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ISSUE 118 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/25/2005

Keeping Current

By Brian Strand
Contributing Writers

Friday, February 25, 2005

Unless you have been living under a rock or were off campus last semester, you know that the sale of WCAL was quite controversial on the hill. Despite the protests, T-shirts sold and money raised, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) bought the radio station from St. Olaf for $10.5 million.

In December, MPR announced that 89.3 FM would switch from classical music to a new format and be renamed “The Current.” According to program director Steve Nelson, the new format is “the anti-format.”

The Current commenced on New Year’s Day by playing Minnesota-based hip-hop sensation Atmosphere’s “Say Shhh,” which set the tone for the station. Compared to most commercial radio, the rotation diversity of The Current is unmatched.

The station plays classics such as James Brown and Bob Dylan, some cutting edge alternative such as Low, Air and Yo La Tengo, alternative classics like the Pixies and U2, and local favorites like the Olympic Hopefuls and Mason Jennings.

While The Current has an “anti-format,” the bands featured on the station are still pulled from a wide range of genres. It is unlikely that the station will play bands heavier than The Soviettes or The Hives, or even some of the lesser-known local artists such as We Invented Tornadoes or A-Bomb Nation. To sum up the “anti-format,” The Current is a less adventurous, hipster radio station for adults ages 18-35.

The addition of The Current has made the local radio market far more competitive. Recently, bands such as Arcade Fire, Olympic Hopefuls and Kasabian are now getting aired on the Twin Cities commercial station Drive 105.

Although Drive 105 has been around for a few years, The Current has some major advantages over their competition, such as no commercials, a broadcast range which reaches southern Minnesota (such as Rochester) with the help of its second FM frequency (88.7 FM) and an Internet audio stream.

However, The Currrent is not just battling against commercial radio. The Current has also been competing with college radio stations such as the University of Minnesota’s Radio K and even St. Olaf’s KSTO.

Many artists on The Current have been mainstays on college radio stations. However, college radio stations typically play a wider and more adventurous range of artists than The Current does. Mixed feelings are felt by KSTO’s staff.

“Personally I'm very moved by the Current,” KSTO music director Curt Frank ‘06 said. “I really appreciate what they're trying to do – going against the flow of mainstream radio. I mean, how Clear is the Channel when its musical outlet is being muddied by commercialism? The Current is all we could have asked for in the wake of the WCAL debacle. By playing music not simply based on what's popular at the moment – judging a band's worth by their musical sound, not by how many records they can sell – they force bigger local stations like Drive 105 to reevaluate what music they play. Now if only we can give college radio the same voice.”

KSTO assistant music director James Johnson ‘06 feels a little less optimistic.

“When was the question asked: how will the sale of WCAL benefit the Ole family station KSTO?” Johnson asked. “Never. Sadly, KSTO, now lost without its Christian cousin, is forced to battle with MPR’s The Current, which basks in comparatively gargantuan resources and overgrown transmission power. But, I’ll admit the truth: The Current is a fantastic station. It has that hip edge which could woo a generation. However, KSTO is our brethren, made up of the body and blood of Oles. Just maybe it can be the new WCAL, loved by the townspeople, loved by the elderly, loved by all. You may listen to The Current, but just remember where you came from.”

Not only must The Current compete against other radio stations, but it must also compete against the iPod. It is no surprise that The Current is playing an eclectic assortment of artists in an attempt to ensure that its shuffle of music is something that cannot be easily duplicated by iPod owners.

In a few months, it should be better known whether or not the “anti-format” of The Current will last. It will be interesting to see how much money the station can raise from its listener demographic. One of my penny-pinching friends, who has been championing The Current non-stop since it debuted, said he would contribute although he, like most other college students, doesn’t have a lot of money to give.

With all its hype and appeal, The Current should be able to raise enough money to meet its fiscal goals.

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