Radio Resonates

Meet the Coffee Breakers. They live in the comment section of The Current’sMorning Show” on KCMP 89.3-FM, and boy, are they a riot. 

PablEXa™ is at the Cubs game and Tamalita just shared a Jeremy Renner gif. Oj’ Dirty Bastard is dropping pictures of his hash browns and decemberx >^..^< is thirsting over Theo James. Bucky’s got pics of his sheepadoodle foster pup, and Leica’s named her Large Marge. Down below, Jez breathe photoshopped Oj’ Dirty Bastard’s hashbrowns with The Current’s logo over the top. 

All in a morning’s work for the Coffee Breakers.

Sprinkled throughout the chaos are actual song requests for the 9:30 a.m. Coffee Break, a 30-minute themed music segment. Today’s prompt is hyper-specific: surface noise. And here’s where the real magic happens — the songs that are being requested? Yeah, they’re actually being played. Every morning, host Jill Riley scrolls through the comment section, picking out songs among hash brown pics and gifs. 

When you listen to a public radio station that’s mission-driven, at a subconscious level, you understand that the music’s for you.

Jill Riley

She played everything from Pete Yorn to Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand.” The Dude Abides, another Coffee Breaker, even pulled over while driving to comment on The Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Needless to say, the Coffee Breakers are loud about loving it. 

State of Matter

These are the kind of people who listen to The Current. For just one 30-minute radio segment, there were over 550 comments. And that’s average. With The Current, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) has accomplished something very few other stations have — they’re sustaining two separate radio stations and still flourishing. While MPR sticks to covering news, classical music and a healthy dose of rock, The Current and its hosts get to explore the Minnesota music scene in a way few other stations can. 

“It’s a one-on-one conversation,” Riley said. “Even if there’s a car full of people on their way to work, each person in that car – even if they’re all music lovers – is going to have a different experience with every song. But they’re experiencing it together.”

A woman and a man face each other while speaking into microphones during an interview in front of a large window.
Credit: Evan Clark for MPR | Jill Riley interviews Marcus Mumford in The Current’s studio.

Audience dedication is the reason this MPR station is thriving while the larger commercial radio scene is faltering. Weekday radio listening is down 6% in the last four years alone, and younger generations are pulling it down further as they opt for streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. COVID-19 didn’t help — with less commuting, time spent listening to the radio in the car is also down 6% in the last four years. Not to mention, money is fleeing the industry — a PEW study found that from 2019 to 2020, revenue at news-focused stations dropped 24%. The outlook isn’t good for most radio stations — so how is The Current doing so well?

Here’s a start: They’ve got their priorities straight. While commercial radio’s sole purpose is keeping listeners from changing the channel — even if it means playing the same top hits from the 2000s over and over again — relying on listeners for funding means The Current’s first priority is catering to their audience.

“Because we are member-supported, we have the freedom to do a lot of things other stations can’t,” producer Lindsay Kimball said. “The listeners are the heart of it, and we’re here to help and rejoice in the music with them.”

The Perks of Being Local

Minnesotans are a loyal bunch, and if there’s one thing they love, it’s anything local. Local breweries, local bookstores and yes, local radio stations. Diane Miller, host of The Current’s “Local Show,” understands this first-hand.

“We support and highlight the best of Minnesota music,” Miller said. “We give local artists a platform to shine and to actually have their music heard.”

With the “Local Show,” The Current is confounding what Billboard calls the Catch-22 of radio — “stations won’t play music that’s not popular, but it’s hard for artists to get popular if no one will play their songs.” Miller haunts the local music venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but even without the extra recon, her email inbox is flooded with requests for new bands to be featured on The Current. She and the hosts before her are experts at picking out the next big hits.

In 2013, the “Local Show” featured Lizzo three years before the singer made it big with “Good As Hell,” back when she still wore a hoodie and flatbill to perform. Hippo Campus got their time to shine a year later in 2014, though they wouldn’t release a full-length album for three more years. The “Local Show” has always spotted top talent long before they became successful, and that track record makes it a reliable source for the best up-and-coming musicians in the Twin Cities.

“Having local music actually be a part of our identity sets a precedent for listeners to care about their community,” Miller said. “Music is meant for healing, exploring the human condition and connecting with your fellow humans. And you can do that by listening to local music.”

A woman sitting on a stool in a dim studio room plays guitar.
Credit: Eric Xu Romani for MPR | Joy Oladokun performs in The Current’s studio.

The Current’s location is another huge factor in its success. Minnesota has an Arts & Culture Heritage Fund, which takes 19.75% of state sales tax and puts it to work supporting arts, arts education and arts access. This enables a thriving music community with The Current leading the way. 

“We’re invested in the artists here, so to see them thrive makes you feel like you’re thriving as well,” Kimball said.

When it comes to the vitality of local music in Minneapolis, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. On the one hand, The Current is lifting up the local stars and building a solid music foundation in the Twin Cities. On the other, the abundance of great music venues in Minneapolis let hosts like Miller have their pick of new artists to feature.

“You can’t have a great music scene without a ton of great venues, and you can’t have a great music scene without artists who are absolutely mind blowing,” Miller said. “Our music scene is littered with so many talented artists, and that keeps people coming and it keeps our music scene thriving.”

Miller is a musician herself, and spends her weekends frequenting the many venues in Minneapolis, either performing or seeking out the next big hit. Good news for her – when it comes to venues in the Twin Cities, she can take her pick.

There’s Fine Line, a First Avenue music cafe that’s hosted everything from The Lemon Twigs to Lady Gaga. Or, if you’re feeling a little grungier, you can head to Cabooze, where they showcase hip-hop, metalcore and literally everything in-between. For a night of intrigue, Volstead’s Emporium will fulfill both your speakeasy and live music dreams. 

And these are just three of nearly a hundred live music venues that give local artists a platform and enable the “Local Show” to keep serving up curated local jams every Sunday night.

To Stream or Not To Stream

In the age of Spotify and Apple Music, where music lovers can build their own playlists from scratch, what’s the point of listening to the radio? To be frank, social media is an echo chamber, and those streaming services are no exception. Algorithms analyze what songs users are listening to and feed them more of the same stuff to make sure they stay on the app. Spotify’s goal is the same as every other for-profit business: don’t click away.

With The Current, it’s a different story. Real people are going through the music, analyzing audiences and picking out what to play each day. Yes, it’s important that people don’t change the station, but it’s even more important to uphold their status as a reliable source of music, new and old. When listeners tune into The Current, they’re opening themselves up to something new — a new favorite artist, a new favorite song or even a new favorite genre. Unlike Spotify or Apple Music, they actually want listeners to expand their musical horizons, and they’re handing them the tools to do it — for free, no less.

“A computer program doesn’t know how to connect with people, and it never will,” Riley said. “It can impersonate it, but it will never truly be compassionate. It will never know what it feels like to have a song move you to tears or sit in your driveway because you need to hear the end. It will never know the feeling of sitting in your car with your kid and singing along. It just won’t.”

So, the next time the Coffee Breakers are blowing up the comment section, see it as a sign — local radio is alive and well in Minnesota. As long as people like Oj’ Dirty Bastard and The Dude Abides are backing it, The Current isn’t going anywhere.


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