This week, I welcome Sloane Spencer to this column. Sloane does a different sort of radio. Her podcasts feature interviews with recording artists who tell their stories. She also seems to have pretty cool parents!
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio, and what other stations have you worked at?
Sloane Spencer: Well, my first experience on the air in radio was the venerable Z93 in Atlanta, during the Iranian hostage crisis. The later infamous -- fired live on-air! -- morning show of Ross & Wilson was collecting letters from schoolchildren to send to the Ayatollah, to request the release of the hostages. My school sent a bag of letters, which I helped deliver because I was obsessed with WKRP in Cincinnati TV show. At the time, Z93 was in the round C&S Bank tower and the visit hooked me on radio forever.
I used to tape the "Georgia Music Show" on Album 88 [WRAS, then a legendary college radio station] and the live performances on WREK [the Georgia Tech station] when I was in middle school. I spent my summers in North Carolina, where the Duke and UNC stations were part of a similar scene as the Atlanta college stations, so I knew that radio would be in my future, somehow.
My first radio host gig came about because I did NOT get hired at my college station, WDUB The Doobie, “High on the hill, low on the dial.” I defended Kevn Kinney of Drivin 'N' Cryin’s songwriting to the program director, who told me that he hated how they were Southern but punk. I told him that Scarred But Smarter changed my life. I’m still right about that assessment.
Since I did not get hired, I just sat in with friends who had shows, and would make their playlists for them.
[I took] a few years for pursuing other careers, and I ended up back at radio. When I moved to rural South Carolina, I struggled to find meaningful work that aligned with my experience, so I volunteered a lot. One of the charity events was the first radiothon for the local hospital, and they needed a volunteer to take calls and talk on the air for eight hours about why donations mattered. I volunteered in a minute.
The radio host was a former strip club owner and body builder, and an outspoken “character,” as we say. We got along great, and he jokingly said, “Well, if you show up at 6 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts, then we’ll have to hire you!” So, I did what any good radio person would do, and I showed up at 5:45 a.m. with Krispy Kreme and said, “Guess you gotta hire me, huh?” And he did.
I spent 16 years hosting a daily radio program in a variety of formats, from pop to oldies, then classic rock, and mostly doing a lifestyle show on a country station. For many years, it was our own version of WKRP, but a bit more diverse. I worked the night shift on the rock station for years, mostly hanging out with the hip-hop station hosts in the jock lounge. I cut a lot of their promos, since our radio audiences did not overlap much. We are still good friends. Throughout that time, we went from local ownership and programming, to corporate, and the fun of radio faded for me.
I joked one night in the jock lounge with the guys that I ought to start my own program, since my playlist skills were no longer used in corporate radio. They pushed back, and said, “Why don’t you do it?”
That’s how "Country Fried Rock" started: initially, it was a segment on the country and rock stations, then it morphed into its own program, airing late night on the weekend. Then several other stations started airing it, then I started an online streaming radio station. When we got too popular for me to afford the licensing, I switched to the podcast version and ended the streaming station.
Where do you work now and how do you describe your show?
I left my various radio jobs -- by 2015, I was voice tracking for four stations and two different radio companies, Monday through Friday -- almost a year ago to focus on Country Fried Rock full-time.
Each program follows the same format: a long-form interview with a songwriter, interspersed with three songs from their current album and the rest of the music from our conversation. I like to connect the dots among musicians, and also to share their less-obvious influences.
Country Fried Rock radio is distributed by PRX and Airplay Direct. The podcast does not contain music, only the interviews, and is on iTunes and SoundCloud, as well as most podcast outlets, like Google Play Music podcasts. I do 20 new programs per year, currently, and have over 400 archived. For a while, I was doing a new show every week, which was a brutal schedule.
I describe Country Fried Rock as “Fresh Air, but we only talk about music.” Country Fried Rock features long-form interviews with songwriters, delving into the music that formed them and currently inspires them. I listen carefully to what they say, and let the conversation flow naturally. I do not have a preset list of questions, but I spend hours researching each musician before I talk with them. We stay friendly and craft the conversation to ensure the person is not just sticking to talking points.
How do you define Americana music?
I never intended to be an Americana show, because when Country Fried Rock started, I was not familiar with the term. Floramay Holladay [Austin, Texas] actually told me about the Association and the genre. For me, with Country Fried Rock, my interest is emerging songwriters. I have a gifted ear for knowing who “has it,” often before anyone else has given them a chance. That’s my specialty.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I’m most excited about emerging music. I pay no attention to genre, but I have a definite sound that I enjoy. I drive approximately 55,000 miles per year, so most of my listening is while driving, which defintely influences the music I choose for the show. Most radio listening is still in cars, so that fits.
I never read about musicians before choosing them for feature on Country Fried Rock. I select them based on a gut instinct first listen, usually without even looking at the name on the CD. I only research the songwriters after we have arranged the interview. I like to know enough about them that we could have a fun conversation without ever mentioning music. I’m particularly interested in who they have been in bands with, producers, engineers, recording studios, and the sounds that tie people together in music.
Do you play many independent artists?
Almost all of our featured artists are independent or on a small indie label. Each program is crafted tightly, with three currents from their album, and hopefully selecting unexpected music for the rest of the program.
Early on, I was surprised that the newgrass folks often had a strong punk background, [but] now it makes sense. So, a Country Fried Rock show might range from jangle pop to bummer jams, to classic rock, and traditional country, all in one episode, tied together by the central figure.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
That’s a tough one. I’ve always been obsessed with knowing music before everybody else catches on to it, even in middle school. I’m “that girl,” although it’s always been “me and the guys.” I would have to credit R.E.M. and their random cover songs in bootleg live sets for much of my depth. I’d hang out at Wuxtry, Wax N Facts, or Fantasyland Records in Atlanta and learn everything I could about who wrote the originals, what those sounded like, who did those dudes work with, etc. Follow the rabbit hole wherever it leads -- I still do that.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
Pretty much everybody knows that the first five R.E.M. records, including Chronic Town, are the greatest collection of music influencing my life. Scarred But Smarter (Drivin 'N Cryin) clued me in to social issues in a way folk music had not. I dug into Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust thanks to Bauhaus. I found the Clash via my dad’s mechanic friend from London. My favorite song is “Just Be Thankful” by William de Vaughn. I love Archie Bell & the Drells, the Contours, the Drifters, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, Marvin Gaye, and the Fifth Dimension. I love the Allman Brothers.
Thankfully, my parents are fans of great rock and roll, and we listened to lots of the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Simon & Garfunkel, Lynyrd Skynyrd -- my parents were at the One from the Road recordings -- and lots of R&B, especially a particular subgenre we call “beach music” here in the Carolinas, which has nothing to do with surf rock. We went to a lot of concerts and music festivals when I was growing up, almost every other weekend. My parents’ first date in New York City was a Janis Joplin show at the Fillmore East!
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
I think the crossover success of many of the “major” bands has somewhat overwhelmed Triple A, in some markets. I’m still a fan of freeform college radio. I think it’s essential to college culture and music.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I’m excited about Sadler Vaden’s record. I love that he covered a John Moreland tune on it, yet it sounds like Vaden’s upbeat, jangle pop record. I dig Don Gallardo’s album Hickory, which I think is only out in the UK right now. Allen Thompson’s upcoming record, after he broke his back and survived, is amazing. I love Caleb Caudle’s latest record. I dig the trippy stuff, too, like the albums Adam Landry works on and this group out of Athens, Georgia, called Golden Eels. I like music that makes me groove when I drive. I dig the bummer jams, but I’m a fan of the air drums.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests, or anything else you wish to share?
I kayak, mountain bike, and run regularly. I’m slow and happy at the back of the pack. I’m obsessed with thrift shops, and have an eye for mid-century modern furniture and used record selections. I love architecture and traveling. I’ve traveled out of the country a bit, and currently have a life goal of visiting all the national parks in the USA.