Jason Samuel Is Leading the College Americana Radio Movement
Jason Samuel is a regular attendee at the Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville every year. When I’ve seen him there, I’ve always appreciated his enthusiasm for the music and for radio.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were they like?
Jason Samuel: I got my start on WGCS at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. During my sophomore year, I made a deal with the faculty advisor that I would host the morning show five days a week, playing classical music if he would let me play rock and roll from midnight until 2 a.m. on Tuesdays. I was a very tired college student and fell asleep more than once during a Beethoven piece.
Over time, my involvement increased and I became the student station manager. It was an incredible learning experience. We were still cutting and splicing tape and doing most everything live — including the news and sports.
My first paid job out of college was in country [WCMR] and adult inspirational [WFRN] radio in Elkhart, Indiana. I also worked as a sportscaster and went on to a decade of award-winning sports at WLTH in Gary, WTRC in Elkhart, Indiana, and WEFM in Michigan City, Indiana. In 1997 I moved on to WAWC in Syracuse, Indiana. That gave me the opportunity to combine my sportscasting with the classic hits format.
Where do you work now?
I am blessed to be back at my alma mater. The station’s changed significantly. When I came back to WGCS in 2003, I worked to change the format. We now go by “91.1 The Globe, your station for culturally progressive music.” Our format is 60/40 Americana/AAA. It’s tough to gauge sometimes because of the crossover success of many artists in similar genres and the convergence of talent across labels.
I am the general manager and program director. We have made significant strides in recent years. [We’ve been] twice named “Best College Radio Station in the Nation” and we are a three-time “Best Indiana College Radio Station” and have even once won the state award as “Best Overall Radio Station” from our state association. All these accolades have arrived since the format change.
When I am on the air? Whenever I need to be. Right now, nothing regular. I was doing the morning show about a year ago, but we got someone better than me to get up at 5 a.m. Now, I usually do a weekly show in the evening from our downtown storefront studios during the summer months. As a college professor [on top of] my daily station responsibilities, a daily shift is taxing.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
It’s called “Wednesday Night Wax” because I like to play a lot of vinyl. Sometimes I’ll go four straight hours spinning discs. Descriptors can be so hard on stations and formats. Just think of how some “country” music is “too country” for “country” radio.
Trying to explain our format to a listener is complex. In short, we play music your won’t hear on other radio stations in our market: roots rock, curbside troubadours, jam bands, college classics, deep track icons, alt-country … as Robert Earl Keen says, “The road goes on forever.”
How do you define Americana music?
I don’t. I mean, I could, but it’s not any easier describing Hot Country or Active Rock or Triple A. What are those? It’s like a room full of chess masters debating the variations of a Queen’s Gambit. The discussion could go on for weeks.
Americana is a fusion of cultures where distinct musical genres and slices of particularly crafted lifestyles have come together. It reminds me a lot of the community that Seymour Stein created with Sire Records in the early ’80s. He really helped a lot of musically curious Gen Xers find a home and like-minded fans that could relate through music. I.R.S., Factory, and Island [labels] were also creators and tastemakers of that scene. I know that there’s a lot of Americana fans that were part of that music growing up. There’s few things as rewarding in music, albeit for fans or performers, than finding “your people.”
How do you prepare for your shows? What thoughts go into preparing your sets?
A mood. A show I just saw or an artist I just talked to will influence my playlist. So will a time of year or an upcoming concert that the station is promoting. I always prep. If you don’t, then people might as well turn to their stagnant iTunes playlist or curated content on Spotify.
How many new releases do you play?
We play 24 new releases in heavy rotation each week. We also have medium and light categories. New releases are important to us because our fans are music-deprived in ways that they don’t even realize. We want to educate them and promote music we feel is worth their time.
Who was the first artist that turned you on to roots music? How did you hear about them?
Avett Brothers, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams, Drive By Truckers. My brother-in-law took me to see Gillian Welch at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville back in ’03. The venue was packed. That’s when I knew I had to find out what this music was all about. October of ’04, we’d just changed formats a few months prior; I saw DBT on Halloween Eve in Chicago at the Metro. It was over-sold. Packed. Shoulder to shoulder. I thought, “Yes. This is the right music for our station!”
Who are your favorite artists from any genre? What artists define Americana music for you?
This is the hardest question ever. I will never stop loving Led Zeppelin, the Smiths, The Violent Femmes, Echo & the Bunnymen, R.E.M., the Four Tops, the Small Faces, the Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, Bobby Rush, Black Joe Lewis, Prince. Americana icons for me, the short list [is]: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Band of Heathens, Old Crow Medicine Show, Todd Snider, Mumford & Sons, Lumineers, Loretta Lynn, Ani DiFranco, Wilco, DBT.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
Converging. Growing. Expanding across genres. I think the Americana Music Association has done a lot to help grow the format. A Grammy category and the continued popularity of the annual festival in Nashville are exciting steps toward the mainstream. Not that I think Americana in and of itself will be mainstream, but at least the artist will hopefully see more opportunities from it.
Look at Chris Stapleton. Keep an eye on Aubrie Sellers. Is that Red Light’s doing or Americana radio? Probably both … and a few other factors.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I love Sara Borges’ new EP, Good and Dirty. It’s good and dirty. Kansas Bible Company is a band of 12 brothers that have more fun on stage than should be allowed by law. Their shows make you feel good inside. With apologies to Henry Wagons and Annie McCue, I think Courtney Barnett is the best thing out of Australia since John Butler Trio. I’m also pretty high on the Record Company and a crooner from Nashville via Buffalo named Marc Scibilia.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests, or anything else you wish to share?
I love international travel, riding my bike, and cooking. Cooking a nice meal with an album spinning on my turntable is one of the most relaxing things I can do for myself. The other is laying on a beach in Costa Rica, talking to pre-friends — also known as strangers.