When it comes to music, Louisville has a lot of reasons to give thanks. For instance, Chris Gaines has no connection to Louisville whatsoever, and the unintentionally amusing album cover to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Love Beach was not shot here next to a sun-drenched Ohio River. But arguably the biggest reason to – as Fairport Convention said – now be thankful is 91.9 FM WFPK.
We may be the 42nd biggest metropolitan statistical area, but you will hard-pressed to find a better station in even the biggest of markets. Philadelphia’s WXPN and Los Angeles’s KCRW are both innovative and eclectic, but WFPK holds its own.
Yes they are one of those stations. You know the kind that asks you for money twice a year. It’s like PBS but not on TV and without the complementary Judy Collins at the Met DVD. Can the appeals for you to “do the right thing” rub you the wrong way? Maybe so, but unlike commercial stations, you have a stake in this one. It is the antithesis of the Clear Channels of the world. You may hear a classic rock song by The Who, but it is more likely to be Success Story than Won’t Get Fooled Again.
The advent of satellite radio, some suggest, takes away the importance of stations like WFPK. Various XM channels like The Loft, The Spectrum, and The Coffee House play adult album alternative music similar to WFPK. But that’s only part of the equation. WFPK not only has real, living breathing DJs who broadcast right here in River City, they are also knowledgeable about what they play. Perhaps most importantly is that they are also music lovers, whose excitement about certain songs or bands comes through. That resonates with listeners, who by and large are also music lovers. By that, the inference is to people who listen to music often, seek out new artists, new music by established ones, and like to hear beyond the Top 40 and the hit singles.
Of course all of this, in lesser hands, may come off as some sort of musical snobbery, but none of the DJs subscribes to that behavior. For instance, morning host James Bickers proudly plays progressive rock and unapologetically spins a forgotten 80ss gem on occasion. Program Director Stacy Owen and newly minted Music Director, Kyle Meredith, orchestrate the proceedings while still allowing ample DJ input outside the rotation. And if younger listeners fear that WFPK is more token to a demographic in its 30s, 40s, and 50s, one listen to Meredith’s Daily Feed segments and weekly show The Weekly Feed, which now airs on ten stations across the country, will convince them that no one around is on the pulse of more hip music blogs and bands with “deer” or “bear” in their names than Meredith, who, while extremely literate in popular music, is still young enough not to get one of Bickers’ references to Howard Jones. Of course, I suppose for some listeners there’s no apology needed.
Not only is the station the only place locally to hear new material by established acts like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Eric Clapton, they are committed to adding new bands into the mix. The station played artists like Norah Jones, The Avett Brothers, Cee Lo Green, and Michael Franti and Spearhead long before they had chart success. And of course, the station was playing My Morning Jacket more than ten years ago, with Heart Breaking Man a favorite for quite some time, helping establish the band locally and regionally. Last month in the week that led up to their show at the KFC Yum! Center, each member of the band played guest DJ.
For instance, here's a sampling of the artists they played between 11:00 P.M. and midnight on Monday: Starsailor, Jim Hendrix, Cake, Sufjan Stevens, Micahel Jackson, Ray Lamontagne, The Silver Seas, and Florence & The Machine. Similarly, here's some of the acts they played between 11:00 A.M. and noon that day: Scissor Sisters, Guster, Ingrid Michaelson, Peter Wolf, Barenaked Ladies, Arcade Fire, David Gray, and James McMurtry. Looking through my CD collection, I realize that the likes of Joseph Arthur, Badly Drawn Boy, Camera Obscura, Tift Merritt, The Guggenheim Grotto, and Lewis Taylor are all the result of being introduced to them through WFPK.
Of course, hearing Bing Crosby and KISS in the same hour, which has happened, may not be favored by all listeners, but that’s part of the eclectic makeup of the station, and it can be a balancing act. It’s the only station left that provides you with those moments you stay in your car long enough to hear the name of an artist or song. It’s the only station to dedicate three hours a week solely to requests. Keep in mind the size of their music library, which fills an entire, well, library. They are not limited to 500 mp3s. Plus, they’ll break out the turntable if they only have a title on vinyl. Duke Meyer, one of the most venerable of Louisville radio personalities, presides over the festivities always ready to offer some obscure trivial nugget about a band or song.
When former program director and on-air personality Dan Reed was here (Reed is now with WXPN), the weekly Culture Maven on Film spot was of occasionally an exercise in verbosity and void of a winning rapport. With Bickers, it has become one of the best 10-minutes each week on local radio. Critic c.d. kaplan’s good humor now shows through as he exchanges jabs with Bickers, fails miserably at a trivia quiz, and recites an insightful movie review. He is a fan of film, and it shows. Even when I arrive at the office a few minutes early, I stay in my car and listen.
The other on air personalities are smart and pleasant. Marion Dries seems incapable of being in a bad mood; Laura Shine is a Louisville radio staple; Nick James holds the fort capably at night, and Mark Bacon, while a font of knowledge on World and Cajun music, knows his jazz and pop as well as anyone. I recall he once played Life at a Top People’s Health Farm by The Style Council. While records of that sort of thing are not kept by the FCC, it very well may have been the only time the song was ever played on U.S. radio. And its playing literally made my day. (OK, you’re thinking I’m either a music geek or just set my sites way too low.)
Playing such a diverse array of musicians has led to the station facilitating and sponsoring shows that would have never come here before – from alt country acts like Drive-By Truckers and The Old 97s to indie rock bands like Stars and The National to folk acts like John Prine and Dar Williams, if not for WFPK, odds are the 2010 local concert calendar wouldn’t have been as full or diverse.
You can’t get Jefferson County traffic reports on XM, and you can’t claim ownership. In addition to a member card that gets you discounts at places like ear-X-tacy, chances to buy concert tickets before the general public (Ranking Roger included), and a subscription to Louisville magazine, you have a say in the station with acess to DJs and an interactive web site. In addition, they are a blessing for local musicians, whom they support whole heartedly. A Louisville band may hear its song in a set with R.L. Burnside, The Gaslight Anthem, Rogue Wave, and Johnny Cash. Local bands are not relegated to a 2:00 A.M. slot.
For cities that have nothing similar to WFPK, satellite radio is a must for music fans who want to be taken back to lesser known favorites and turned on to potential new ones. But for Louisvillians, the station is a perfect mix of old and new, of moments you say to yourself “I’ve never heard this on the radio before."
So although WFPK is at 91.9 on your radio dial, perhaps an area you don't frequent, it is worth a listen. In the words of Paul Westerberg's old Replacements' song: "And if I don't see ya, in a long, long while, I'll try to find you left of the dial."