and can’t hear a single indie band on a local station.

But then the other day as NPR was bringing me down with yet another report about third-world child rape camps or the extinction of another life form, I twisted the dial to 89.7 The River. On came the latest by none other than Omaha’s very own Bright Eyes. Was I dreaming? Moments later, up popped the new one by Nine Inch Nails, which was followed by a track by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, which was followed by something from the yet-to-be-released Criteria CD.

What the hell was going on? Could this be the same 89.7 The River that I’ve known and loathed for its tooth-drilling metal and agonizing Cookie Monster grunt rock?

I asked station program director Sophia John if I was dreaming. We talked at Sokol Auditorium the morning of the station’s sold-out Mudvayne show, where John was busy wrangling a crew of young grips setting the stage for the night’s performance.

Seems Ms. John indeed has slowly been working indie tracks into The River’s regular rotation for months. And people are just now beginning to notice. “We’re trying to mix elements of rock, pop, indie and even rap into the playlist,” she said.

No, The River hasn’t turned into a CMJ station. You’re still going to hear grunters by Slipknot, System of a Down, Kottonmouth Kings and, yeah, Mudvayne. That’s where John’s job becomes a real balancing act, because indie shoegazers will immediately turn the dial when Slipknot comes on, just like metal heads will rifle straight to The Z rather than suffer through Tegan and Sara. Going too far either way could mean ostracizing a portion of the station’s listeners.

John knows this all too well. She’s been inundated by amateur program directors telling her she should be playing everything from 24/7 metal to 24/7 CMJ. “If I did that, I wouldn’t be doing what’s best for everyone,” she said. “I want to bring the masses what they really want while opening their minds to something different.”

She admits that even she doesn’t like every song on the play list. “If you understand the basic breakdown of music, there’s a pop element to everything, even hardcore and metal,” she said. “If you hear something you don’t like, it’ll only take two or three songs before you hear something you do like. If you don’t like The White Stripes or System of a Down, just wait awhile.”

Working indie into the mix hasn’t been easy. Saddle Creek Records’ spate of new releases last year helped her logically work the local label into rotation. But getting Trail of Dead on the air took sheer chutzpah. “We wanted to see if we could open doors to people who don’t know the band yet, and change the attitude of those that listen to bands like Trail of Dead but never expected to hear them on the radio.”

It seems to be working. John said The River has gone from having a 3.8 share when she arrived over a year ago, to a 5 share in the latest book, which equates to roughly 170,000 listeners at any given moment (and being ranked No. 7 in the Omaha radio market).

Sure, I’d be happier if The River only played indie rock, but I’m smart enough to know that such a severe program shift would only kill the station. And then we’d be left with nothing but freedom rock, goon rock, C&W warblers and gansta hate-hop. I can withstand a little Slipknot as long as I can have my Garbage, too.

There’s a pretty good show tonight at Ted & Wally’s: Everyone’s favorite local folk legend Simon Joyner is doing a solo set with everyone’s favorite local neu-wave-esque, trumpet=powered pop-fun dynamos Kite Pilot, who will be playing stuff from their forthcoming LP. I’ve never seen a show down there before, but I hear it can be a blast. It starts around 10:30 and costs $5.

Also, I received an e-mail last night saying that legendary St. Louis cuddlecore band Bunnygrunt is sneaking into O’Leaver’s tomorrow night. I will investigate further and report my findings in tomorrow’s edition…

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