Thursday, January 14, 2010

One More Way to Discover New Music Today, and by Radio No Less!

We lived those nights, like we were dying...On the long haul drives, for our Amaria...With the ragged sails high, and the radio on
-"Angry Johnny and the Radio," The Gaslight Anthem

How do destined-to-be-favorite songs find their audience in the download era? Has the digital music revolution of the past decade made it easier to find music while simultaneously making it harder for music to find us? While discussing these questions with a fellow music dork a while back, we admitted that even though we both listened to a bunch of stuff last year, we also know we missed a bunch more as well. Technology has opened up so many new ways for artists to release music, but managing our iTunes and checking the music blogs still takes time and chains us to our computers. And who has that kind of time when you’ve got a full time job, and a dog or kid, piles of laundry and 8 trillion other obligations? Aye, there's the rub.

Remember the way we used to discover new music, by browsing and lollygagging in your local record store (who here hasn't experienced this), or always tuning in to that one rad radio station? These weren't necessarily better or worse than surfing and downloading, just more physically interactive. Sadly, as many retailers close their physical stores, with them goes the chance to stumble upon a newest favorite discovery because the cute clerk with the great taste played it one Saturday as your browsed the bins. And that one rad radio station has become really un-rad because it's now most likely part of a conglomerate that makes its 4 billion carbon copy stations play the same 12 awful songs every hour.

The good news is that one station has been able to stay rad and still plays the great songs destined to become your favorites: WEQX, 102.7, out of Manchester, VT.

WEQX, 102.7 is a feisty and defiant 25-year old station armed with real DJs and a Blues Brothers-esque mission from God to play new indie rock with a smattering of vintage stuff (and no, it's not a pirate or college station either). A typical WEQX playlist includes everything from A Place to Bury Strangers and Mutemath and Phoenix, to The Smiths, Beck, and The Cult. And as they provide the soundtrack for "sticking it to the man," they're also building solid fan-bases in that pocket of the country for bands that might never get exposure otherwise. Case in point: I flew to my hometown of Albany to catch The Airborne Toxic Event and its calvalcade of Silver Lake bands (Red Cortez, Henry Clay People and for this show, The Parson Red Heads) this fall. When I saw ATE here in DC the week before, I recall bass player Noah Harmon wondering if there'd even be anyone there as they really didn't know if anyone knew them in that area. Thanks in large part to WEQX airplay, and sponsoring the show to begin with, the packed crowd who attended and sang along to many of the songs answered Harmon's wondering with a resounding "Yes." The station did the same thing the next night with ATE's Silver Lake brethren, Silversun Pickups.

It's hard to fathom in this day and age that any radio station has been able to keep itself afloat and apart from the huge station conglomerates like Clear Channel, let alone one that plays all new alternative music, but WEQX has managed to do just that. And its owner, Brooks Brown, seems vigilantly determined to keep it that way. Times Union writer Tom Keyser in an article (below) about WEQX's 25th anniversary and Brown's resilience in November said about Brown, "The right buyer hasn't come along -- one that meets Brown's criteria of caring about radio as much as he does, He enjoys frustrating greedy corporations by not letting them have what they want." Amen, Mr. Brown, Amen.

Give a Listen: WEQX-Listen Live

WEQX: Doing it 25 years, his way

MANCHESTER, Vt. -- It starts with a phone call or certified letter from an independent agent, or a station broker or a company executive. And it's directed to Brooks Brown.

He's the tall, lanky, slow-talking Texan in wrinkled khakis with tools hanging on his belt. He might be on the floor rewiring a console. He might be atop the 180-foot tower fixing the antenna.

But sooner or later, Brown takes the call or opens the letter, because that's what you do when you own one of the last remaining independent, rock radio stations in the country, and corporations want to gobble you up. Then Brown, who founded and owns WEQX, 102.7 FM, just says no.

Sometimes he says it this way: "I wouldn't sell to you if you were the last (expletive) station on Earth, because I don't like what you do with the stations you buy."

But most of the time, he says, grinning, "It's not very complicated: How deep are your pockets? Send me your first born as a non-refundable down payment, and we'll go from there."

It's been 25 years to the day since WEQX started broadcasting from a converted Victorian in Manchester, Vt., playing rock music for listeners in the Capital Region and other parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The station signed on at 10:27 a.m. Nov. 14, 1984.

And for 25 years, Brooks has remained true to his vision of running an alternative radio station. He's rejected all offers from companies buying up independents and draining the life out of them. He's never changed formats, starting out playing modern rock, still playing modern rock and in recent years furnishing the bands for some of the Capital Region's best festivals.

"Brooks is like the old-time radio-station operator, where the same guy owned it for years and years. And he knew what it was all about," says Peter Rief, a radio aficionado from Malta who for years was WGY afternoon news anchor and now works on radio shows including the nationally syndicated Mike Gallagher Show. "He may be a little bit quirky. He may be a little bit odd. But you knew what he was about.

"Nowadays, radio stations change hands so fast that you don't know who's at the wheel. It's usually some banker somewhere in New York who doesn't really care. Brooks cares," Rief said.

WEQX is the only radio station serving the Capital Region that has not changed hands in the past 25 years, excluding college and religious stations, said Joe Reilly, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association.

"Brooks is unusual in that he has not succumbed to the temptation of the almighty dollar," Reilly says. "He's run the station his way, and he's made it work."

Brown, 62, scratches Fred, the station cat, who leaves trails of orange hair on a conference table. Moments ago, Fred was eating from his dish on the kitchen floor, and Brown's wife, Mimi, station general manager, was washing dishes in the sink.

In the second-floor studio, deejay Alexa Tobin is featuring music from 1995 as the station counts down the years, one each day, from the present back to 1984, as part of its "25 years in 25 days." Outside, paint peels from the old, three-story house, and the railing is broken leading to the porch where the sign hangs: 102.7 FM WEQX ROCKS.

Brown wears tools on his belt -- Leatherman multi-tool, Maglite flashlight, tape measure, Sharpies -- because he's always fixing something. The tools are so much a part of his personality that his wife has to remind him to take them off when they go to a formal affair. He's even tried to wear them through airport security, forgetting they're there.

"He literally built the facilities," says Willobee, operations manager and program director, who goes by only one name. "He was involved in actually physically erecting the tower atop Mount Equinox, building the transmitter room there and building the studio and offices here.

"I think he's a genius -- a mad scientist/genius. He's a true renaissance man. He still goes up the mountain and fixes the transmitter and climbs the tower to work on the antennae," Willobee said.

Why does Brown continue doing this? Those interviewed give these reasons:

WEQX is his baby. The station and employees are like family. Now and then Brown yells at "the kids" to clean the (expletive) bathrooms.

It's been his dream to run a radio station ever since elementary school in Houston, when his science teacher started an amateur-radio club in third grade. After moving to Manchester in the mid-1970s to work for a ski company, he tried to buy an ad on the local radio station for students to unload the moving van. There was no local station, and the ones nearby were "horrible." He declared: "I can do better than that."

He's a savvy businessman. He saw a need and a market niche.

The right buyer hasn't come along -- one that meets Brown's criteria of caring about radio as much as he does.

He enjoys frustrating greedy corporations by not letting them have what they want.

Or, it might be as simple as this:

"Maybe it's because I'm (expletive) nuts," says Brown, spelling the last two words, slowly, right to the "s" in "nuts," grinning the whole way through.

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