My first pledge drive at WFPK 91.9 was one of the oddest experiences of my life. Nothing actually zany happened — nothing out of the ordinary anyway — but it was the first time that I ever stepped out in front of a large audience, albeit hidden in the dark corners of your radio, and asked people for money. Spending an entire week, hour after hour, spotlighting the virtues of our product and all of the reasons you should part with your dollar for something that you could otherwise get for free was completely foreign to me. I had never ponied up to membership myself, though I had been a fan for a long time. And coming from the commercial radio world where all programming is paid by the advertisers, it seemed wholly ridiculous to go to the community for its support. The game I knew was that I would play the music, you would listen, our ratings would go up, and the advertisers would give us money to be part of it. Pretty simple, really.
Except for the whole beholden-to-the-advertiser part. You see, that part meant that I had to walk on eggshells with anything that I said, which would inevitably mean that we never said anything with much substance. It meant that we could never play anything that might turn off even one person, so a lot of the songs we played were not special in any creative or lyrical fashion. It meant that we rarely stepped out on a new artist to champion because new music doesn’t register with people — mostly because they have never heard it. People are obviously scared to death of new, so you have to make sure it’s already a hit before you can play it. And then it meant that you had to jam it down their throat because the audience can only handle a few new songs every month or two. Plus, we had to stick with one genre. Did you know that you only like one type of music? It’s true. Don’t pay attention to your CD and LP collection’s variation. We’re as clueless as you are as to how some of those slipped in. It’s right down the middle of the road for you. Rock, country, hip-hop, jazz, indie, oldies … you can only pick one.
Of course, all of that is completely ridiculous. You like lots of different styles of music. You like to find something great that you’ve never heard. You like a good discussion. Maybe even beyond music, a broader conversation into environment or politics … with a good soundtrack tied in, of course. You probably laugh a little bit when you hear a DJ screw up. That’s because they’re really there, right at that actual moment, throwing caution to the wind. Living dangerously without a prerecord button. You probably also appreciate not having a commercial screaming at you every few songs. That was one of my favorite parts.
It took me a bit to understand all of that, though. The first time that my boss, Stacy Owen, showed me where the CD player and turntable was, I’m sure I gave her a moment’s state of disbelief that their collection wasn’t digital like the rest of the world. I have to actually play this off of the physical piece? Just like in my bedroom. What a concept.
But it was meeting listeners that really sold it all to me. It was hearing you tell me how important WFPK is in your life, impassioned in a way I wasn’t used to hearing. You would call to let me know how much you loved whatever song that had just played as often as you would call to complain about the very next song. You show up early to the shows to catch the opening band and always make a point to turn me on to a new artist you’ve just discovered, too.
I realized that having a community support you was the greatest way to be in radio, to be part of a dance that we both take turns leading. To challenge each other, even though sometimes one of us may not be happy with the outcome, we know it always leads to something greater. And, as more major companies fail and fall away, what’s left is the one you choose, not the one they choose for you. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and luckily, as it looks, neither would you. Thanks for that. •
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Speed of Sound.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.