Story last updated at 2/18/2009 - 11:38 am
JUNEAU - It may be a bit uncommon to find Gnarls Barkley, Dave Matthews, Jimi Hendrix, José Gonzáles and Bob Dylan all in the same room at the same time, but tracks by musicians as varied as these can often be found playing back-to-back on KXLL.
KXLL has just celebrated its second anniversary as one of the newest FM radio stations in Juneau. Also known as Excellent Radio, KXLL broadcasts on 100.7 FM with a fresh mix of music on the air and dedicated volunteers behind the switchboard.
KXLL is a public radio station, which means it is listener supported, community oriented, and fiercely independent. This allows KXLL the freedom to fly by the seat of its proverbial pants.
WAKING UP THE CAPITAL
The radio day begins each morning when Jessie Herman-Haywood and Jeremiah Blankenship (J.B.) host "WTF Up," a weekday morning show with only as much structure as is necessary. They play music from the station's vault as well as rare items from online sources.
"We try to keep it freeform," Herman-Haywood said. "I feel like one thing we really have going for us is that we play really random stuff."
Because KXLL is a public station, NPR covers all royalty fees for songs played. With this limitless playlist potential, Herman-Haywood often plays music that can be found only on YouTube.
"The thing that makes her show really different and unique is that she's bringing in a lot of new stuff that's just not available typically anywhere else," said Andy Kline, program director.
"I think that our show relates to people because of the morning aspect of it," Blankenship said. "Sometimes we're having just as hard a time getting moving as they are, so we try to get their input about what they want to hear to motivate them and us."
Herman-Haywood and Blankenship typically begin the show around "sevenish" in the winters and "sixish" in the summers. Though they work at the station five days a week for several hours per day, they aren't paid for their time. They are two of several volunteers who make their time contribution to the station simply for the love of it.
"A lot of volunteers who are on the air now just feel a connection to the station," Kline said. He was a volunteer at KTOO for several years before taking the position of program director for KXLL. From his perspective, volunteering "felt like it was charity work."
"The ethic of public radio is that it's a community radio station and that members of the community come on and do shows," Kline said. "It's a big contribution that's being made by someone who is devoting a lot of their time, energy and effort for no personal gain other than the enjoyment of doing it. It's sort of, in a Zen way, a cooler contribution than if you were getting paid."
THE EXCELLENT PLAYLIST
KXLL plays a large variety of music by day and night. Kline has put together an interminable mix of classic rock, soul, hip-hop and alternative with intentions of keeping the programming fresh and different from what other stations are doing.
"People can get pop music anywhere," Kline said. "I don't play any 'American Idol' stuff, which I don't think upsets my audience."
Kline likened the station's music rotation to the shuffle feature on an iPod. He sees MP3 media as radio's toughest competition and strives to create programming that can keep pace with the musical preferences of his listeners.
"The thing that's really radical about the station is the mix, that hip-hop belongs next to Led Zeppelin," Kline said. "The highest hit songs I repeat two or three times a week. For normal stations it's four or five times a day. That drives me crazy."
The station keeps to its mix for most of the day. It also has a few shows that focus more on specific genres, but still in the same realm of what would be heard during the rest of the day. The constant focus is on quality of programming rather than quantity of listeners, Kline said.
"As long as we know that our audience is appreciating it, as long as they're there to back us up in pledge drives and fundraisers when we need them, we know we're doing our job," Kline said.
KXLL's sister station, KRNN, is also operated by volunteers. Broadcast at 102.7, the station has been labeled "eclectica." It airs music ranging from classical to metal depending on the musical taste of which volunteer DJ is sitting behind the switchboard at the time.
THE MCDONALD'S APPROACH
Kline grew up in Boston with a plethora of radio stations to nurture his adolescence. He later moved to Florida and reluctantly left behind the quality radio abundance that he had become accustomed to in Boston. He called Florida a musical "wasteland" with no option but top 40 stations.
"It just grinded my stomach every day not being able to hear good music," Kline said.
Kline described a "McDonald's approach" that has been taken with thousands of radio stations across the country. These are stations that used to have unique traits exclusive to their genres and locales. But thanks to media conglomerate companies like Clear Channel, which owns and operates over 1200 radio stations in the United States, many aspects of the radio have become standardized.
"In any town in America, the most popular restaurant is McDonald's, even in Juneau," Kline said. "Is it the best restaurant in Juneau? Probably not. So why do people go there? It's consistent, it's familiar, people know what they're going to get. And I think there's a real parallel with radio. They tune in to certain radio stations because of those things like consistency. It's digestible, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the best thing out there."
MORE THAN MUSIC
"You talk about brain drain, like why kids want to get out of Juneau, and I think in the past radio has been one of the reasons," Kline said. "There was nothing here, no connection. Nothing in the community was saying 'We value what you like so much that we're going to dedicate an institution to it.'"
KXLL was founded with the intent of targeting the twenty-something market but was surprised to find that most of their listeners are of the ages of 12-18.
"We have these regular listeners who are totally devoted," Kline said. "They have a real relationship with the radio station and they really depend on it."
Blankenship said his favorite thing about doing the morning show is the relationship that he is building with the community. That community isn't just defined by geographical limits. KXLL has received calls and emails from online listeners all over the world.
Kline and his volunteers work hard to bring back the value of local radio stations. Last year, their audience grew 40 percent. They believe they are in a great position in this small market to truly stand out as an alternative.
"The value of KTOO news is very easy for us to articulate, but it's hard to articulate the value of (KXLL) to the community and to young people especially," Kline said. "But I think for the young people that it hits, they really know and value it. That changes Juneau."