10 Questions with ... Melanie Walker
February 14, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Started as the MD/morning-show host at KAZU/Monterey Bay, CA. After a few years the station fell victim to poor pledge drives and like most small public stations, flipped to an NPR franchise format. I stayed on as MD and soon took over as Operations Director and on-air announcer as well. Although the station was mostly news programming, they kept me on in the evenings doing a specialty mix of music. I soon decided to move back to L.A. and began working as a Traffic Associate/Studio Technician at an MPR-affiliated station, KPCC/Pasadena. After working there for three years I quickly learned about the new Triple A in the Twin Cities called The Current. It had been on the air for all of six months. I applied for the Assistant Music Director position and found myself soon moving out to Minnesota in the fall of '05. I was the first MPR employee to transplant myself from L.A. to St. Paul. Everyone thought I was nuts. I was just happy to be working with music again. After a year or so at the station, the MD position opened up. I applied and was offered the job. It's been a wild five-and-a-half years here at The Current and the highlight of my adult life.
1. How did you become interested in radio?
I come from a very musical family. We always had music on at home and listened to the radio often. My Dad especially has a huge record collection that I always loved to sift through as a child. He always had a small dream to be a DJ on the radio, but went into the film industry instead. I followed in his footsteps to go to film school and ended up at the public radio station licensed to the university, KAZU, doing community service, which was a requirement for school. I instantly fell in love with turning people onto new music and the way public radio gives DJs a free-form format to do that. I've never looked back since.
2. Who are your mentors?
At KAZU I worked under a PD named John McNally. A KCRW vet, he was hard as nails on me, but I learned a lot from him. When it comes to programming I've been a long admirer of Gilles Peterson at BBC Radio 1. His specialty show, "Worldwide," made a huge impact on me early on in my career. I loved his mix of playing cutting-edge music alongside the music that influenced it. I still program The Current along that same aesthetic. As a young adult I was big fan of a show at KCRW programmed by Garth Trinidad called "Chocolate City." I always loved the progressive, eclectic mix he maintained within a specific sonic aesthetic. Working alongside Steve Nelson, my previous PD here at The Current, I learned a lot about what makes a person a great mentor and manager. You can't have a great radio station unless you have a staff that is both personally and professionally fulfilled.
3. How would you describe the music on the station?
Here at The Current we are a lot of things ... and we don't limit ourselves genre-wise. We focus a great deal on local music, as we believe all great trends start locally. What we strive most to be is a place where you can hear the best and most relevant new music out there alongside the music that influenced it. We do our best to mix up people's favorites with deeper cuts to expand their listening experience.
4. You have been at The Current for a long time - tell us about its evolution.
I came to The Current several months after its start up in the spring of '05 working with the station's founding programming team Steve Nelson and Thorn. I came in as the library was still developing and The Current's signature sound was still deepening. When a station is first starting up it's difficult to gauge who your demographic really is. You have goals but until you began having a relationship with your audience and music community, you can only speculate. The station sound has changed a lot over the last several years.
The Current began with one of its goals to be able to sustain itself while still having the youngest public radio audience of any Triple A Non-Comm. They had the vision that the public radio audience for MPR was only getting older and wanted to create a service that attracted a younger demographic that was new to public radio and could hopefully sustain it in the future. We've been very successful doing that with our average listener being around the age of 34.
The Current began as primarily a mix of traditional Triple A and indie rock and soon evolved more into a mix of indie rock and Alternative music still with some Triple A sounds in the mix. After the Twin Cities market lost its then only Alternative station in 2007, Drive 105 (which was earlier Zone 105 and even before that, Rev 105), we at The Current saw the opportunity to be the primary Alternative station in the market and seized it.
We began around that time working with Mike Henry, from Paragon Media Strategies, to improve that station's overall sound. We knew we were doing okay for a non-commercial station, but felt that the station hadn't reached our full potential. We ended up tightening up and focusing our gold library and increasing our new music rotations to help attract an even broader audience. It worked and we continue to maintain some of the highest and most consistent PPM numbers for a music based non-comm radio station nationally.
5. In what new directions has PD Jim McGuinn steered the station?
I wouldn't say he's steered the station in any different direction, but just continued to build upon the station's solid foundation. One of the things that Jim brings to the table is a long history working in the commercial Alternative world. Most of us here at The Current have worked primarily in the public sector. Jim brought strategies and programming ideas from his years in commercial radio that could fit well into our mix, while still keeping us free to be the independent alternative in the Twin Cities.
6. What do you like best about your job?
I love turning people onto new music. There's nothing more exhilarating to me than seeing a sold-out room at First Avenue in Minneapolis for a brand new artist we have in current rotation. If we want people to continue to make great new music, we have to collaborate with their labels and management to help them sell records and support their live gigs in town. It's fulfilling to know we have that kind of impact on the Twin Cities community.
7. What has been your biggest career highlight?
I've had a number of career highlights, but having Frank Black visit the station not just once, but twice was pretty incredible. Also, having Ira Glass as a fan of the station and complimenting us publically at the last PRPD was extremely flattering.
8. What stations, if any, do you like to keep track of?
I have a regular listening schedule of 30-minute to pne-hour hour chunks I keep to on a weekly basis that consists of BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 6, BBC 1Extra, XFM, Triple J Radio, KUT, KCRW, KEXP, WXPN, WNYC, KROQ, Indie 103, and locally Radio K, KTCZ, 93x and KDWB.
9. What new bands are you most excited about?
I feel like I have a new band everyday. There is so much amazing music out there and it's been a great start to 2011. Today my mood lends to Twin Shadow, Tame Impala, Sharon Van Etten, Smith Westerns, Chapel Club, Jonquil, Grouplove and a local band we've played for awhile called Idle Hands that has some sophomore material we're about to dig into.
10. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without .....
... a massive cup of dark-roasted coffee to kick it off. Understandably as a new parent, I don't sleep much these days.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
Funny thing is, several years of the Minnesota family lifestyle has turned me into a domestic goddess of sorts and I can easily go all Martha Stewart on you ... knitting, cooking, reading and playing with my 11-month=old son Murray.
Last Non-Industry Job:
M.A.C. Cosmetics as a make-up artist. It's harder to put eye liner on an older woman than you think. people.
First Record Ever Purchased:
Lionel Richie 45 of "Dancing on the Ceiling" from a store called Licorice Pizza (RIP to the greatest record store name EVER)
Billy Idol with my Mom. It was awesome.
Favorite Band Of All-Time:
If you're making me pick only one it's got to be The Cinematic Orchestra. If you've never heard them, you should. They are pure sonic bliss.