More than 100 artists, from a variety of genres, generations and levels of success, came together this month to sign a "love letter" to public radio. Among them are members of Death Cab for Cutie, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Iron and Wine, the Roots and the Black Keys.
A lot of bands "fall between a couple cracks" in the radio spectrum, Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla explained. And that's why public radio is so important to these bands.
"Commercial radio has certainly made a dent in different kinds of things," Walla said, "I think most notably in ticket sales in different markets. But public radio has had a really consistent involvement." To celebrate the essential role that public radio plays in opening the radio waves to emerging artists and differing genres, April was deemed Public Radio Music Month.
The open letter, penned on behalf of 100-plus musicians, thanks public radio for "taking chances" and for "playing our music even when -- especially when -- it doesn't sound like everything else on the radio dial." It thanks DJs for asking intelligent questions and concludes, "Thank you for introducing us to some of the most important music in our lives, music that made us who we are. Thanks, public radio, for being who you are."
Several Pearl Jam members signed the letter, including guitarist Stone Gossard. "It's pretty much a no-brainer for us to say we're interested in showing our support publicly," Gossard said of the band's choice to support Public Radio Music Month. "There are such a variety of different entities out there that aren't typical commercial radio stations that are having an impact."
Both Gossard and Walla recalled memories of University of Washington's KCMU, the Seattle public radio station that was key in supporting the area's emerging rock scene in the '80s and early '90s.
"[KCMU successor KEXP] is probably one of the most influential music design organizations out there in terms of their impact in Seattle, but also their impact worldwide… And the model that they're working with… which is they're trusting their DJs to an enormous degree to create this blend that people are going to love… Their fans are supporting it," Gossard mused, discussing the station's transformation from college radio hub KCMU to the current KEXP in 2001. He also cites the station's ongoing support of Pearl Jam and his other long-running band Brad, which released a new album, "United We Stand," this week.
He continued: "And that's a huge key, that you can create something with it's own fingerprint that people will feel a real emotional connection with that they will support it without a typical selling detergent model sort of rock radio. That's exciting. That's pretty cool."
Although not as involved in the '90s Seattle music scene as the the Pearl Jam guitarist, Death Cab's Walla reminisced about joining his first public radio station, KCMU, in Seattle at the age of 16. "I saved up my lawn mowing money in a shoebox to get the Swervedriver CD that was the premium for that pledge drive. It's just been a huge part of my life for the last twenty years. When Public Radio Music Month came about it just felt really natural to become involved in whatever way made sense."
Just because public radio isn't necessarily playing the top songs of the moment, doesn't mean it has no impact on the music industry. Unlike commercial radio, "public radio seems to be committed to a fresh playlist," Walla said. Because the public radio stations aren't just recycling hits, he explained, they have a strong culture of discovery and support.
The organizers behind Public Radio Music Month will continue to chronicle "a life in the month of public radio" through April at publicradiomusicmonth.org.