The first song played on WEXT 97.7 FM wasn’t by a band most people have ever heard of, unless they live in the Capital Region and pay attention to local music.
It was “Ash Wednesday,” by the local alt-country band The Kamikaze Hearts.
“They exemplified this great mish-mash of sounds we’re trying to be,” said Chris Wienk, vice president of radio for WMHT Educational Telecommunications, the Troy-based, full-service public broadcaster that serves eastern New York and western Massachusetts.
WEXT 97.7 FM is something new to the Capital Region: a publicly supported radio station with a Triple-A — adult album alternative — format.
In one hour, a listener might hear Dire Straits and Luscious Jackson, new cuts from the upcoming Gnarls Barkley and Death Cab for Cutie albums, the reggae band Burning Spear, and the female vocal group The Roches, all played back to back. The station also serves as a launching pad for little-known emerging artists such as Yoav, from London, and Yeasayer, from Brooklyn. Only 10 or 15 other stations in the country are currently playing Dave Barnes, a singer-songwriter from Nashville.
But one of WEXT’s biggest projects is promoting the music in its own backyard. The station plays at least one song by a local musician or band each hour, mixed in with the bigger names and different genres. This means that local jazz musicians Lee Shaw and Brian Patneaude have gotten airplay, as well as Rensselaer County folk singer Christopher Shaw and adventurous rock bands such as Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned, Complicated Shirt and Knotworking.
“When someone like [Saratoga Springs jazz singer] Sarah Pedinotti puts out an album, we’re going to put it into our rotation as much as Counting Crows,” Wienk said.
“Our stance here is that if it sounds good, we’re going to play it,” said associate radio operations manager Dave Michaels.
Local musicians appreciate the attention.
The station has started bringing Capital Region musicians such as Ben Karis-Nix, whose ethereal song “Giants” has been played frequently on 97.7, to its studio to perform live on-air. (WEXT is based at the WMHT headquarters at the Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy, but the station’s signal comes from Amsterdam.) The station also tapped Matthew Loiacono, who plays bass and mandolin for The Kamikaze Hearts and is finishing up a solo album, “Kentucky,” to put together a 12-song compilation of Capital Region bands and musicians. Listeners who donate at least $60 to the station receive the CD, titled the Local 518.
“What’s so unique about WEXT is that they’re able to say, ‘This stuff fits our playlist,’ ” Loiacono said. “It fits in so seamlessly that it takes people a while to realize that it’s local.”
Alex Torres, of Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra, said the station’s genre-hopping is a good thing. Latin music doesn’t always get played outside of a niche market; when WEXT plays a song by Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra, it might encourage people who have never really heard Latin music before to go out and purchase one of his CDs, or music by another Latin artist.
“They may start downloading my music,” he said. “Then they might kick off their socks and start testing the water. You might get someone who heard us while driving up and down the Thruway and they’re a tourist and they don’t know Alex Torres. They might go, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ ”
“This is an era where people use their computers and iPods to listen to music,” said Torres, who lives in Amsterdam. “They’re veering away from the radio. [WEXT] is a good thing. It’s refreshing. It showcases the wonderful, awesome talent of the Capital District.”
People are listening
Loiacono, who runs Round Lake-based Collar City Records, a label for local bands, agreed.
“It seems like people are out there listening,” he said. “I’ve gotten lots of feedback. It’s definitely been very positive.”
Until last summer, WEXT was a classical music station, WBKK. WBKK began operations in 2006, and was geared toward a younger listener:
It featured shorter selections and more contemporary arrangements.
But the station siphoned listeners from the other classical station operated by WMHT, 89.1 FM, and WMHT began to consider a format change.
“We were looking at a lot of different things when we bought WBKK,” Wienk said. “We were not really 100 percent sure that staying classical would be the best thing for the community.”
From the beginning, he said, staff were considering adopting a Triple-A format, which Wienk described as “rock-based singer-songwriter.”
focus on local
But staff also wanted to do something that would make the station unique. This led them to focus on local music.
Wienk said he didn’t know all that much about the Capital Region’s local music scene before he began his research.
“When I started looking at the local music scene, it blew me away,” he said. “I discovered that there’s tons of music and nobody’s playing it. I knew there would be local music here, but I just didn’t realize how deep it would be.”
Adult album alternative stations are all a little different, and tend to reflect the communities where they’re based. The station in Philadelphia, WXPN 88.5 FM, has a Springsteen-style rock sound, while the station in Seattle, The Mountain 103.7 FM, “sounds like the Seattle music scene,” Wienk said.
WEXT, on the other hand, is “still in the process of learning what we’ll be as a station,” Wienk said. “We’re a little bit all over the map. We’re sort of feeling our way. We say, ‘Where in the marketplace is going to a real sweet spot for us to be in?’”
But the station is already having an impact: If it plays an album heavily, the artist experiences a bump in local sales. Yoav, whose music is an amalgam of electronica, pop and hip-hop, has sold several hundred albums in the Capital Region since 97.7 began playing his hook-laden “Club Thing.”
Torres said he’s run into people on the street who have reported hearing his music on WEXT. He said commercial radio insults listeners’ intelligence by playing only one genre of music.
“A lot of people think the majority of people like just one thing, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” he said. “I may like rock and roll, classical, jazz. There’s a lot of stuff I listen to.”
According to Arbitron, a media and marketing research firm that tracks radio ratings, WEXT is already attracting 5 percent of the listeners in the population it covers, Wienk said.
The station’s budget comes from listeners, who are asked to donate money to “support the music.” Wienk estimated that it takes two to four years to turn listeners into givers.
“Most listeners have never heard someone say they need their money,” Wienk said. “It’s an education. It’s about trust. They need to know you’re going to be there. It takes a couple of years to develop that trust.” WEXT does not air commercials.
“It’s a financial struggle,” Wienk said. “It will be for a while. … Every day is a battle, but it’s a good fight.”
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Categories: Schenectady County