Welcome to a brand new No Depression column looking at Americana radio and the people behind the microphones who pick the music we hear. I’ve been in and around radio for many years and have met a lot of DJs and radio hosts at music conferences and festivals. I thought it’d be interesting to get some background and insights on these mostly unseen people. My hope is to highlight commercial, public, and internet DJs and also the many specialty show hosts around the world. Your suggestions and input for questions and interview subjects are greatly appreciated. We’re starting with one of my favorite friends and radio people, Martin Anderson from WNCW, a non-commercial public radio station licensed to Isothermal Community College in Spindale, North Carolina. —Bill Frater
Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were the stations like?
I started in my freshman year at the University of Delaware's WXDR (now WVUD) in 1989. A dorm-mate and I were interested in getting involved with the weekday morning folk show "Roots"; we ended up mostly being overnight college-rock/eclectic hosts there until getting the morning "Java Time" music show. College radio in the '80s and '90s was such a critical, fertile training ground for "fringe" genres, opinions, lifestyles, etc. And how else could you learn radio? When I wasn't studying, partying, or trying to woo women or save the world, I was poring over CDs and LPs in the station's basement library, jotting down notes in my little notebook, and making tapes of segues, sets, and talk-breaks with the audience (sometimes an audience of one). Staying up until/waking up at 3 a.m. was always worth it. After college I moved to Eugene, Oregon, and began volunteering for noncommercial stations KLCC and KRVM. I mostly helped with the folk/acoustic programs, but once in a while I hosted the Tropical (World) Beat show, the Grateful Dead show, even the women's music show. I eventually became a part-time staffer for the Triple-A/eclectic blend of KLCC's "Fresh Tracks" weekday format, which really gave me the inspiration and the tools to pursue a career in it. I also started a "Miles of Bluegrass" show in 1997 at KRVM that got a great following and is still around today. I moved to Arcata, California, to work at Humboldt State's KHSU in 2000 as their underwriting sales rep, but also started an Americana/roots show called "CrossRoots" and hosted a public affairs show (interviewing Wavy Gravy was one highlight).
Where do you work now?
WNCW covers Western North Carolina, including Asheville and Charlotte, plus Upstate South Carolina and East Tennessee (including Bristol and the outskirts of Knoxville). We feature Americana and Triple-A rock predominantly, but we also have strong bluegrass-based programs, college/indie-rock overnight, and a variety of other genres that have both their own shows and a place in the weekday music mix, which I host from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. I've hosted it since 2001 when I started here, and I am also the music director.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
So our weekday format is roughly a third or half Americana, a third Triple-A, and a third "other," e.g. blues, jazz, bluegrass, old-time, world, etc. Being the morning host, and based on my background, I skew a little more toward the acoustic singer/songwriter/roots music side. I've been doing it for 14 years now, and I still kinda pinch myself because I really am living my dream. I mean, I'm doing pretty much exactly what I aspired to do back in the '90s when I was volunteering for this and that kind of show, making my living working cash registers and phone sales. My ultimate dream was to program this kind of Americana/roots music for BBC in Scotland or RTE in Ireland, but I made it halfway there before putting roots down here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I consider Americana music to be anything that has a direct connection to the country music roots of the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, the folk tradition started by Woody Guthrie, or the blues tradition of Robert Johnson and the like. It might be a full-strength rock band, it might be some progressive variation of Appalachian mountain music, it might be from Australia or England or elsewhere, but if it evokes one of these icons of music history, it's Americana to me.
How do you prepare for your shows? What thoughts go into preparing your sets? Do you have theme shows or spotlight certain artists?
Being the music director, I preview and find placement for most of the new releases of the ten-plus genres we play. So I come to my show each morning with what feels like a fairly good grasp of both the new and the older albums we have, and enjoy letting each airshift of mine create itself rather organically and with a lot of spontaneity. I feature artists on their birthdays, and I feature Doc Watson in a set every Monday ("Ten O'Clock Doc"). We all tend to let assorted holidays and other events influence our sets, too. And we have live artist interviews pretty regularly.
How many new releases do you play? Do you play much old stuff? Do you play many independent artists?
About a third of what we play is new; roughly half is from the past year or so. We all go back to stuff from the '70s, '60s, '50s, etc. too, though. To us, it makes no difference what label an artist is on, or if they're a total DIY independent artist. Of course, we end up being partial to the icons and stars that tend to score big with the major labels, but if it's someone who made a decent recording in their bedroom and mailed it out of their living room, especially if they live in our area, and their music stands out, we'll play it. What matters to us is, Is it good? Does it fit our format?
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
That's a tough question for me. I was mostly into Top 40 and classic rock as a kid in the '80s, but as I got heavily into the Grateful Dead, their American Beauty and Workingman's Dead albums must have sparked something that stuck with me. I also remember making a tape of WAMU's bluegrass and folk music back then. When I was in 12th grade, my grandmother mailed me Michelle Shocked's Short Sharp Shocked LP, because she and Michelle's grandmother were lifelong friends. That may have been the first one I got into (besides the Dead) that I hadn't heard on the radio. Plus it resonated with my growing interest in civil rights and protesting, and the '60s folk movement soundtrack that went with that.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre, and what artists define Americana music for you ?
My five favorite artists are probably the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Marley, and Tim O'Brien ... but that doesn't really reflect my passion for Americana, Celtic, and old-time music, aside from Tim. In thinking about my next favorites, a lot of the artists I consider to be the best at defining Americana music show up: Bob Dylan, John Prine, Neil Young, Doc Watson, John Hartford. Nina Simone's gotta fit in there somewhere, too. And early Fairport Convention...
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
It is on the rise. "Terrestrial" radio may still be threatened by various factors like satellite radio, internet music access, and the incessant dumbing-down of music taste by commercial Top 40 et al., but it still has a vital place in its ability to represent local communities and provide an alternative to the above, and Americana music is becoming more and more popular as it slowly figures out its identity and finds its niche. And more and more people are getting interested in the messages, the roots music influences, and the other traits that make what Americana artists create real music. Of course, if people stop supporting these terrestrial stations, we'll lose these stations that have been more likely to embrace Americana, and many stations' supporters skew towards an older demographic. But those stations that continue to offer engaging programming are likely to keep on truckin'.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
There's this new guy named Aaron Lee Tasjan with a new independent album called In the Blazes. He's got great songs about Lucinda Williams, East Nashville, the American working class, and, of course, drinking. Anyone into modern Americana songwriters needs to track him down. Phil Cook, of the North Carolina band Megafaun, put out a great solo one this year, as did Josh Ritter, who is I guess on the outskirts of Americana. And there's a honky-tonk-flavored band out of Asheville called the Honeycutters that have a great sound, too; Amanda Platt writes songs on par with Lucinda, Isbell, Lauderdale, Hank Sr. In my opinion, anyway.