This week we talk to Mary Tilson, who hosts a popular and long-running show on Berkeley, California’s powerful and ultra-liberal KPFA, which was the first listener-supported radio station in the United States.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at?
Mary Tilson: I started at a 5000-watt day timer in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, WUPY – Whoopie Radio (seriously) people-powered radio. Remember WKRP? It was like that except everyone sounded like the movie “Fargo,” eh. It was rural for sure – during hunting season we had a feature called “Buck’s Bag” where you’d have to read a list of what the deer hunters shot. I was their roving reporter and evening top 40 jock. I broke format with all the indie alt 45’s and LPs that landed in the library. Kooky job. Thereafter I flung myself into public radio, then worked at the alt-country crazy-ass KFAT in Gilroy, California (wild Americana before the name was conceived about 15 years later.) Ended up at KPFA, from whence I broadcast America’s Back 40 to the universe.
Where do you work now and how do you describe your show? How do you define what you play?
KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. Pacific Time. The show’s called America’s Back 40.
I hope to provide listeners a lively array of American contemporary, traditional, regional and roots based music. AKA, I plug in, play alt-county, blues, early jazz, New Orleans, a smatter of folk, singer-songwriters and of course “Americana.” Total fun. This means I get to play with a wide palette of music. If it fits, I’ll play it. I lean strongly toward music as integrated with celebration, dance, food, and the mundane casualties of living. I love to contrast new and traditional styles of music so listeners can figure out the musical links themselves. (If they feel like it.) I’m not that good at on-air ethnomusicology, but I read a lot and get a kick out of sneaky education. I keep the patter light, talk about myself, what’s going on in the music world, and provide context for the music I’m playing.
How do you define Americana music?
I think the term is a marketing/linguistic necessity to allow musicians to be able to sell their music and get gigs and make a living of sorts. It means very little to me as a description or as a method to program my show. I view it as classic country, bluegrass, and old-time music contemporized and plugged in. This is the space scraped out by Gram Parsons, Emmylou, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson, and so many others in late ’60s and early ’70s.
How do you prepare for your shows? Do you have theme shows or spotlight certain artists?
I listen to CDs received in the mail, downloads, podcasts, radio. I like to mix the program live, so I collect an array of new and old releases and let it rip. I don’t do many theme programs, but I do spotlight artists and upcoming shows. I host bands live fairly often from 2-2:30 p.m. I plan my show based on how I feel, what type of music I’m interested in during a particular week, what’s happening in town, maybe current events – although I don’t talk about that on air. Listeners get it on their own – or not!
How many new releases do you play on your show? Do you play many independent artists?
I probably play 35 percent new and the rest older stuff, and absolutely I play self-produced and independent artists. Please send CDs to 3036 A Fulton St., Berkeley, CA 94705 or email@example.com.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Hee-Haw, Homer and Jethro (Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial), and, speaking of Jethro, The Beverly Hillbillies. Bonnie Raitt and anything old-time related. Plus I grew up in Detroit – resting place of the black and white rural Southern diaspora of the 1940s and Motown. Radio was amazing in Detroit and I inhaled it all.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
This is an interesting question. In the San Francisco Bay Area I’d say that there isn’t a strong core of working traditionally based roots or Americana musicians. It’s too expensive to be an artist here. I noticed with interest that the New York Times did not name any Americana artists as a best of 2015. Chris Stapleton got an honorable mention. Right now I think we are seeing more listener and media attention focused on urban-based music in major urban areas. There is a very active roots based music scene in hipster regions of the country (Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, etc.) and of course, among people who don’t follow trends and play and listen to whatever they have an affinity for. Americana seems big in Nashville. Nationally interest seems to have declined. I’d love to hear what other people think. Generally popular attention ebbs and flows – we’re in an ebb phase, in my opinion.