Somewhere in between the mindless banter of sports talk radio, the bubblegum lyrics of top 40 hits, and the NPR driveway moments that leave tears on your seat belt, the boundaries of news and music begin to blur. Program directors are deserting their automated playlists and standard formats to join a radio revival that celebrates genuine music and a community spirit.
This grassroots concept is a far cry from the typical commercial stations that live on today’s radio dial. Artisan radio, with its personal stories and fresh sounds, is being piloted by loyal members of Oklahoma’s eclectic music scene. Its playlists might seem a little rough around the edges, but the content is carefully crafted.
Three years ago, Oklahoma State University’s National Public Radio affiliate, KOSU, switched its overnight classical music to an Adult Album Alternative format. KOSU’s leadership saw an opportunity to merge its bureaucratic structure with a wildcard when it partnered with The Spy, a long-time renegade of indie rock, folk, and local music that had spent years trying to find its groove.
“We’re focusing on music that doesn’t get a spotlight shown on it anywhere else,” says Program Director Ryan LaCroix.
The Spy’s overnight playlist features three to four Oklahoma artists an hour, one of the reasons listenership has climbed to more than 10,000 a week.
“You can hear these artists on any given night playing in a venue just down the street,” LaCroix says.
With three studio locations, KOSU’s Oklahoma City site is grounded in the historic Film Row district. It’s here that the station is most connected to its community, hosting live acoustic sessions in its intimate studio space and panel discussions at nearby pubs and restaurants.
“In a community the size of Oklahoma City, it’s great to have that kind of identity and be known as a community gathering place,” says Assistant Director Rachel Hubbard.
She began her radio career 18 years ago reading obituaries at a small station in southwest Oklahoma. She says KOSU’s shift to independent programming reminds her of those early days when she knew her listeners by name. “Stations grew bigger and tried to homogenize, but now we’re returning to that community realm.”
The Spy changes guard each morning with NPR programming, but KOSU’s objective is to weave both music and news discovery into a seamless community sound. The Spy’s influence has spilled over into KOSU’s colorful lineup of music and lifestyle programming that complements NPR content. Exclusive segments such as “Sample Size” and the “Oklahoma Music Minute” feature artist profiles, stories behind the lyrics, and local concert schedules. The publicity has elevated artists such as JD McPherson, Parker Millsap, John Fullbright, John Moreland, and Samantha Crain to NPR’s national network.
“We hope, in some small part, we’re helping them get that exposure,” LaCroix says. KOSU’s community theme resonates with another Oklahoma station not far down the interstate. RadioIDL broadcasts to an online audience from the sixth floor of the historic Reunion Center building in the heart of downtown Tulsa. Amid the Art Deco architecture and revered streets of an area known as the Inner Dispersal Loop, RadioIDL streams both classic and modern blues while promoting a daily lineup of downtown music.
“We are ambassadors for Tulsa. We truly speak to what is happening in the IDL,” says Shannon Moudy, RadioIDL co-owner and a digital radio pioneer. He joined forces with founder Harry Willis and marketing professional Liz Hollis in 2013 to build a station that showcased Tulsa to a worldwide audience.
“National and international artists are embracing RadioIDL’s digital format to promote their music through in-studio performances and interviews,” Moudy says. “They are looking for a chance to play in Tulsa because we’re playing their music.”
RadioIDL’s on-air personalities include a mix of musicians and music lovers who commandeer novelty shows with exclusive content.
Former Tulsa County District Judge Mark Barcus and his wife, Mary, also an attorney, stir long-form interviews with handpicked music in a show dubbed The Innerloopers. The couple’s comical and off-the-wall segments feature musicians, artists, Pulitzer Prize winners, and comedians of both local and national celebrity status. Microphone in hand, they drop in at downtown venues to capture the distinct sound of a live event with its raw energy.
“I believe the future of radio is content, interesting content,” Barcus says. “What a certain demographic of people are looking for is not what you hear all the time. We have free rein to play whatever we want, and it’s not mainstream.”
RadioIDL’s motto, “Music to get your work done. Information to get your play on,” reflects an evolving playlist that attracts listeners from cities such as Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles and countries as far away as Ukraine.
“We’re so many different levels of radio—all genres, all kinds of thought and ways to look at Tulsa,” Moudy says. “These events and moments in time are constantly changing, but the music never stops.”
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.