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5 More Questions: The Current’s Jim McGuinn on success, pleasing music aficionados — and Nickelback

A decade in, The Current has achieved staple status among hardcore music fans, branded large-scale events, and become a “must stop” for touring musicians.

Jim McGuinn: "I often tell people I think of the average Current listener as a perpetual 28 year-old. In terms of musical taste he’s forever at the moment where he would give anything a try."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

It’s fair to say that when Minnesota Public Radio launched The Current nearly 10 years ago, the idea had its skeptics. On a cultural level, the idea was a marriage of improbable bedfellows: MPR, with a well-deserved reputation for being notoriously bureaucratic, stiff and humor-impaired, was going to lay down with pop music and all that came with it? 

Local sages predicted that — if not an unmitigated failure — the station would offer a de-flavorized musical milieu unlikely to impress its target demographic: the adventuresome, music-literate end of the pop-culture consuming audience.

The sages were wrong. The Current (especially after program director Jim McGuinn took the reins, in January of 2009) has by all objective indications achieved staple status among the group it most covets. It has successfully branded large-scale events like “Rock the Garden,” become a “must stop” for touring musicians (at least those not playing arena shows) and enhanced the membership of its parent organization.

The ratings aren’t bad, either. The latest Nielsen numbers, for this past June, have the station performing at solid 5.4 share among listeners 18-49 years of age. The six-month rolling average puts them lower, at a 4.3 share, which is still healthy enough to rank in the middle-of-the-pack among all local competition.

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But The Current’s game is designed to attract and hold an audience commercial music stations never made a credible attempt to satisfy. Just as no news-talk station has ever seriously attempted to peel away the news service’s well-educated, upscale audience, no music station, certainly not since the mayfly-like lifespan of Rev105 almost 20 years ago, has ever made such a focused commitment to the tastes of hardcore, knowledgeable pop music enthusiasts.

Curious for McGuinn’s insight in to The Current’s success, and his sense of the market, I interviewed him in his office at MPR’s sleek and serene downtown St. Paul headquarters.

MinnPost: At the time of The Current’s launch, almost 10 years ago, I recall conversations that a pop music “service,” if you will, was part of a strategy for MPR to develop a feeder system for younger members. The theory being that young people who developed a loyalty to a station such as this would migrate to news and maybe even classical music over time. What has been the reality?

Jim McGuinn: I wasn’t here in 2005. But I think that is an accurate representation of the belief, a goal, when the station launched. But as we’re almost 10 years in, there’s a realization that there is overlap, but there is also an audience — we know from the Nielsen numbers — that only listens to The Current and only The Current. But if they’re members, they’re contributing to MPR, so it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t just have to be a feeder.

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I should also say that over the past year, all three stations are closer than they’ve ever been [to each other] in the ratings. But when you sign up, we do ask which service you use primarily, and I can safely say that The Current has pulled a significant chunk of new members. It was 90,000 for two services back when The Current launched, and now it’s 130,000 or 135,000, or almost exactly one-third more. Also, in terms of other metrics, underwriting has been increasingly nicely for The Current over the past few years.

MinnPost: Paint me a picture if you can of the average Current listener. Who are they? What else do you know about them, since I assume that kind of information helps you program for them?

McGuinn: I think there are some common values you can draw between The Current listeners and MPR news listeners and probably even classical. It tends to be people who are engaged and curious about the world. They may come at it from different perspectives. A 70 year-old classical listener and a 25 year-old Current listener may not share a lot of common experiences, but I think they both have a curiosity to look beyond the mainstream into other facets of culture and news or whatever. I personally see it as a growing lifestyle group: people who have a cultural curiosity to stay in the know.

They certainly aren’t all “hipsters.” At least they don’t look like hipsters. They’re not all down at First Avenue for every show. We do a lot of community events and they’re just middle-class people for the most part. But while I say that, I often tell people I think of the average Current listener as a perpetual 28 year-old. In terms of musical taste he’s forever at the moment where he would give anything a try.

As for programming to these people, I think we encounter listeners along a continuum. We have super knowledgeable, very hardcore music fans. But we don’t want to put up a wall that prevents others from joining in. One reason I think we’ve done better than our peers around the country is we might be better at inviting those other people in. You don’t have to know the name of all the members of Radiohead to listen The Current, but if you can you’ll probably like us just as well.

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We are trying to foster a culture of discovery. But the basic appeal though is still “surprise and delight,” which I read in some MPR literature somewhere. It’s the discovery of your next favorite band, which you’ve never heard before or, when you say, ‘Wow. I haven’t heard that song by The Clash, or Willie Nelson or Grandmaster Flash in forever and it was great.’

I believe the format works because one of things we hear fairly often is, ‘Even though you’re doing something I don’t like right now, I’ll stick around because I’m pretty sure I’ll like the next one.’ I don’t think a lot of other products get that.

MinnPost: And what do you know about your audience’s aversions? Or, put another way, what do you know about what your audience is turning to you to avoid? 

McGuinn: Having worked in commercial radio, for big and small companies, I kind of know how that beast is operated. It’s very much about amassing a large audience with the lowest common denominator content you can and exposing that audience to advertisers’ messages. Our listeners, I think, are avoiding the mass-market dumbed-down approach.

As for ad clutter, it’s a funny thing. Some formats do it well, usually when it’s built around a good morning drive host. It’s the Dave Ryan thing. Or Tom Barnard. Although in this context we’re talking something more music-oriented than him. It’s a combination of personality and localism that allows it to work. It’s about providing elements you can’t get from Pandora or SiriusXM.

MinnPost: I don’t know if it’s the polar opposite in cultural terms, but I get a lot of eye-rolling from “First Avenue types” at the mention of “radio country,” by which I don’t mean Hank Williams and Patsy Cline but the modern stars on the big country stations. How do you explain the still sizable audience for that style of music?

McGuinn:  There’s a lot of loyalty built into the country music system. You see much less hesitation from country artists to show up at say, some station’s mechanical bull riding promotion. Eddie Vedder won’t do that. But mainstream country artists will. Plus, country is still built on story songs. Along the way rock has largely separated out story telling of the kind that [Bruce] Springsteen and [John] Mellencamp used to do.

But also it’s important to remember how tough it is for kids way out in some suburb or actually in the country to relate to some Pitchfork act. They look nothing like them. There’s almost no frame of reference. But someone like Dierks Bentley they can look at and think, “He’s like me. He sings about stuff I’m familiar with.”

5 More Questions

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I find it interesting that here in town, BUZ’N country was put together to knock down K102, but what’s happened is the country pie has gotten bigger.

But yeah, the irony that while so many of the songs have this populist quality — driving your pickup, drinking beer, breaking up with your girlfriend — the country industry is this enormous corporate machine is sort of right there in your face. Country, today’s country, is the last bastion where corporate power has an influence. 

MinnPost: I’m always amused at the purity tests applied by ardent fans. It must make it tough to program when a group like, say, The Black Keys, hit it very big, leave their scruffy indie past for good and then get ripped for selling out. With that in mind, is there any act we’ll never hear on The Current?

McGuinn: (Laughs)Yeah, it is a problem. Every so often some act we played quite a bit explodes and overnight is on every playlist in town, in rotation 250 times a week. It was like that with Lorde. When something like that happens we have to ask ourselves, “Do we abandon this one? Do we just give it up?” Sam Smith is another one like that. Our audience may not need to hear that one anymore. 

As for what you’ll never hear: We play Dean Martin. Usually around Christmas. So I’d have to say Nickelback, unless it was in some highly ironic context, or on Mary Lucia’s ‘No Apologies’ segment. Heck, she’s played Britney Spears. But, you know, some of that stuff is really fun.