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Too big for the airwaves?: Bryan Thomas performs at the “Exit Dome.”

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Broadcast Live

WEXT radio-station head Chris Wienk saw an empty niche in the local music landscape and set out to fill it

By Kirsten Ferguson

Backstage at the “Exit Dome,” a tongue-in-cheek name given to the WMHT studios in Troy for the night of a “Local 518” benefit concert back in January, local musicians linger in the gleaming hallways of the public-broadcast station, waiting to record on-air interviews with Chris Wienk, the creative force behind WMHT’s fledging radio station 97.7 WEXT. Michael Eck of the Ramblin Jug Stompers passes through, and members of the Troy rock band Super 400 greet old friends in the hall, talking excitedly about their recent recording session at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn.

A few labyrinth-like corridors away, on the stage of the benefit concert—which is broadcasting live over the WEXT airwaves—Albany songwriter Bryan Thomas vocalizes his witty ruminations about the local scene (“You think you’re too big for Schenectady”), and local singer Sarah Pedinotti and her band Railbird electrify the crowd with a vigorous rendition of Arlo Guthrie’s “Motorcycle Song.”

Talking on the air during a between-set interview segment with local duo 28N, Wienk sounds downright effusive about the night’s wealth of local music talent: Artists from Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned to Matthew Loiacono donated their performances to support the commercial-free radio station, which plugs and regularly plays music from the “local 518” scene. “[When we started the radio station] I was floored by the fact that there wasn’t another station willing to play this music in the daylight hours,” Wienk tells 28N on the air.

A few weeks later, in the same recording studio at WMHT headquarters, Wienk explains how the listener-supported radio station came to have such a close involvement with the local music scene. “The main thing I said when we first started out is we need to make a pledge to the listeners that we will show them and play the people who make music here,” he says. “We play at least one local artist every hour. If the music sucked here, would we do that? Probably not. But it’s really, really good. If we didn’t play the local stuff, it’d be like why are we really here—what’s the point?”

WEXT 97.7 FM in its current format came to be in 2007, after WMHT Public Broadcasting purchased a struggling local classical-music station that competed with its own classical radio station, WMHT-FM 89.1. “The people who were running it were going bankrupt. We were thinking it might be good to own our competitor,” says Wienk, WMHT’s vice president of radio. WMHT took ownership of the station in January of 2006 and maintained its classical format for a year, until the station’s success started to erode the listenership of its classical flagship, WMHT-FM.

“We talked about what we would do with this station. We talked about this relatively new format in radio,” Wienk says of “Triple A,” which stands for “adult album alternative.” As painful as that name sounds, commercial and noncommercial stations in the Triple A format—which has roots in the progressive radio of the 1960s—tend to be more adventurous and offbeat than their classic-rock or Top 40 counterparts, playing deeper album cuts and showcasing lesser-known indie bands.

“We decided the market could really use a station like this,” Wienk says. “We made the switch in July of 2007. [Morning-show host and technical operations director] Dave Michaels and I turned the station around in about 60 days.” On any given day, WEXT’s set list revisits songs from canonical rock bands of the past five decades, from the Who to Siouxsie and the Banshees, playing them alongside a steady stream of local artists and many of the hip, new indie-rock bands who previously saw airplay only on college radio stations: bands like Black Kids, Peter, Bjorn & John, the Decemberists, and Yeasayer.

“Dave and I created WEXT so we wouldn’t have to find out about music through the next commercial,” Wienk says, talking about how some of the best new artists are more likely to gain exposure through, say, an iPod or car commercial on television than they are from modern rock radio. “Gone are the days when your song’s in a commercial and you’re a sellout. That’s how a lot of people are hearing music these days, because there aren’t radio stations like EXT.

“I think that’s one of the reasons the music industry is hurting so bad,” he says. “[Commercial radio stations] have a very fixed space of music they’ll play. Younger people are not turning to radio for music anymore. So they’re turning to blogs, the Internet, places where you can download the music for free and it no longer has the monetary value. It’s a vicious cycle, I think. The tightening of music formats on radio stations was an initial contributor to why the music industry is in the state it’s in.

“We play a lot of songs that other stations don’t play. We’re always looking around on blogs for new music,” he adds. “We hear from listeners when they’ve found stuff. We love that. It’s a lot of fun to see listeners discovering new music. Take a band like the Hold Steady or the Felice Brothers [from the Catskills]. They’ve gotten fairly huge but more and more people are still finding out about them. Right from the outset, we were playing [local] artists like Sarah Pedinotti and the Kamikaze Hearts, who have been around for some time, but we’re still getting calls from people who are just finding out that there are these amazing artists right in their own backyard. These artists are too good to not be heard.”

Matthew Loiacono, a local musician and founder of the Round Lake-based Collar City Records label, first heard about WEXT when Wienk contacted him prior to the station’s launch to let him know that the station planned to debut with a song by Loiacono’s band: “Ash Wednesday” by the Kamikaze Hearts. “We were flattered and surprised,” Loiacono says. “The station kind of came out of nowhere and has been on my mind ever since. I guess there was a hole where WEXT once was because now I can’t imagine doing without.”

On the air: (l-r, foreground) Mike Guzzo of CRUMBS and Dave Michaels of WEXT, with (l-r, background) Michael Eck and Greg Haymes of Ramblin Jug Stompers.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

After the station launch, Loiacono helped Wienk put together a “Local 518” compilation CD of regional tracks as a premium for a station pledge-drive, and had a hand in organizing WEXT’s January benefit concert. “The radio play is a necessary ‘prong’ in a promotional campaign, where folks who read about an album in Metroland or the Times Union, etc. can actually hear it somewhere other than the Internet,” Loiacono says. “It’s an important puzzle piece that was missing for a long time in the area.

“Over the last year or so, I’ve witnessed the potential power of WEXT as some of the songs from my album, Kentucky, were put into regular rotation. The staff DJs are very well-versed and studied on all things local music, so they are quick to point out upcoming shows and happenings during their shows on-air. The station’s promise to include at least one Capital Region-born song per hour in regular rotation is priceless. There are few stations in the country that are doing something so bold.”

“Bands feel that we really care, and we do,” Wienk says. “There are so many great bands here. It’s a shame if they don’t get more exposure. It’s a whole new era now. Bands don’t have to be on a major label to get their stuff out there. The hope is that we can one day do for this region what some of these other [Triple A] stations, like in the one in Louisville [Kentucky], have done for their artists,” by breaking them on the national scene.

The approach seems to be taking off, with the station gaining listeners throughout the Capital Region, and listeners from around the country who listen to the radio station online. (WEXT’s Amsterdam-based transmitter reaches much of the Capital Region, with a few exceptions; for those out of reach, Wienk recommends WiFi radio).

“The kind of feedback we’re getting anecdotally has been great,” Wienk says. “Each of our pledge drives has gone way up over the last one. The audience keeps growing. It takes a while. You have to build trust. We’re the first line of exposure for some of these artists. It’s not a fast road. The hard part for us is the amount of time it takes. . . . We get 250 CDs a week crossing our desks.

“We want to be the best radio station anyone has ever heard. Will we be? Probably not. But we keep trying. The listeners can tell us. That’s part of what’s so fun about doing the station. We’re hoping that listeners in a push-button world will understand, ‘I may not be really into this song, but I bet I’ll like the next one.’”

Local artists can find information about how to submit their releases to WEXT via the station’s Web site at exit977.org.


ROUGH MIX

SPRING FORWARD March 20 is the first day of spring. What better time to celebrate a new album? That’s what the guys and girl of Lynch were likely thinking when they scheduled their CD-release party at Tess’ Lark Tavern. While the band have been kicking around the regional music scene for a few years, with roots in the waning days of jam-scene favorites Conehead Buddha (vocalists Terrence and Shannon Lynch both played horns in that band for a time), At the End of My Rope is the group’s first full-length CD. Anchored by the rhythm section of Colin Almquist (Voodelic) and Jim Loughin (moe.), the band mash up hip-hop, rock, jam, and Latin music, with Terrence Lynch’s rap-spoken lyrics at the front of the mix. The disc was produced by Buddha frontman Chris Fisher at his Easter Island Productions studio, and it sounds like a recipe for a great live show; find out for yourself next Friday at the Lark. For more on Lynch, visit lynchband.com.

IN BLOOM Also celebrating new beginnings this spring are longtime scenemaker Ralph Renna and his brand new band with former members of Conflict of Interest and Execution Style, Black John Wayne. Fans of Renna’s other band, Last Call, won’t be disappointed by the direction taken here: BJW stay true to the Troycore sound. But a listen to the band’s four-song demo offering (currently available for download at myspace.com/blackjohnwayneny) yields some surprises, like the acoustic “Hurricane,” on which Renna’s guttural bark is softened to a bluesy croon. Who woulda thunk it? Brett Portzer is currently recording the band at North Sea Production, and their debut disc, Serenade of the Black and Blues, is expected this fall. In the meantime, BJW will make their live debut on April 29 at Savannah’s.

YOU, TOO Music lovers and aspiring performers can have their shot at getting a gig at Revolution Hall this month, thanks to the band Sirsy. The constantly touring duo have announced a contest to coincide with their next hometown gig. Record a video of yourself performing a Sirsy song—you can either play along to a recorded track or develop your own rendition—and upload it to YouTube. The band will screen all entries and announce a winner on March 23 via their Web site. The winner will join the band onstage at their Revolution Hall show on March 28. Further details are available at sirsy.com.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1@yahoo.com or metroland@ metroland.net.



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