Radio Free Mountain Stage- Who Listens to the Radio?
Radio is, of course, a problem.
For much of this quickly dissipating century, at least some of the important and ultimately lasting music of the day has been available, for free, to anyone within earshot of a receiver.
And that was a real big deal. Elvis’ first Sun singles — records that fundamentally altered the way people dressed, thought, spoke, and related to authority figures — would just have been cool little round documentaries had DJ Dewey Phillips not had the authority to play them over the Memphis airwaves.
Without commercial radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville might never have become country music’s capital. Radio helped bolster stateside support in World War II, helped usher in the Civil Rights Movement, and presented a counterculture refutation of the Vietnam War.
And, though it allowed everyone from Pat Boone to Air Supply to have their day while it kept brilliant performers such as Wanda Jackson, Phil Ochs, and Jason & the Scorchers from appropriate fame, radio offered Americans the chance to be surprised, amused and enlightened. It gave us Motown, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Nirvana, Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, Buck Owens, Roy Acuff, Louis Armstrong.
Radio has been nothing short of abysmal since 1996, when federal deregulation allowed wealthy corporations to own as many stations as they wanted. In the process prices escalated to the point where only the fabulously rich can buy good-size FM stations, and only the extraordinarily principled won’t sell.
Deregulation brings us country stations such as KTWB in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which bills itself as “outlaw country” and features such “outlaws” as Kenny Chesney, Neal McCoy and Sawyer Brown. It brings us “classic rock” stations that will play Bad Company but not the Beatles; “R&B” stations with no sonic connection to the noble grooves of Stax, Muscle Shoals or old Motown; pop stations that cater almost exclusively to kids. If the Rolling Stones came along today, they’d be an alternative country band.
But radio works great for those who need it most: retailers. The Chevy truck people don’t care whether those with ears and brains can recognize Chesney as a pathetic fraud and Shania Twain as the farthest thing imaginable from a country singer. They just want to know if the people who listen to Hot New Country radio buy Chevy trucks. Until Shania’s people stop buying pickups, Shania will be a country artist, Iris DeMent (the most country singer imaginable) will be an alt-country artist, and Merle Haggard will be a has-been.
All of which is absurd.
Which is why radio is, of course, a problem.
“I abandoned commercial radio right about the time I put out ‘Something ‘Bout You’ and nothing happened with it,” says Kevin Welch, a long-haired, ex-major-label “country” singer-songwriter whose solo albums for Nashville indie Dead Reckoning are just the sort of edgy, thoughtful, literate fare commercial radio won’t touch these days. “Something ‘Bout You” was on Welch’s Western Beat album of 1992 — a whole long time, a whole career, a whole musical culture ago, as far as commercial radio is concerned.
Welch is one of hundreds of musicians to wander, bright-eyed but waiflike, into the publicly subsidized environs of Mountain Stage, a weekly, internationally syndicated, live-performance radio program in Charleston, West Virginia, heard by more than 190,000 Americans and an as-yet-undetermined number of Europeans.
Mountain Stage, which broadcasts 26 new two-hour shows a year, is the brainchild of host Larry Groce, executive producer Andy Ridenour and technical director Francis Fisher. The show exists in just the sort of genre-blurring netherworld that corporate bean counters shudder to think can still exist.
“Broadcasting right now aims at the lowest common denominator, but we don’t think listeners are myopic,” Groce says. “We try to get a great mix of high quality music, and we’re not aiming at males or females, or for any age or demographic.”
Not even for the broad-based and roughly defined Americana format. While the Mountain Stage roster includes regular visits from the likes of Welch, Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Dave Alvin, Groce is also happy to provide airtime for Rusted Root, Ali Farka Toure, the Neville Brothers, and other jazz, blues, rock and soul performers.
“It’s all over the map, and you have to have an open mind,” says West Virginia native Tim O’Brien, a songwriter and acoustic instrumental virtuoso who has appeared on the show more than anyone apart from Groce and the Mountain Stage house band. “When they started, they sought to make a separate identity from live shows like Prairie Home Companion, and they were aiming at national distribution.”
The funny thing is, it worked. Fifteen years have passed since Mountain Stage began as a Mountaineer-centric program with no musical or broadcast ties beyond the state. Groce was best known at the time for making children’s records and for his 1976 top-10 novelty hit “Junk Food Junkie”.