Great hometown radio

A lot of towns have an offbeat, “alternative” radio station run by people who love discovering music and sharing it with the world.  This is the station that celebrates when Adele sells a bazillion albums but doesn’t play her music, not because it’s not great, but because you can hear it up and down the dial.  This station is for music you can’t hear anywhere else.

This radio station is independent in its sensibilities, often located on a college campus, and isn’t for everyone.  But it’s built-to-order for some of us, and we listen to that station all the time.  Whatever it’s playing, we’ll listen.  Even if we don’t like it, because we’re fascinated by the choice, appreciative of the chance to hear it for the first time, and curious as to what’s coming next.

I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and when I land in a new town and stumble upon one of these stations, I feel as though I’ve found home.  In Los Angeles, that station was KCRW (89.9 in L.A.), and the show was Morning Becomes Eclectic — hosted then by Tom Schnabel.

As the area’s premier NPR station, Santa Monica College’s KCRW brings you all the good stuff.  You get the best of public radio, which includes both NPR programming and KCRW’s original shows.  My favorites, Which Way L.A.? with Warren Olney (and anything with Warren Olney) and Book Worm with Michael Silverblatt, are consistently fascinating.  Just as Jason Bentley introduces new music every morning, Silverblatt highlights great new writers, and Olney brings together emerging influencers.

When it comes to music, KCRW’s programming rule is: “Play what you love.”  That’s it.  Each DJ has his/her own taste, each show has its own personality, and they’re all great.  As a fan of live radio music, I recommend Bentley’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, which regularly features amazing and always intimate in-studio performances.  Download the KCRW app on your phone and get 20 years of audio and video recordings from the studio.

Austin’s KGSR (93.3) is the king of alternative radio and has become known outside Texas for its annual Christmas “Broadcasts,” a CD collection of live studio performances.  (Vol. 23 goes on sale November 27.)  People all over the country collect them, including fans who’ve never lived in Texas.  My friend, B.J., here in Seattle, has them all, and my brother in San Francisco gives them as gifts every year.  Which is how I get mine.

Having grown with its hometown, KGSR is no longer the little independent radio station it was when I lived there.  It’s now part of the Indianapolis-based ENNIS Communications.  And as Austin has become more diverse in its musical tastes, KGSR has shifted a bit to remain the heart of the music scene there.  But even having “gone corporate,” the station stays true to its roots:  promoting local, emerging and alternative artists.  So don’t be put off by the Kohl’s and Coldplay promotions on the website.  Dig deeper.  Take a look at the Most Played list.  You’ll find a station that’s finding a way to balance commercial demands, local tastes and its musical mission.  It’s had to embrace mainstream marketing as it’s grown, but KGSR doesn’t compromise when it comes to music.  (I’ve been listening to As I Lay Dying, Steve Earle and Hozier on KGSR as I’ve been writing this.)

Now that I live in Seattle, my station is KEXP (90.3) which broadcasts from the University of Washington with the mission: “Enrich people’s lives by championing music and discovery.”  This means all genres, and the station prides itself on having DJs who are experts on local, American and global music of all kinds, especially “emerging sounds.”

“Rock and eclectic” fills most of the day at KEXP, but nights and weekends are when the station mixes it up.  Check out the schedule and you’ll find Jamaican, blues and jazz, as well as a range of other genres.  Everything but classical.  But you might have to stay up really late to get what you want.

One of the station’s great online features is the Song of the Day.  If you enjoy exploring music and discovering new artists, check out the website and grab a taste.  (I just enjoyed today’s song, Martin Courtney’s Northern Highway.)  The orange stripe on the right side of the homepage is a cornucopia of delights:  Song of the Day, DJ Curated Mixes and in-studio Live Performances.  Right now, I’m listening to the Montreal band Ought doing Beautiful Blue Sky.  (Does anyone else hear a bit of David Byrne in there?)

KEXP is public radio.  Not NPR public radio with a capital “P” and “R” but true public radio, as in “listener supported.”  Which means it belongs to the community it serves, and the station is an active part of the Seattle music scene.  This station is a local treasure but global in its orientation, and with the internet, it’s available to everyone.

Explore KCRW, KGSR and KEXP online.  They all have live streaming, blogs and podcasts available on their websites.

Also, check out Tom Schnabel’s Rhythm Planet music blog and his wonderful tribute to Paris from Morning Becomes Eclectic (November 24), both on the KCRW website.

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