Relix magazine
Published in the May-June 2002 issue

Originally this story was going to be about ”The Dunhams” radio show on Z-93/Atlanta. However, the editors of Relix wanted it to be broader in scope so in its final form it was about six different shows. Best of all, I got to interview the great Dwight Douglas!
 
     
  Radio Rebels:
6 shows that bring jambands to the airwaves

By Art Howard

Inside the jamband concert its like a dream. Groin-grinding backup dancers, lip-synch tracks and MTV's “TRL” do not exist. The music is made and enjoyed without the benefit of focus groups and demographic research. The policy is if it sounds good, it is good, and it works. You look at the thousands of smiling faces around you and would think that the whole world was happily lost in this dream with you.

Then the show ends, you get in your car and turn on the radio, and reality assails your ears. On one station an alternative rocker rants that his daddy didn't pay enough attention to him. You turn the dial, and Steve Miller reminds you for the 1,000th time that some people call him Maurice - whoop-whoo! You are reminded that most of the world relies on mainstream radio to inform their musical tastes, and they're being fed sonic poop (which is a new band out of Detroit that's on the charts at number two with a bullet).

Why is it radio ignores a vibrant, thriving musical scene like jambands and focuses almost exclusively on now-formulaic alternative bands or the same old worn-out classic rock songs? Why is it that Widespread Panic can sell out two nights at Atlanta's Philips Arena, yet Atlanta radio stations never play their music? How can Phish draw 80,000 people to a swamp in Florida but they can't get a song on the radio?

“There are a lot of people working in radio programming who don't care about the music,” says Dwight Douglas. Douglas has been a radio programmer and consultant for over 30 years, and is the man who gave Howard Stern his first breaks in Detroit and Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of people who do their four hours on the air, maybe a couple of hours of prep and cut some commercials, and they're out the door.” Douglas says another problem is the way the songs are tested. “We get a bunch of people in a hotel ballroom and play them six to ten seconds of a song, get them to grade the song from one to 10, and then all this is sent into a computer and the computer spits out what's the lowest common denominator, and the strongest songs are played on the radio.”

Cyndee Maxwell is rock editor for Radio & Record, the leading radio industry trade magazine. Maxwell says, “One of the difficulties with jambands is, in my opinion, they are an experience. You listen to one song, and it doesn't have a quick hook that the average listener can grab hold of. A song without a solid hook will not test well in research. A song that doesn't test well will not get support from radio.” Maxwell also says that the fact that most jambands lack the backing of a major label is another obstacle, “Radio programmers are responsible for a very valuable commodity -- air time. They want to play songs that are, or will, become hit records. Then they often want promotional support, usually from the label, to back up that artist on their station.”

It has been charged by some that “promotional support” is a new term for payola, a system in which record companies pay stations $2,000 or more to add songs to their playlists, with middlemen independent promoters splitting the money with some program directors in a kickback scheme. For more on this topic read Frederic Dannen's book, The Hit Men, or Eric Boehlert's article for Salon.com, “Pay for Play.”

Whatever your local rock station's reason for not playing your favorite jambands, it is soothing to know that there are rebel DJs out there who are going outside the system to entertain current jam fans and educate new ones. This freeform freakzone exists mostly on non-commercial stations, or in the wee hours on commercial ones. In case you've missed them, here are six of these brave and bold broadcasters.

  Wildman Steve
99.9 WQNR / Auburn, AL
Monday - Friday 6 am - 10 am EST

Imagine your clock radio goes off and instead of an earful of alternative angst you hear a morning show that plays nothing but artists like moe., Ozric Tentacles and Blueground Undergrass. If you live in Auburn, Alabama it's a sweet reality. “Wildman” Steve Bronson has been doing his morning show on WQNR-FM for a little more than a year, and has met with amazing success. “I was given 60 days on an AM station to prove the idea would work, with the promise of a move to FM if it was well received. After one week the response was so overwhelming I was moved to FM and given the morning drive slot,” he recounts.

Wildman Steve first saw the Grateful Dead in 1973 at Watkins Glen, and was already a fan of jamming bands like the Allman Brothers and Mountain. A musician since the age of five, he left college in the early `70's to tour with a string of bands, for awhile sharing management with Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs. “In '87, disillusioned with the music industry, I decided to open a record store in Auburn. The Grateful Dead boom had just started with the release of ‘In the Dark’ and I went with it.” Bronson's store specialized in psychedelic bands and hosted in-store performances by moe. and other jam giants.

In 2000 he closed his store and approached Alabama's Tiger Communications about doing a show, “The idea for an eclectic mix of deep-catalog classic rock and new 'good' music was met with skepticism, but my reputation as a musician and record store owner earned me a shot.” Features like the “Frankie Time” Frank Zappa song of the day and “Twisted Two-fer Tuesday” have caught fire with listeners, and Bronson says station executives are talking about creating an all-jamband format, or syndicating his show to other stations. When not on the air Wildman Steve is often spotted onstage playing washboard with Merl Saunders, Vassar Clements, String Cheese Incident and others.

If you have a band and would like to get on the Wildman wagon, he invites you to send material to: Wildman Steve, WQNR-FM, 2514 S. College St. Suite 104, Auburn AL 36830. See his site at www.WildmanSteve.com.

James Mullins / “Stumble in the Dark”
88.1 KDHX / St. Louis, MO
Tuesdays 8 pm - 10 pm MST


Listeners to St. Louis' KDHX are happy to stumble upon James Mullins' “Stumble in the Dark.” As a student of television and radio at Virginia Western Community College Mullins had nurtured an interest in radio alongside an interest in The Grateful Dead. However, the realities of the radio business soured him on commercial deejaying, “I didn't like the way commercial radio was pre-packaged and laid out for the DJs. Basically, I didn't want a computer telling me what I had to play. I had no idea that stations like KDHX (a community station) existed until I moved to St. Louis and began volunteering there in 1996.”
 

Mullins began doing “Stumble in the Dark” truly in the dark from midnight to 3 a.m., and then was shifted to the daytime. Despite the move to daylight, he kept the name, “I couldn't come up with a name that I liked better, not to mention it was a personal joke to myself as I'm legally blind.” Originally the show featured more mainstream rock fare, but Mullins found the jamband scene through tape-trading friends who turned him onto acts like The Big Wu and Day By the River, and the show began to focus on these groups.

Mullins says the response from St. Louis has been incredible, “It's getting better and better all the time based on comments I get from listeners at shows and KDHX members that join during 'Stumble in the Dark' during our membership drives. Folks are glad to hear all this great music on the air and it does get people out to the shows. I have to admit, even after four-plus years on the air I still get a rush when someone calls and asks about a song I've played.”

Hear “Stumble in the Dark” at www.KDHX.org and visit Mullins at www.StumbleInTheDark.com.

  David Gans / “Dead to the World”
94.1 KPFA / Berkley, CA
Wednesdays 8 - 10pm PST


Before he began hosting the nationally syndicated “The Grateful Dead Hour” David Gans hosted “Dead to the World,” a local radio show he still does on KPFA/Berkley. Gans arrived at radio through his career as a music journalist. While writing for several California music magazines he struck up a friendship with one of his favorite bands, The Grateful Dead. He was asked to be a guest on “Dead to the World” and kept the host, who was not a Deadhead, supplied with tapes and info on the band. Eventually he was asked to take the show over full-time.

“Dead to the World” now features The Grateful Dead in the first hour, and a mix of various Americana and jambands in the second hour. “You'll hear a lot of Donna the Buffalo on 'Dead to the World,'“ Gans says. “That's my favorite band in the world. I'm trying to give them a presence on the West coast because they rarely ever get out here. I tend more towards the Americana stuff than the funky jamband stuff. The thing is on KPFA I don't have any format restrictions so I can play whatever I want.”

As well as hosting his two radio shows and producing albums Gans has launched a career as a singer-songwriter. Learn more about this Renaissance man at www.DGans.com.

Barry Smolin / “The Music Never Stops”
90.7 KPFK / Los Angeles, CA
Fridays 8 pm - 12 am PST


Who would have thought a punk rock bass player who once shared bills with X and Black Flag would become host of L.A.'s premiere jamband radio show? Barry Smolin would, because he did. As a teenager in Southern California Smolin hid his love of The Grateful Dead from his mohawked friends. Later he fully embraced his fascination with the Dead and became co-host of his favorite Dead-oriented radio show, “The Music Never Stops.” After the death of Jerry Garcia he took an interest in the new jambands who grew from the Dead vine and began slipping their tracks in-between Dead tunes. Some Deadheads complained, but the ratings for Smolin's show quickly tripled.
 

Smolin's trademark is his show-opening improvisational poetry, which he describes as, “…a germinating word salad really, calibrated to the mental condition of my listeners, the majority of whom are stoned off their asses. The show's slogan is 'Designed to lubricate your mind,' and I endeavor to perform that service as deeply and richly as possible.”

When not deejaying Smolin gets involved in the L.A. scene by introducing bands onstage. “My most outrageous intros have been at moe. shows; some of them have bordered on performance art.” Smolin achieved immortality on a tape of one moe. show when he forgot he was supposed to introduce the band while partying with the Ominous Seapods backstage. The band stopped “Mexico” in mid-song and bassist Rob Derhak said, “Where the hell is Barry? We're still waiting for our intro!” “I occasionally get e-mail from kids, usually in college dorms, who are just hearing that tape for the first time, lo these many years later,” Smolin says.

Hear “The Music Never Stops” on the Internet at www.kpfk.org.

  Dean Budnick & Jeff Waful / “Jam Nation”
104.1 WMRQ / Hartford, CT
Sundays 8 pm - 10 pm EST


There are several jamband radio shows, but only one co-hosted by the guy who coined the term. Dean Budnick, author of Jam Bands: a Guide to North America's Hottest Live Bands, founder of Jambands.com and columnist for Relix is now a radio host. Don Law, a concert promotion company in New England, originally approached him and accomplice Jeff Waful about doing the show. Law ultimately backed out but a program director in Hartford continued to be interested. The show has been on the air for a little over a year.

Waful says what sets the show apart is, “…the expertise of Dean Budnick. He wrote the book, literally. Every band we play on our show, Dean knows and has spoken with the band or their management in the past month. I'm kinda like the play-by-play guy and Dean is the color guy.” The show is a dream come true for Waful, who was gunning for a career in sports commentary before being seduced by the magic of the jam scene.

The show also features a regular segment called “The Warren Report” hosted by singer/guitarist Warren Haynes. Each week Haynes introduces a song from an artist who was an influence on his music. Budnick says, “It's a great mix of a significant figure's insight into his own music, and also other seminal figures that our listeners should know about. Every week when I hear his voice I'm psyched.”

Twice a month the show features live bands with sound mixed by Chris Russo, who has been a sound tech for Phish and the Lilith Fair tours.

“Jam Nation” will soon be on a station near you, if Budnick & Waful have their way. They are currently pursuing syndication.

Jeff & Maria Dunham / “The Dunhams”
92.9 WZGC / Atlanta, GA
Sundays 10 pm - ?


“My head entered a severely different zone, and that was before I even got into the concert,” Jeff Dunham says of his first Grateful Dead show in 1983. Fortunately for Atlanta radio listeners Dunham's head has never entirely left that zone. As host of “The Dunhams” he and his wife Maria have the privilege of preaching the jamband gospel from a CBS-owned, 100,000-watt commercial radio station. Dunham is the only jamband show host who has had a career as a professional DJ, and is music director for Z-93.
 

Bouncing around the East coast to a variety of rock stations, Dunham always found a way to work within the system to squeeze in more Grateful Dead, bringing “The Grateful Dead Hour” on the air in Portland, Maine and Atlanta, and hosting Grateful Dead parties and promotions. The Dunhams' parties in Atlanta turned into their own show, where bands like Leftover Salmon and Widespread Panic performed in the couple's living room. Complaints from neighbors resulted in the show being moved to a local club, Jake's Roadhouse, and now the show is one of the only live, weekly music shows in the United States, along with Garrison Keillor's “A Prairie Home Companion.” They also host a yearly festival, the Jerry Jam, which benefits one of Jerry Garcia's favorite charities, the Riverkeeper Foundation.

Dwight Douglas, former program director for Z-93, says, “Jeff Dunham's whole life revolves around the Dead and all the offspring of that band, so when Little Feat comes into town they're going to go to the Dunhams because they want to hang out with somebody who really cares about music. That's what I think is missing in a lot of radio.”

The Dunhams are also pursuing syndication. In the meantime, read about the Dunhams' latest doings at www.Z93.com.

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So is there hope for jamband radio to move from community stations and the wee hours to its own format? David Gans says, “So much of music is tied into big corporate record companies and synergies with movies and TV shows. Widespread Panic doesn't have a connection to a TV producer so they're not going to be heard at the end of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' or be on a movie soundtrack. Everything is so locked into synergies these days that it's hard for grassroots music to get anywhere.”

Radio & Records' Maxwell says, “I wish I could predict the future with regard to what the next hit genre will be, and when. I'd start my own label!”

What can you do? Don't just support local music, support your local jamband radio show.

Art Howard is America's Favorite Talk Show Host, except he doesn't have a show. He does have a Web site, however, at www.ArtHoward.com.

 
 

© 2002 Art Howard