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Public radio’s homesteaders on the pop frontier

Critique by Dave Bunker

Within the next decade or so, public radio may have developed a new music format, complete with acronymed association, annual meeting, teeming listserv, and a critical mass of programs on the satellite, including the obligatory overnight service. If this new format succeeds, it may flourish on as many stations as now champion classical and jazz.

The format is American popular music, public radio's last wild musical frontier. A growing number of stations and a handful of nationally distributed programs have already begun settlement. Four of those programs, considered here, espouse eclecticism, as seems fitting across such a wide territory, but each has a definable core sound, so each of them gives us a different taste of what this new format might one day sound like (see links at right). Meanwhile, whatever the eventual fate of these programs, the unfolding of this frontier saga has a lot to teach us about how public radio is changing as it matures.

The hugeness of the American pop landscape makes room for a diverse group of settlers to labor side by side, united in the common aim of taming the wild land, avoiding direct competition for the time being. But, as the ghost town of NPR's Anthem proves, these are tough territories. Large regions remain under control of the tribes of commercial radio. Uncertainty about names and boundaries complicates matters. And, some public radio decision-makers may have become too comfortable and civilized for the rigors of frontier life. In many ways public radio is becoming middle-aged: robust, rich and very good at what it does, but also cautious, fiscally conservative and set in its ways.

Another characteristic of middle age is sophisticated taste. We've heard a lot, we know what we like, and we have high standards. That's fine in itself, but high standards can stifle innovation. The truly new is often also rough, half-formed, as much future potential as present achievement. Those few settlers fortunate enough to receive a grubstake from the CPB Radio Program Fund can immediately start building their institutions among the tumbleweeds. The rest struggle largely without help to establish themselves in the harsh terrain.

Each of these four shows has settled different territories, but they overlap in one place. The central music of this frontier is played by such performers as Gillian Welch, and might be described as neo-traditional, mostly acoustic, literate and sophisticated country-tinged folk rock. If that is AAA, fine.

Welch does a song called "Elvis Presley Blues," which encapsulates many elements of this core sound and of the challenge it presents to public radio: It has a compelling pop hook, historical depth, and multiple musical roots. And it addresses lost youth or youth transformed into what we are now, which is ... what, exactly? Many of the movers and shakers of public radio have now joined the bulk of their listeners in public radio's key 40-plus age demographic. Critical distance becomes elusive and the traditions of public radio may not always apply as we experiment with ways to present the music of our own early years. For the first time, in a way, we are inventing a new public radio music format for ourselves.

Dave Bunker, a freelance writer in Maine, worked 16 years in public radio and served last year as president of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio. E-mail: [email protected].

Public radio's pop music landscape

Pop pioneers
What can pubradio give to listeners in the range of popular music? Four national programs demonstrate various options. Originally published in Current, Feb. 11, 2002

World Cafe's polished AAA stream
American Routes' bumptious New Orleans jambalaya
the community radio rock party of Rock 'n' Roots
the ultra-hip crypto-pop of Sounds Eclectic

Home To Current's home page
Later news Later news: Pubradio's version of triple-A strikes chord with disenchanted listeners, 2003.

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