10 Questions with ... Jim McGuinn
January 19, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
High school, college and community radio and then Classic Rock WWRX/Providence (from weekend overnights to mornings and MD in two years) from 1988-1989. In the Alternative world I was PD at WEQX/Manchester, VT from 1990-1994; PD at KPNT/St. Louis from 1994-1995; PD at WDRE/Philadelphia/Long Island from 1995-1997; PD at WPLY (Y100)/Philadelphia 1997-2005 and then afternoons/Y-rock PD at WXPN/Philadelphia from 2006-2009.Then I became PD at KCMP.
1. How did you become interested in radio?
When I was about four years old, I caught "Beatles Week" on the 3:30 Movie, and combining those with seeing the Monkees in syndication, pretty early on I decided that being in a band was cool - I think I identified with the idea of a band as a gang or team where you could live with your friends in a cool house, make music and have twinkly eyes like Davey Jones. I started collecting records early on and was always in charge of the turntable at the junior high dances. At some point I realized that my NBA hopes weren't going to happen, and ironically, I got my first break doing color for my high school radio station's broadcasts of the varsity (I was on the sophomore team). Not long afterward I figured out that being an MD meant I got to listen to lots of records, and a dream was born.
2. How did you get the gig at The Current?
Steve Nelson foolishly abdicated the job to shift over to work for our mothership - Minnesota Public Radio News. I was loving life at WXPN, but always admired what The Current was doing and, ultimately, the opportunity to be part of a team where the station was both big enough but also new enough that the concrete hadn't set yet was really exciting to me. And I like cold weather. And clean streets.
3. How would you describe the music on the station?
We play music that music fans love; that a passionate music lover would be likely to want in their collection. That could be brand new indie rock, or anything from Hank Williams to The Cure to A Tribe Called Quest. From the beginning the Current talked about music that was authentic and impactful, and the music that influenced it. So that's Shovels and Rope and Johnny Cash, Jack White and Bukka White, Arcade Fire and U2 and Bruce Springsteen, First Aid Kit and Nick Drake.
4. As The Current celebrates 10 years, how has it evolved from when it first signed on? Since you came to the station? Since Cities 97 went full-on Hot AC?
The basic philosophy is the same -- discover and celebrate great music. Be serious as a heart attack and totally playful on the radio at the same time. Realize we're very fortunate to be so well supported that we get to spend our days arguing about what's the best Thin Lizzy song AND deciding among a clutch of great new bands which one we think our audience will fall in love with next.
As far as how it's evolved, we've learned a lot from our audience over the years - and that's enabled us to focus our programming, while at the same time be open to an approach that anything goes, and with the right context, anything can work musically on the Current. We strive for a degree of consistency overall while leaving room for the taste of an individual host to come through in the mix - hosts hand-schedule their logs and all have opportunity to dive into the nooks and crannies of their own passion, and that's appreciated by our audience. And the hosts are the glue; we've had mostly the same host lineup since early on, and we've seen that if you allow hosts to do more than read robotic liners, you can still forge a relationship with the audience that humanizes the experience in a way that is both old-fashioned radio and also the new-fangled authenticity that matches current trends in craft beer, locavore eating, farmer's markets and a return to vinyl.
We still have a big playlist of both new and old, and revel in mixing and matching and really curating an experience - one that you can't get from an algorithm or a tightly researched commercial station. We're fortunate to live in a city that has a strong musical history and culture, and a population that is passionate for live music, local music, and an appreciation for a wide range of styles and sounds. I've never seen a place where so many local artists can sell out a room like First Avenue, where artists collaborate so freely across genres, and where the audience doesn't blink an eye at seeing a bill that features bluegrass and hip-hop.
5. What have you done to celebrate the first decade of the station?
In 2010, we celebrated five years on the air with a gig at First Avenue that included hip-hop from P.O.S., folk music from Mason Jennings, and trippy rock from Solid Gold. It sold out, Prince showed up, and we started to realize that January in Minnesota is a perfect time to celebrate our community. Over the years that annual event has grown to two nights. This year for our 10th we went much further - with 10 Days of Random Acts of Musical Kindness - which culminates in the two nights of live broadcasts at First Avenue, for the first time adding national acts to those bills (Cold War Kids, J Roddy Walston), along with Minnesota legends as wide ranging as The Trashmen (yes, the guys who did Surfin' Bird in 1963!) and Atmosphere (probably the biggest artist commercially in our scene, and the artist we kicked off the station with in 2005 and his song "Sshh," that celebrates living in the Midwest.
In addition to those two shows, we're doing a public music meeting/karaoke night with hip-hop collective Doomtree and Jeremy Messersmith one night, we're hosting an invitation-only show with Jeremy, Dan Wilson, and Caroline Smith. Another, we're screening Purple Rain at the Fitzgerald Theatre proceeded by an all-star Prince tribute, pressing a 10-inch limited EP with tracks by The Hold Steady on one side and legendary '70s punk rockers Suicide Commandos on the other (then they are doing a 300-seater show together), we're inviting families to go tubing with the hosts at a ski mountain, and we're back at that 300-seat Turf Club to host a show headlined by the one and only Billy Idol.
All that together captures the essence of the Current - the variety of genres, the collaboration between artists, audience and station, and the fun we share with our audience daily. We've been proclaimed by Senator Al Franken this week and more are coming from our Mayors, there's been great coverage in the local press, and a tremendous outpouring of love and support from our artistic community and the listeners. Not a bad way to help January fly by when the temps are usually around 10 degrees here!
6. What has been the station's biggest accomplishment?
Every day we hear from listeners and members who have made this station such a huge part of their lives. It might be because of our hosts or the music or our support of the local community - any number of reasons -- but when you hear someone say, "The Current is one of the best reasons to live in Minnesota," that means a lot to us. Ratings and revenue might rise and fall, but if you continue to focus on the listener experience and you contribute to enhancing their lives through your programming or by connecting the audience to the artists and music, then it's easy to come to work every day.
7. What station do you share the most listeners with?
With our news service MPR News. We give a little news and information in the morning, but also direct folks to go back and forth between our services depending on their needs, and they do. And at member-drive time, a majority of our listeners do report using multiple products. MPR is pretty unique in that there is a real sense in the community of corporate brand attributes that extend between the services.
8. What are the music meetings like at your station?
Probably not that different than most places; there are three of us who are actively in there every week -- David Safar (MD), Lindsay Kimball (Asst. Producer) and me, plus any of the hosts who feel like joining in. We talk about the existing songs in rotation (our list is usually about 80 artists and 100+ songs at any given week), then we listen to new music. Probably the weirdest thing about us is that we don't quite seem to fit in anywhere as we pull music from Triple A, Modern Rock, indie hip-hop and the blog-o-verse. So we end up listening to a lot of music we haven't even been serviced, and the biggest scramble sometimes is to get a high enough quality version of something we fall in love with so we can put it in rotation.
9. What would surprise people most about the station?
Maybe that a station with some of the highest ratings in the noncomm Triple A world allows the hosts enough freedom to program more than 50% of their shifts themselves. We set up the rules and build out the categories for them to choose from, but the hosts are really working daily to build sets and inject their own personalities into the team, and the fact that we can have that kind of "college radio" freedom while attracting more than 200,000 listeners in our market makes us feel like we've got the best of both worlds - total radio creativity and an audience that supports it.
10. What do you view as the most important issue facing radio today?
In a world of increasing media customization and user created content, what happens to the concept of "broadcasting" and "mass medium"? And from a societal perspective, what replaces the cultural touchstones like "Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show" or Woodstock? As we all wander around with earbuds in our own media worlds, what happens to our ability to relate to each other? And if our only forms of shared mass culture are created via platforms like American Idol, where drama and back-story usually overshadow art, how does the art reach critical mass? These are things I often think about.
Last non-industry job:
Washing dishes at George's of Galilee, RI seafood eatery in 1988.
First record ever purchased:
Meet The Beatles - still got it.
The Clash, Aragon Ballroom in 1982.
Favorite Band Of All-Time:
If you wanted to completely change careers today, what would you do?
There are things I'm interested in like baseball and record collecting, but when I look around there are so many people who know more and are as obsessed about those things the way I'm obsessed about audience, culture and rock and roll ... so I don't know. Maybe sell chapeaus in a haberdashery.