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Why The Current's ratings are soaring

Current hosts Jill Riley and Steve Seel during a recent morning show.
MinnPost photo by David Brauer
Current hosts Jill Riley and Steve Seel during a recent morning show.

In December 2009, a mere 1.5 percent of local radio listeners tuned in to Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current. That left the hip music station in 20th place, behind every other tune-spinner in the market, including MPR’s venerable Classical service.

Eighteen months later, The Current is the local ratings success story.

In April, the station topped its nearest commercial sound-alike, Cities 97. By June, that 1.5 had nearly tripled to 4.3, good for ninth overall. Among 25-to-54-year-olds — precisely the younger listeners MPR coveted when when it opened the station in 2005 — The Current ranks fifth, eclipsing JACK-FM, 93X, KOOL108 and bearing down on longtime powerhouse KDWB. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, the station is sixth. 

What’s gotten into the scenesters? Theories include consistent (but not too consistent) programming, a relatively obscure band’s Grammy and even crappy seasons by Brett Favre and Joe Mauer.

Reducing sad-bastard piano ballads
Inside MPR’s decidedly non-scruffy walls, program director Jim McGuinn’s office is charmingly archaic: magazines, tour posters, an acoustic guitar and a boom box. A musician and veteran of public and commercial radio, the lanky, T-shirted McGuinn is steely-eyed about the business, but retains a puppy-dog enthusiasm for the music.

Jim McGuinn
minnesota.publicradio.org
Jim McGuinn

As one fan told me, “I think Jim McGuinn has been an extremely positive influence on the station. He's reduced the sad-bastard piano ballads by at least 65 percent since 2007-08.”

The Current was designed to be “more taste-based and hunch-based,” according to former MPR exec Sarah Lutman. From the beginning, the station’s tastemaking was potent enough to pack local clubs and alter sales charts, a phenomenon City Pages music critic Andrea Swensson dubbed “The Current Effect.”

But even though the station was fulfilling its mission to, in Lutman's words, “be a music service that has a very, very strong community focus and an energizing effect on the civic engagement of the next generation,” its ratings still sucked.

McGuinn came from Philadelphia modern-music public-radio station WXPN in January 2009, four years after The Current debuted. Philadelphia was the first test market for Portable People Meters (PPM), the user-wearable devices that pick up a silent tone to record listenership. They debuted here in April 2009.

McGuinn hit town after the Current’s playlist underwent a major upheaval — from an “antiformat” where DJs literally brought in favorite CDs from their collections, to a tighter, consultant-advised format that caused one part-time host to quit over the moroseness.

“It was a fairly abrupt shift,” concedes morning co-host Steve Seel, noting the playlist became "much tighter" before McGuinn "relaxed" it.

Jill Riley
minnesota.publicradio.org
Jill Riley

Seel calls McGuinn a “rabid music-head” who has made the station more “aesthetically pleasing.” Translation: You’re more likely to hear an alt-hit on The Current, or a song The Current may turn into an alt-hit.

McGuinn’s Current is also more likely to play older bands that shape the station’s ethos, such as The Clash. As morning co-host Jill Riley puts it, “Six years ago, we’d play The Clash once every six days. Now, we’ll play it more often as one of our core influences — but not just [pop hit] ‘Train in Vain.’”

As simple as A, B, C?
McGuinn keeps track of all this with the MusicMaster scheduling system, a thoroughly modern and common technology.

There are five queues of songs that are assured airplay: “A” contains artists whose albums get multiple-track play. Single-track spins descend through B, C, D and E lists.

I happened to grab a copy of early April’s “C” queue, which contained 19 artists such as Alexander, Beady Eye, Black Joe Lewis, The Cars, Cut Copy, Dum Dum Girls, G. Love, Grouplove and James Vincent McMorrow. These days, the “A” list is populated with Adele, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and the Foo Fighters, among others.

Those who think The Current has become too predictable and hit-driven are usually grumbling about the “A” queue. McGuinn — who calls The Current “a station for curious, informed listeners” — is unapologetic.

“Someone might say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but it opens the station to more folks,” he says. “Here, it feels like you’re on a balance beam. You want to appeal to the complete over-the-top music head, but you also don’t want people to feel like they’re not invited to the party.”

Melanie Walker
minnesota.publicradio.org
Melanie Walker

The program manager sees a huge segment of his audience as former or wannabe musicheads simply overwhelmed with an Internet full of choices. (Yours truly falls into this category.) In this sense, The Current seeks to be a curator and compete with iTunes, Pandora, eMusic and Spotify.

McGuinn contends The Current’s 6,000-song playlist remains six times bigger than KQ’s, and 12 times bigger than Cities’. “Most stations use [poll-based] audience research; here, humans do it,” he says. “It’s based on what’s selling tickets in clubs, what’s being written about.”

Every week, McGuinn, music director Melanie Walker and hosts such as Bill DeVille meet to do hunch-based queue rearranging, which includes a couple-hour listening session of everyone’s favorite new tunes. It’s the kind of morning meeting you’d like to be invited to.

As a guy who stopped listening during the morosest period, I couldn’t help noticing McGuinn cheerleading for the more upbeat tunes. Seel labels part of this group “Swaggering Rock Boys,” adding there’s still plenty of room for broodier stuff like his favored “Slowcore.”

McGuinn knows the little stylistic tricks that succeed in a post-diary era, where ratings depend on people listening longer, not just remembering station call letters. A lot of the stuff is basic blocking-and-tackling: how to tease what’s coming and to balance between the "old, new, familiar and surprising."

Still, the station retains the human touch that sets it apart, he insists. “Sixty percent of any given show is programmed by hosts on the fly or that day. It’s zero percent at most stations.”

Where the boys are
Rock boys have a lot to do with The Current’s ratings success. Men make up roughly 60 percent of the station’s listenership; Cities has as many 25-to-54-year-old women tuned in, but only half as many men.

One fun factor that might help explain The Current’s rising ratings: the lousy performance of local sports teams.

McGuinn and MPR researchers acknowledge that their station shares a lot of listeners with ESPN 1500, which carries Minnesota Twins games, and KFAN, the Vikings rights-holder. These days, following either team feels like inserting bamboo shards underneath your fingernails. Even if you dislike a Current song or two, music is a surer refuge.

Steve Seel
minnesota.publicradio.org
Steve Seel

The Current’s ratings slide coincided with Brett Favre’s summer 2009 arrival, remained low through the Twins’ magical 2010, and began rocketing around the time the elderly quarterback got the snot kicked out of him at TCF Bank field last Christmas.

However, there’s one flaw in the theory: KFAN’s ratings are up spring-over-spring and ESPN 1500’s haven’t really dropped.

Where Dale and Tom aren’t
Nothing personal against former “Morning Show” hosts Dale Connelly and Tom Keith, but their Keilloresque music-and-humor show was a shotgun marriage to The Current’s programming day. After moving from Classical in 2005, the show’s run ended in December 2008, a month before McGuinn’s arrival.

Because so many people listen to morning drive, it’s a major part of the overall ratings number. McGuinn says it takes a couple of years to establish a new morning show, especially after a big philosophical change. Now, he notes, Seel and Riley fully contribute to The Current’s gains.

Their rating has more than tripled among 25-to-54-year-olds in a year. Twice as many people listen, and they’re listening two-and-a-half times longer. In this age group, the now-sixth-ranked show even tops MPR News' "Morning Edition."

A cultural moment
While programming directors rival politicians in how they talk up themselves and talk down competitors, the more mature ones acknowledge trends can be bigger than themselves. Plenty of folks think The Current benefits from the culture swinging their way, symbolized by Arcade Fire’s unexpected “Album of the Year” Grammy in February.

Members of Arcade Fire performing at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Members of Arcade Fire performing at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April.

The Current’s fans knew who the band was, but the win left many listeners scratching their heads; sites such as this one popped up in exasperation/tribute.

The idea: There’s more vitality in music’s long tail, and audiences for once are catching on. The Current, by dint of smarts and good luck, gets first-mover advantage — and because the station is commercial-free, it’s harder for a commercial station to lure listeners back.

Lutman, now president of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, theorizes that The Current’s rise may also reflect other growing trends.

She says MPR eventually looked at a lot of research when creating The Current, “but at first this was gut instinct, more from knowledge of the cultural community, what media outlets were serving them. Food trucks, being out, bicycling, art galleries, fashion, that whole part of the cultural community. It had become pretty clear there was a lot going on that had no outlet. That's why The Current is a good name for it — it's alive for its time.”

How long will it last?
For all this profundity, how much of The Current’s rise is a simple statistical fluke?

In the meter-ratings era, panelists stay on longer, often over a year. Rival programmers, noting an incredible rise in the "time spent listening" rating component, mutter that a few die-hard listeners produced The Current’s spike. They think the station will crash to earth when these folks eventually roll off the panel.

McGuinn doesn’t rule out such flukes — "the first time ratings went up, I said, 'Ooo, is this real?'" — though he notes die-hards would affect only time spent listening and not the other key ratings component, individuals tuned in (aka “cume”).

If The Current’s ratings return to unremarkable, consequences may not be as severe as at commercial stations.

Sponsorships — advertising by any other name — are a major source of MPR revenue, but that line item is dwarfed by memberships, and those contributions rely on passion and mission more than mass appeal.

Says Lutman, “A broadcast station — think of the very name of it — has to reach a lot of people, and if it doesn’t, it’s a bad use of the instrument in your hands. But while ratings are important, [MPR’s] world doesn’t live or die with them. There are a number of other indications: How do you make this a great place to live, how are the clubs doing, do people come here and tour? Those are important to any public-spirited institution, and I’m not just making this up. People there get really excited about public service.”

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Comments (21)

I still can rely on the current, 60% of the time (down from 95% of the time) I tune in and I can't believe they think anyone wants to listen to what their playing. The more they sound like satellite's Alt Nation and XMU the more I give them a try. I still get the feeling the DJ's are trying to impress us with their eclecticism however. I love hearing music, but the current sounded a little too much like a boring private music collection. They seem to have realized that the station doesn't exist for sole satisfaction of the DJ's, that a good thing. And for gods sake no don't start using market researchers to programming! MR's have completely ruined commercial radio in the this country and they destroy public radio if given half a chance.

Nice article Dave.

Very nice article and a fascinating read for an avid listener. Really glad to see The Current doing so well. Even though I prefered the super-eclectic sad-bastard days, it's understandable why they would make the shift and they seem to have struck the right balance.

Funny that you mention that hardcore fans are frustrated by the A's, I find myself cursing the B's, C's and onward just because I'd rather hear more than one song from any artist. One of the things I used to really love about the station was the ability to hear a deep cut off a newer record, which helped me make educated buying decisions. Alas, the station has seemed to hit its stride, which is reason for celebration. Also love the increase in themed weekly programming that we've seen more of under McGuinn, especially Bill DeVille's United States of Americana.

Thinking about refugees from Twins and Vikings listeners, I'm a refugee from listening to ever more depressing news in the mornings in favor of music from The Current. It's all I can stomach to listen to the news break at 7:21am, honestly. On the bright side, I agree that The Current's morning show is hitting its stride.

Paul, really have to disagree with your comparison. SiriusXMU is way more 'trendy' (often times in a bad way) and repetitive than Current. I counted one day in June and heard both Tune-Yards and Tyler, The Creator 5 times each between 9 and 5.

And AltNation is a whole other animal entirely; playing Switchfoot, Green Day, and other pop-alt blech. Which is fine if that's what you're into, but how that intersects in anyway with the Current or SiriusXMU is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I'll often hear something first one SiriusXMU, but then I hear it 80 more times that week. The Current seems to have not gotten that bad yet, and their DJ's are much more tolerable than the faux-hipster schtick going on on SiriusXMU.

Really nice article Dave.

What is really encouraging is the potential to develop bands by playing deeper cuts. Stations that played deep music really started the careers of many of the former super groups.

One other thing that I attribute to The Current's success. The utter lack of competition in newer, deeper, and fresher music.

Ever since the mega mergers in radio, music directors have reported to surveys and carefully selected playlists. Any creativity is long gone. Add to the heavy emphasis on "classics" in the Twin Cities and the door was wide open for someone to stand out.

As I type this I am listening to Pandora. I gave up on local radio (except for AM and The Current on occasion).

Thanks for including the point on the old morning show with Dale Connelly. Back then, I would look at the clock to see when it was over, then turn on The Current. Now, I don't have to.
Mostly, when I complain that I just heard Mumford and Sons weep for the gazillionth time, or only hear one cut repeatedly off a new album, I remind myself that The Current is still better than any other station, and in its absence I would not listen to any radio, period. It's still a great station with great DJs and - the best part - no commercials.

Full disclosure: employee of The Current here.

I only want to expand on one point: the section about the cultural swing. I feel that Brauer implies that The Current is in the right place at the right time to ride the recent wave of indie/alternative music, which is true to an extent. But I don't feel it's entirely accurate to write The Current off as mere beneficiaries of this movement, when one of our goals is to support the growth and careers of musical artists. Rather than simply saying that The Current's ratings are improving because of the rise of the culture, I personally feel that the rise of the culture can be attributed in part to organizations like The Current. Instead of us just operating in the shadows until the rest of the world came to its senses, maybe The Current itself was what helped allow this music to take hold in the culture.

Thanks, Dave. as a former agency media person (a long time ago) its nevertheless interesting to get the inside scoop on how they think they accomplished their gains.

I've started listening to The Current again, when driving my car. They're in the rotation along with Cities (too few songs), Jack FM, Sirius Alt Nation, Sirius The Spectrum, and whatever's in my CD player. I haven't heard any thing yet on The Current that inspired me to download a song from iTunes though.

Other factors that I think have built listenership above and beyond the playlist: a roster of DJs I enjoy all-around; support of local music; co-sponsored community events and performances; high-quality in-studio performances and interviews. One thing I'm glad about is that my daughter and I can listen to the Current together, and I can tell her about the older stuff I used to listen to when it gets played, and we discover new music together. Our tastes aren't identical, but it sure is nice that we can set the radio to the same station in the car! Her first outdoor concert was a Rock the Garden event. We saw Arcade Fire together with tickets I won by participating in something online. She adores Dessa and Janelle Monae: heard them on The Current.
I only wish there was more room for rock roots music from the 50s-60s: jump blues, R and B, soul.

== A lot of the stuff is basic blocking-and-tackling: how to tease what’s coming and to balance between the "old, new, familiar and surprising."==

The same approach is used, to fine effect, on MPR's classical station, KSJN.

And I concur with (#3) Grant Boelter:

==love the increase in themed weekly programming that we've seen more of under McGuinn, especially Bill DeVille's United States of Americana==

The greatest core competency of The Current is the real live (local) human beings behind the microphones. Especially when they are allowed to just be themselves.

Combine that with the non-commercial model allowing more air time for music --music the DJ's actually enjoy --and it's a winning combination.

The music is a niche the Current really has all to itself, except for Radio K when it comes in. There's no reason it shouldn't draw ratings. What I can't get over is anyone saying they enjoy the announcers.

The DJs, while it's nice they employ some, haven't a clue of what might prove interesting to anyone who doesn't know them personally.

It would be great to combine the Current's music with smart, witty, unique conversation and news in the morning. Instead, they offer Dull and Duller prattling on about some concert they saw five years ago or how one of them might clean the house this weekend.

At least the other announcers work alone so their rambling is shorter, except for the British fellow whose esoteric monologues are long enough for two American speakers.

A direction they should follow is the brief stretches in the afternoon when Mary Lucia and Bob Collins (an actual newsperson) chat during his newscast. Otherwise, it's not all that crazy people switch to sports talk. There's no other music worth turning the dial, but when it comes to talking, there are thankfully alternatives.

Brandon #5,

I take your point and don't entirely disagree but that's the dilemma of programming. I personally would rather hear a song that I like 4 times a day rather than hear 4 songs that I like per day. Excessive repetition is of course evil, but how can a station like the Current fulfill it mission of promoting music without it?

I also have a problem with the prattling of the DJs, especially when they have groups in-studio. The interesting thing about any good band is it's music, so why spend so much more time talking to them instead of listening to their music? Let's be honest, these guys just don't have that much to say beyond the basic stuff we've heard a million times already. Dan Wilson's inspiration for "Closing Time" is no where near as interesting as the song itself, and it takes 25 seconds not five minutes to discuss it.

And how many times can you say you saw someone in concert and they were really good? And interesting observation would be that a band is better in the studio than they are in person, but how many times do you hear that?

It's interesting to me that I've been listening more frequently to Minnesota pubic radio's Classical Offering over the last year or so whereas I used to listen to The Current quasi-exclusively (I must be an outlier). Is that due to the arrival of my now 13 month old daughter or the changes at The Current? My daughter and I are trying to work more time on the 89.3 into our day as she ages and requires fewer naps, however. Thanks for the great article David.

Building on Mac's point, tangentially; there was another station here a while back that filled a similar cultural niche. Some of the Current staff worked there, I seem to recall - the Current is tapping into a vein that's always been there. As sad as the premise behind the antics of a 'morning show' are, I suspect the hypothesis about the new duo helping build the audience is correct.

Nice in-depth reporting, Dave. Good work.

As a guy who splits his radio-listening between probably 60% Current and 40% KNOW, I grumble plenty about some of the overplayed stuff, and some of the simply not good music, but I keep up my sustaining membership and keep coming back to the station. There is nothing comparable in town, both in the diversity of the music and the community involvement.

PS. My only recommendations would be to give Bill DeVille the morning show and more Dave Campbell. Always more Dave Campbell. :)

Here's an obvious but overlooked theory: Maybe people simply don't want to listen to commercials anymore. There are so many ways to weed them out now that they can feel as jarring on Cities 97 as they do on network TV.

On the other hand, I don't think there's as much overlap with where the young people are headed as it may seem: as if young people listen to the radio. The Current is largely for Gen X; Gen Y gets its media online, self-curated.

Lastly, if the Current ever truly becomes a ratings king, it begs the question: if it's getting public money to fill an unfilled niche (a public service), how popular can it become before it's no longer a public service but simply a very friendly mainstream?

If they're so successful, they can do it without our tax money.