On The Road With NPR Music: John Vettese At WXPN, Philadelphia

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling; largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Name: John Vettese

Member station: WXPN, Philadelphia

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Philly Local Show co-host on WXPN; editor, writer, photographer at The Key

1. When people think of music in your city, what do they think of?

A lot of things; different things. Some people think of the Rocky theme, or that Elton John song; ’70s Philly Soul is a big association people have with us, of course – and a good one to have. As far as artists active in present day, it’s not so easy to pin down. The most successful musicians that have emerged from Philly in the past few decades range from hip-hop (The Roots, Meek Mill) to psych-rooted, classic-rock-informed bands (Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs) to wild art-rock (Man Man, Kurt Vile) and singer-songwriters (Amos Lee, Melody Gardot), which, for me, covering the scene, is great – it keeps it fresh and exciting, and doesn’t make Philly music so easily reduced to a “sound.” You know, grunge/Seattle, garage/Detroit, psych/SanFran, punk/DC etc. Philly has all of those things; there’s no one single thing it makes people think of, musically – which I guess is the one common refrain you’ll hear.

2. How do you help curate that musical scene?

I stay open-minded. And I try to showcase a little bit of everything. For about three years now, I’ve produced a weekly series of in-studio recording sessions with Philly musicians – it airs on WXPN on Tuesday evenings and is released as downloadable audio on The Key on Wednesday mornings – and I make sure the artists I bring in for The Key Studio Sessions are, for the most part, representative of that range. This makes for some interesting and unusual week-to-week match-ups. In January / February, for instance, we had a traditional folk trio (The Stray Birds) one week, a rockin’ alt-country five-piece (The Naked Sun) the next, an aggro thrash band (Pissed Jeans) the next. We’ve had metal, hip-hop, experimental, electronic, blues … I’m recording my first Brazilian music band later this spring. I do often wonder, for instance, what the audience that tuned in (or went to the blog) for the emo-punk group the one week might think of the ethereal singer-songwriter the following week. But looking at the bigger picture, I feel like if it didn’t have that kind of range, it wouldn’t really be showcasing Philly.

3. How has that scene evolved over the last few decades?

Kind of like the music scene nationwide, it’s become a lot more self-reliant. Getting a label deal isn’t something bands are realistically expecting. They hope for it, sure, and many take the opportunity when it arises – The War on Drugs are on Secretly Canadian, DRGN King is on Bar/None, etc. But I’ve also heard stories of musicians turning down label deals because they are fine doing it on their own and don’t want to trade that freedom for restrictions or demands from an outside party (in exchange for better exposure, hypothetically anyway). Musicians are really learning to do things themselves – book shows, handle publicity, fund recording projects and put more care and artistry into their self-released products. When I started covering the scene in the late ’90s, self-releases were treated like demos – tossed-off, hastily recorded, quick and cheap things to get an artist’s songs out there, figuring that they’d rerecord them for real once they get signed. And while an EP released to Bandcamp is still, pretty much, a demo, I’m noticing they sound a lot more like finish products than any CD I received ten years ago. (When they go the extra step and press it to vinyl, even better.)

Other changes – the studio scene in Philly has boomed, and rather than a room or two monopolizing everybody’s recordings, there are now between a half-dozen to a dozen major players (in addition to the do-it-yourselfer basement studio types). I like this for a couple reasons – competition is good for business, of course, and it also gives more variety to the recordings that are making it out there, rather than one producer’s sound dominating all corners of the scene.

Live music venues in the city ebb and flow, as they are wont to do, but there’s more of a sense of stability than there was when I began covering Philly music. Johnny Brenda’s and World Cafe Live have been around for a solid six years; new small to midlevel rooms like MilkBoy, Underground Arts and Union Transfer are doing well for themselves; even our 3500-cap room The Electric Factory is pressing on amid somewhat tricky times and a bizarre split with promoter Live Nation that’s probably too inside-baseball to get into here. Suffice it to say, we’ve thrived as a live music scene, against (some) odds.

4. What would you say is the most unique thing about your music scene?

The variety that I mentioned before, which I guess might not be THAT unique – every city has a hiphop scene, a punk scene, a folk scene, etc. But what is unique is the way Philly’s variety is so embraced by the scene players and the scene supporters, and even leads to cross-pollination and collaboration. For instance – there’s an Americana band called The Lawsuits that’s been making a modest amount of local buzz for a year or two now, and they were on a bill last summer with a rap three-piece called Ground Up. Now, to qualify what I’m about to describe – this isn’t a scenario where the former is some sort of funk-based jam band and the latter is some hippie backpacker rap crew, so they were kind of close in sound and style to begin with. The ‘Suits are a very Dylan-esque group, very songwriting-oriented and very much on the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Ground Up, which is uncompromising, hard-hitting, rap-for-rap-fans. But at this show, facilitated somewhat by two managers who grew up together, the band played an opening set, and then stayed onstage to act as the house band for the rap crew. It was great, went over huge with the crowd, and led even further to some studio collaboration that’s so far only yielded a few YouTube videos, but a lot of folks – myself included – are stoked to hear the results.

5. What are three new up and coming bands on your local scene right now and what makes them distinct?

These are all “new” as in within the past five or so years. All unsigned, with strong local fan bases and making outroads across the U.S. and elsewhere.

Hop Along – Punk-informed, introspective and arty rock trio centered by Frances Quinlan’s songwriting. She’s got a unique, powerful voice – one local critic described it really well by saying her singing isn’t classically “lovely” but is gritty, passionate and carries a tremendous range of emotion – and the band’s songs are very expressive, explosive, structurally unconventional and way exciting. They released their latest LP “Get Disowned” last year, toured the U.S. in support of it, and are embarking on their first European tour this spring. Listen to Hop Along’s “Tibetan Pop Stars.”

Cheers Elephant – Zany, playful psychedelic pop/rock foursome with three solid albums, a great track record as performers and the smarts to realize that getting out there and hitting the road is the way to grow your band. They’ve mounted several successful national tours and back home, their past two album release shows have sold out the 800-cap World Café Live. Their latest LP is called “Like Wind Blows Fire,” and it came out last year. Listen to Cheers Elephant’s “Leaves.”

Chill Moody – Somewhat of a minor local celebrity thanks to his masterful knack at working the social media world, Chill Moody has dropped about three mixtapes a year since 2009 and is a true showman, the type who kicks his show off by walking from the lobby, through the crowd, then up onstage. His style is very throwback and easygoing, recalling A Tribe Called Quest and Pharcyde, but he knows how to be hard-hitting without being overly macho. His first commercial album, “RFM,” was released on iTunes this winter. Listen to Chill Moody’s “Cotton.”

6. For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

Aside from the above, here are six tracks that were performed live for The Key Studio Sessions, my aforementioned sessions series.

Gymnopiede 1.2″ – Lush Life

“Bathroom Laughter” – Pissed Jeans

Sugar Sand Stitched Lip” – Heyward Howkins

Saint, Don’t You Lie” – New Sweden

End it On This” – Ethel Cee

Winter Misser” – Bad Braids

[Photo Credit: George Miller III]

Follow our Exclusive NPR Music series during all of April.

Shortwave radio memories: BBC World Service turns 80

On this day in 1932, the BBC World Service started shortwave radio broadcasts.

It was a different world back then. Television was an experimental curiosity, satellites and the Internet were unknown, and so the only way to get news around the world instantly was via shortwave radio. Shortwave radio waves bounce off the ionosphere in our upper atmosphere to return to Earth hundreds or even thousands of miles away. While FM only transmits to spots within the line of sight of the transmitter, a shortwave broadcast can easily cross the Atlantic.

This was especially useful for the BBC, which transmitted news to the far-flung corners of the British Empire. They soon became the leaders of the shortwave radio scene and their broadcasts continue to be of the highest quality.

For most of us these days, shortwave radio is a quaint product of a different age, a bit like the aerogramme. There was a time, though, when shortwave was king, and it’s still vitally important to people in remote and developing regions, and to adventure travelers. This article on BBC interviews four people who still use shortwave to listen to BBC.

I used to love shortwave radio. As a bored child of the Eighties living in the middle of nowhere, it gave me a window on the world. With my clunky old radio I could listen to broadcasts from just about anywhere. Most of the national radio services had broadcasts in English, so I tuned in to news and programs from my favorite stations: Radio Damascus, Deutsche Welle (Germany), Radio Beijing, Radio Moscow (the Soviet Union), Radio Quito (Ecuador) and of course the BBC.

The BBC was my favorite. While not as exotic as Radio Pyongyang or the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service, the signal was always strong and they had programming on an endless number of topics.

Shortwave radio also gave me an insight into the world that the TV networks couldn’t, or wouldn’t. When the Iran-Iraq War was raging, I listened to both Radio Baghdad and Radio Tehran. It was like they were talking about different wars. Each side claimed crushing victories, often on the same day, and both upheld their cause as just. Comparing the Voice of America and Radio Moscow, I realized it wasn’t just nasty Third World dictatorships that played that game.
There were also the challenges of hunting rare and unusual stations–the pirate stations, or offshore protest stations like The Voice of Peace, and low-power stations from small countries. One I could never track down was Radio Nepal. I still remember the frequency, 5005 khz. No matter what the time of day or night and no matter how favorable the conditions, I could never pick up its signal in North America.

It was fitting, then, that when I first visited Nepal in 1994, I was greeted at the border by a Nepali soldier with his ear glued to a small handheld shortwave set.

“Nixon?” he asked.

“Um, yes,” I replied, not quite knowing what he meant.

“Dead,” he said.

Through the Nepali chatter on his radio I recognized the former president’s name.

“Oh,” I said.

He held out his hand.

“Passport, please.”

In my backpack I was carrying a shortwave set. I hadn’t turned it on that day or I would have known about Nixon. I did use it regularly, though, all that wonderful year as I journeyed overland across Asia visiting some of the countries whose radio stations I’d been listening to since I was a kid. I discovered a lot of strange local stations, but time and again I’d go back to my old favorite, the BBC World Service.

I don’t use shortwave much these days, only when I’m working in remote areas like Ethiopia. Even there satellite television is beginning to take over. For me, like most people in the West, shortwave radio has been displaced by the Internet. That’s not a bad thing, I guess. Still, it’s nice to know you can pick up a radio and hear the other side of the world. I think I’ll tune in today.

The Greatest Road Trip Radio Show in History

The best radio station I’ve listened to on this road trip is Road Dog Trucking on SiriusXM. It’s a channel dedicated to truckers, with an ample time for call-ins and opinion-and a plethora of regional dialects, a selective sample that seems to indicate that most of the truckers in this country are white men from the south. It’s endlessly fascinating, this window onto an oft-overlooked subculture, and the pinnacle of the station is a show hosted by Dale Sommers, who goes by the name Truckin’ Bozo.

I don’t recall how I found the Bozo’s show, but at number 106 on the dial, it was likely through some desperate channel surfing. He was talking about, well, something and taking calls from truckers. They almost always go by their handles, names like Seatcover Chaser and Grizzly Bear and Kemosabe and Elvis. (Listing the handles heard on the show is a staple of writing stories about the Bozo.)

Working at WLW in Cincinnati in the ’80s, he developed an overnight country music show that caught on by truck stop word of mouth. Jerry Springer called him “a lone but powerful voice crying in the night” in 1991, introducing a WLWT segment on the host. He was snatched from the brink of retirement by satellite radio in 2004, to bring his show from the third shift to afternoon drive time.

The current program meanders through its three hours. An odd cast of frequent guests call in, filling their roles in story lines still inscrutable to me after listening for six weeks. The Bozo goes on political rants, aimed more at “politicians” than any one in particular, unless its President Obama, who gets dinged almost daily. Some bit of news that’s of interest to professional drivers-cross-border trucking, construction projects, new in-cab computer systems-will be dissected and re-dissected. A producer, Ritchie, will talk about Long Island, where it seems he’s from.

The Bozo’s show is, in other words, almost impenetrable for newcomers. And yet listeners keep coming back, jamming the phones to get a chance to greet the host with the phrase everyone uses when they finally get on air: “Hey there, Bozo.” If they’re lucky, callers will be “given a boost,” hung up on with an explosion sound effect. For how little sense it makes, it’s extraordinarily popular.

By inviting everyone to call in and tell their own stories in their own words, the Bozo has created a tight-knit, pan-American trucking community. After watching the final shuttle launch, I decided to join the club. I dialed in, told Ritchie what I planned to talk about, sat on hold for more than an hour and finally got to talk with the host about the experience.

The Bozo opined about the lack of industriousness and imagination in this country-we’re turning our space program over to the Russians, you see!-and then told a story about seeing a night launch’s exhaust trail from Tampa, more than a hundred miles away. I told the Bozo it was my first time calling in. He gave me a boost for the road trip, firing the explosion sound effect and proclaiming “Liftoff!” Now I just need to come up with a handle.

Malibu Rum contest launches search for traveling radio correspondent

Tune in, Radio Maliboom Boom.

Malibu, the coconutty rum that’s like summer in a bottle, is looking for one outgoing, creative, beach-bum-lifestyle-loving man or woman for their nationwide radio correspondent search.
The chosen one will travel across the country attending concerts, reporting from the road, interviewing celebrities, and “celebrating the season of the sun.”

The Correspondent position was developed to find the emcee for the Station Invasion Concert Tour–a 10-city musical series–which will “bring the spirit of the Caribbean from coast to coast.
As the Radio Maliboom Boom Correspondent, you’ll introduce the tour and musical acts, do video and blog posts, Facebook updates, and tweets. You’ll also represent Malibu by conducting and participating in video, radio, and media interviews across the nation.

Applications are being accepted online through May 15, 2011. You must be 25 and over, fill out an application, and submit a video “reel” that creatively showcases why you should be chosen, incorporating three key messages about Malibu (the rum, not the city). Three finalists will attend training in Malibu’s homeland of Barbados from June 20-23. The summer stipend for the Correspondent will be $15,000-and all the dancing (and, presumably, rum, sunscreen, and hair of the dog) you can handle. Cheers to summer!

BBC World Service radio facing major cuts

It’s been the best source of news to travelers for generations, but now the BBC World Service is facing serious cuts. Five of its 32 language services will disappear completely, many other language services will be limited, and 650 of its workforce of 2,400 will lose their jobs.

Radio is the hardest hit. Services in Azeri, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian will all go. Shortwave broadcasts will cease in Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes service (for Rwanda and Burundi).

While best known in the developing world for its radio service, the BBC World Service also has broadcasts on TV, mobile, and online. Those aren’t immune either, and all services for some languages will go–Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, English for the Caribbean, and Portuguese for Africa.

The BBC hopes to save £46 million ($73 million) a yea r. It estimates it will lose 30 million weekly listeners.

While wandering in the more remote regions of the globe I’ve always found the World Service a timely and reliable source for breaking news. It warned me of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait while I was excavating an archaeological site in the Israeli countryside, told me of Nixon’s death while I was crossing the border from India into Nepal, and has kept me up-to-date in countless other places. The BBC says it will increase its online presence, but we’re not a fully digital world yet, and in the places I like to go, good old-fashioned radio is still the only reliable means of communication. This is bad news for adventure travelers everywhere.