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Little Brother Radio Wants to Change Your Life. Or Not.
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's a sublime pleasure to discover that your hometown can produce artists you genuinely enjoy without making you feel like you're performing some benevolent public service.
Fort Wayne seems to have such a built-in inferiority complex that it's always tricky when a local band debuts an EP or a friend's play opens at an area theatre. You don't want to suspend your ability to pass critical judgment, yet there's a part of you that's rooting for the local boy to make good, and that can lead to a subtle lowering of critical standards. To me, there's nothing more dismissive that a review that says a local performance is "good, for Fort Wayne," as if the artist is inherently handicapped by living here and needs to be graded on a curve.
It's a relief to report that I've gotten to like so many local bands that I've forgotten they come from Fort Wayne. When driving, I constantly change CDs like a crazed DJ, trying to play the next best song to match my mood, and it's only until later, when I'm returning the stray discs to the broken cases, that I realize I've been punching up songs by local bands alongside of national artists. On a recent trip to Chicago I noted that I had played MIA, Lucinda Williams, and The Specials but also "Mind War" by Wooden Satellites, "99 Goggles" by Sankofa, and "Nothing Left" by Vulnavia. I wasn't playing the locals out of obligation but rather because I had to hear THAT song right THEN. When I'm driving I'm an utter Darwinist with music and I never allow lesser songs to break the momentum of the trip.
Most Thursday nights I try to catch the Little Brother Radio program on WBOI because, like the local music I've discovered, I don't have to apologize for the quality of the product. LBR doesn't pretend to be anything more than a weekly, three hour college-radio-like broadcast with funny intros and genial hosts, yet I find the mix of hipster/independent/oddball music and witty on-air improvisations to be a lot more enjoyable than most alternative satellite radio programming. The 40-or-so songs played every week on LBR usually feature alternative/independent heroes (Arcade Fire, the Decembrists, TV on the Radio), local favorites (Orange Opera, Lee Miles, Thunderhawk), old school singer-songwriter iconoclasts (Jonathan Richman, Warren Zevon), bizarre audio artifacts (Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, the "Roadhouse" soundtrack), and "Who the hell is this?" independent American obscurants (too numerous to mention.)
Rich Lee and Jon Sandmaier, the co-hosts for LBR, break the show up into 10 segments of song blocks, usually 4-5 songs apiece, that are often connected thematically in whimsical ways — a set that celebrated "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel, for instance; a "Jesse James" block; a "bee" segment. Occasionally, LBR will devote units exclusively to local music or to national bands that will be performing locally at the Brass Rail, Come 2Go, or Pint and Slice.
Between the sets Rich does the song IDs, mentions the band dates for some of the artists, and engages in some unhurried and often very funny improvisational dialogue. I got to see the genesis of one of my favorite of Rich's jokes while in the studio. The boys invited me over for the October 14th show, and when I noticed that Sufjan Stevens was on the playlist, I asked them if they knew how to pronounce his first name (I always get it wrong). A quick dash to Wikipedia revealed that both "su:fja:n" and "SOOF-YAHN" were correct, which led to this throw-away bit on the air: "And that was 'Sufjan'. . . am I pronouncing that right? 'Sufjan?'. . . 'Stevens' . . . am I pronouncing that right, 'Stevens?' With a song called 'Heirloom' . . .am I pronouncing that right? 'Heirloom?'"
Most jokes from LBR are similar — casual asides that don't try to bash your head in. Rich is somewhat prepared, with song lists and band info, but most of the on-air banter is on-the-spot riffs that seem to arise naturally. Jon occasionally chimes in from the second mike, and when he does you recognize the two are old friends who reside on the same wavelength and share the same sense of play.
During a break I mentioned to Rich that I enjoyed the between-sets talk about as much as the music, and when I asked if he heard similar compliments from other listeners he shrugged his shoulders and nodded. "It's a little perplexing," he admitted. "I hear people say 'You should talk more!' but I don't know. The show's about the music." He mentioned that he's listened to a lot of similar college-radio programs to hear how the DJs sound, and the comparison flatters LBR. "We're not too bad," he allowed. "Some guys will talk after every song or they'll talk forever." At LBR, building the show into twenty minute, all music segments followed by talk seem to help establish parameters for the hosts that the audience finds reliable.
I asked Jon and Rich how big their audience was and they both laughed. "Who knows," Jon said. They mentioned an ancient Arbitron report and the old radio rule-of-thumb: 1 call into the station = 100 listeners. "We're guessing 1400 every week, but there's no way to know for sure," Jon said. LBR noted that they try to track listenership mainly on Facebook, which they monitor as each week's show goes along. Currently they have 534 friends.
I asked LBR about negative responses from the community, and Rich mentioned some cranky phone calls from jazz diehards who rued the loss of three (out of a gazillion) hours or jazz programming on WBOI. "Good luck with your COMMERCIAL radio station," one caller sneered. Rich said, "I wanted to tell him, 'Give us a chance! We can be just as unpopular as jazz or classical!'" They also received some flack when the show moved from Saturday night to the current Thursday, 9-12 slot. "Our self-proclaimed 'No.1 fan' really hated that. He was under house arrest and he looked forward to the Saturday show."
During the final break on the October 14 show, I asked LBR what they thought about the current state of radio. They told me that things have changed so drastically with iPods and music sites that the "alternative/independent" tag really means nothing nowadays. "Basically, it's Taylor Swift and everybody else is alternative," Rich said. "If John Mellencamp started out today," Jon said, "he'd be considered 'alternative'." I mentioned that the only radio station I really liked in the area is 91.5, the Columbia City high school signal, and they nodded. Playlists for Fort Wayne radio stations have gotten so miniscule that it's hard not to get impatient when searching the dial. "They've killed some songs for me--some great songs--just by overplaying them," Rich said. "There's so much music available, yet you only get to hear the same 100 songs."