Issue May 20, 2008

No More False Dichotomies: Let there be light

In the alternative newsweekly universe, we regularly flog ourselves over our own agingness, how the editors of many papers have been at it for a long time now and can we really put out newspapers that stay in touch with younger readers and all that when, you know, we’re swigging Geritol in the morning.

Of course we never arrive at an answer, either because we cannot stomach the true implications or perhaps there isn’t an easy answer. We talk a lot about finding the good young talent and letting them do their thing, and how to compete with big corporate weeklies that want to eat us alive, then we move on to a cocktail party.

Last week, writing in Velocity, Peter Berkowitz shone the light on WFPK-FM, the pop music station that’s one of three under the Louisville Public Media umbrella. Without ever quite phrasing it this way, Berkowitz basically asked why WFPK doesn’t cater more to hipsters, or, to be fairer, people who seek out and geek out on new music and want to hear it on the radio.

This is the most visible airing in a while of a discussion that’s really been under way since WFPK switched from classical music to a mixed pop format in 1996, under the tutelage of Gerry Weston and Leslie Stewart. It boils down, at least in some fashion, to a simple question of how to strike a balance between musical adventurousness and financial viability.

Purists would like to see a completely freewheeling playlist, Mahavishnu Orchestra, say, followed by Vampire Weekend followed by Wax Fang followed by some Brazilian hotshots followed by a Merle Haggard bootleg. The flip side is a much tighter list, akin to how commercial radio hammers certain songs and artists into listeners’ heads through frequency of play.

WFPK acolytes say the station is more freewheeling than any in town and includes local artists in its regular mix. Purists say the station is too regimented and sprinkles in too much cock rock and too many jam bands and middle-of-the-road singer-songwriters. They say WFPK gives too much sway to an aging demographic with too much fondness for the pop music of 40 years ago. WFPK folks say they have to play music that a significant audience will pay for, in the form of voluntary financial support, and that you can’t do much for anyone if you don’t have that support.

And so it goes.

WFPK people tend to bristle at perceived criticism. They wonder why they’re subjected to such scrutiny at all while the commercial stations get away with playing complete crap. The critics don’t even factor those stations into the discussion, though — a discussion that to them is not relative but should focus on pure artistic enrichment, i.e. pushing the envelope and voraciously consuming new music.

I don’t begrudge Berkowitz for writing the story, and I disagree with critics who disparage the work as a hit job. It comes off as rather mild, actually, and despite Rick Redding’s comment on his blog, The ’Ville Voice, I would indeed suggest that WFPK frame the story and hang it on a wall.

Interestingly, LEO, Louisville Public Media and the Gannett properties (Velocity and The Courier-Journal) are within two blocks of one another, but by and large, we seem to exist in our own vacuums. One thing this town could use more of is a media (print and broadcast) that both mingles with other media and also takes its measure. Lord knows LEO’s tried to stir the pot over the years. The rest of the gang, not so much.

LEO gets criticized constantly, not by other media as much as by readers who feel absolutely no compunction about writing in or engaging us in person, with emphasis, if they think we’ve done something objectionable. They feel a sense of ownership. I won’t tell you we love all of it, but I will say we grow from it. We certainly try to avoid falling back into the bunker, with fleeting success.

I’d like to think our media brethren can take the heat and see it as a way of growing and furthering a community discussion, and maybe even transcend defensiveness and heed some of the admonitions. The world’s got plenty of heat, what with the blogs and such. What we need now more than ever is light.

Contact the writer at
cstemle@leoweekly.com