Public Radio's New Jeans

All radio—like all politics—is local. At least it is for we who still subsist without Sirius. So when I moved from north Mississippi to north-central Kentucky last fall, I was surprised to encounter National Public Radio stations that play contemporary semi-popular music. My antenna is now usually located somewhere between Louisville and Lexington, and I get a steady stream of Dar Williams and Death Cab for Cutie from both ends of that corridor. I’ve since learned that this sophisticated, folky-rocky music format called Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) is the next big thing for public radio. If it’s not on the air in your area yet, you can glimpse the future on npr.org at the pages for “All Songs Considered” and “World Cafe.”

Of course, I’ve looked to the left of the dial for most of my music for a couple of decades now. But in the places I’ve lived, that’s usually meant volunteer-run community radio stations such as WWOZ in New Orleans and Memphis’ WEVL. Those cities are the Rome and Constantinople of America’s musical church. So it’s no surprise that they nurture community-based roots-music stations leaning, respectively, toward rhythm and blues and rockabilly. But when I’ve strayed from those holy lands, I’ve always found public radio to be about news and classical music, and maybe some jazz at night.

Now we have public radio that plays Wilco, Kathleen Edwards, and the new stuff from Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Sure, there’s more sensitive, introspective singer-songwriter material than I can stomach. But I also got to catch up on James McMurtry and hear his seven-minute anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-Wal-Mart anthem, “We Can’t Make It Here,” in heavy rotation. On the whole, an old rockabilly should be happy for once. And I was, at first, and I still am, a little. But I’m also growing vaguely uncomfortable with this new musical regime.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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