2/10/15

The Current Dilemma with "The Current"

The Current started ten years ago this winter, and as they celebrate their tenacity and momentum there's a new strain of disappointment filtering in following the dismissal of daytime d.j. Barb Abney. It seems as though a section of The Current's long-standing audience, myself included, are no longer as satisfied with the station's performance, and question the motivation to oust the dedicated, personable Barb Abney. Alright, I admit it may just be me (read this article from the Star Tribune), but The Current is publicly owned, and a public discourse should take place to evaluate its current state and future success. Here I offer my assessment of the station's progress.

I have always been a music lover. The earliest memories I have of music involve a 1970's Fisher Price dual-speed record player and a box of 45's. A specific remembrance of music accompanies most of the milestones in my life. I listened to The Current avidly the first four years it existed. The unconventional energy, inventiveness and diversity pumping out through my home stereo was so refreshing to ears tired of the previous decade of trend-setting, mass marketed, corporate-controlled, singles-based airplay. In the past The Current has recognized, discussed and presented the ways in which music history has influenced "current" artists - that's my take on the name of the station: that music flows like a current from one generation to the next. The programming for the first four years had no rival anywhere, as it moved seamlessly between genres, styles, periods and cultures. I remember when the mix would include Mable John and Zap Mama, then Joss Stone and Radio Citizen, then Aha and Duran Duran, then throw in that song by Robert Plant and Allison Kraus, then play the Black Keys (when they were good) and Ali Farka Toure and Sigur Ros and then something like Dire Straits, followed by A Tribe Called Quest and Nappy Roots. I have discovered so, so, SO, SOOOOO much music by listening to The Current; my musical tastes have broadened and expanded substantially. The associations and connections made by the dj's at The Current made music exciting again. Who else would've thought to juxtapose Katy Perry with Missy Elliott? Oh, right... never mind (even though I didn't watch the Super Bowl). Anyway, I'm just trying to express the profound impact that this radio experiment has had on the listening public.

I moved to New York City in 2008, luckily able to bring The Current with me online. My Minnesota Public Radio station still had no equal, even in the big, make that gigantic city where everything is possible and everything is available... except a great radio station (and cake doughnuts, and that stubborn Midwestern stoicism that oftentimes results in frostbite or pneumonia). I created innumerable stations on Pandora based on bands I'd heard for the first time on The Current. I was also elated when a band that I'd discovered for myself was played on The Current - it was a camaraderie of spirit; a playful volley of music impressions; an intrepid rediscovery of musical shapes and forms. During the four years I lived in NYC The Current began incorporating more and more popular, and also trendy, music - past and present - in ever-increasing proportions. The playlists were changing in a way that felt fabricated, just like the airplay of the nineties. In addition, the scintillating commentary from the d.j.'s about the music seemed to be phasing out of the program. Keeping up with the times is perfectly fine in and of itself, yet The Current was losing its cutting-edge philosophy of "the current of music" to a more banal pandering to a more mainstream audience. For several years I kept expecting to hear new music that was as inventive and interesting as its source material, yet I was continually disappointed. There are still intermittent times when the "old" Current shines through, but they are fleeting and tend to be either during a member drive (misrepresentation) or at six o'clock in the morning. To be fair, I surmise that the qualm I'm voicing has probable causes, such as the time of day I happen to listen, or the fact that "Take Me to Church" was the most requested song of last year. I am not insinuating that the programmers or d.j.s on The Current are losing their ability to produce content with more depth, but that the station has changed its course for the worse.

To jump to my point, I was a contributing member of MPR before New York, and have not re-subscribed since moving back to Minnesota, because of this (de-)evolution. The amazement, intrigue and curiosity I felt about this tributary of music that kept me coming back for more every day has been lost in the raging, expansive river. These days we listeners hear a daily barrage of recent songs in similar sounding blocks of songs, and we hear those blocks of songs three or four times a day. I want the passion The Current used to have to return. The songs that all the music scouts are seeking for the latest ad campaign or the latest movie theme can have their day on the radio, but The Current should be honoring its ten-year legacy by placing these trendy songs in the context of "the current". Bring back the digressions into punk, math/geek-rock, soul, hip-hop, jazz, avant grade, experimental, funk and blues. Play a different block of songs each time a highly-requested song is played. Be more spontaneous. Mix up those Hozier songs with some electro-swing... try Parov Stelar or Wax Tailor. Mix up that Jose James with some Ali Farka Toure or Afrika Bambaata. Mix up Courtney Barnett with The Kills or Shirley Bassey or Pat Benatar. Better yet, play for us some obscure female punk band from the late seventies; play some of the original songs sampled by the Beastie Boys or Dee-Lite; talk about what influenced Glass Animals or Lizzo. Play anything by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Chick Correa, Astrud Gilberto, Seu Jorge, Tom Waits, Caetano Veloso or Up, Bustle & Out. Bring back the connections and revelations that provide fresh insight to new music. I don't want to be placated by hearing familiar songs again and again - that doesn't stimulate the mind. I want to be inspired and enthused by hearing unique interpretations of "the current" of music and tune in to a live broadcast of authentic people affirming that creativity and artistry still thrive.