If you're frustrated there's not a go-to radio station in Portland for great independent music, I have good news for you: There is one. And it's not just on the Internet; it's actually on the radio waves. There's one catch, however: This station lies underneath the normal OPB station, the one you're familiar with that features news, commentary and the air blowing out of Garrison Keillor's nostrils. It's OPB Radio's HD channel at 91.5-2, and you can only tune it in with an HD radio (though you can access the same 24-hour stream via opb.org.).
Jeremy Petersen helps run the music department at OPB. He had the fortune to grow up in Pocatello, Idaho, where a motivated man like him could burst into the college station, declare they needed to be playing a lot more of the Smiths, and actually be heard. In the movie of Petersen's life, the title role would be played by Paul Giamatti.
A few weeks ago we decided to put on sweaters and shorts and meet at Colonel Summers Park to play a game of tennis and talk about radio. The problem with doing an interview while playing tennis, we soon discovered, is that you're too far away from each other to talk. In between thwacking the ball with our wooden rackets, the interview went something like this:
Me: (THWACK) "Why isn't there more good radio in Portland?"
Jeremy: (THWACK) "Did you say, 'What's the mortgage rate in Portland?'"
Me: (DONG! Ball goes off side of racket) "What?"
Perhaps this game is similar to one that goes on all the time between mainstream radio listeners and music programmers—but instead of tennis, the game is demographic manipulation: stuffing filler music between the ads that bring in money.
Radio Listener: "Why does all the music on the radio sound the same? How about something different?"
Radio Programmer: (KA-CHING) "Did you say, 'How about some Nickelback?' OK, here you go!"
Radio Listener: " What?"
Aside from the 24-hour stream, Petersen, 32, does a broadcast on the regular OPB station Saturdays and Sundays from 8 to 11 pm, which you can access on any radio. When you first discover his show, six hours of music programmed by real people feels like a bounty. Then it seems like not enough.
"I just try to make a show that's going to feature things that aren't generally on the radio," Petersen says of his mission, which he has been able to craft on his own with support from OPB, where he works full time. "A mix of familiar things, but also things that someone's never heard of. It's about the music, and it doesn't have a marketing campaign behind it."
Those six hours a week give you a taste of what you're missing the rest of the week on the 24-hour HD station. Listeners will hear a new song from Joanna Newsom or Broken Bells, followed by something from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, and then a song from a Portland band like Hurtbird or White Hinterland. In fact, for many local musicians (like myself: for full disclosure's sake, my music has been played on Petersen's show) it can feel like someone broke into your car and took all the demos and advance CDs of your friends' bands and started playing them on the air. That's because Petersen is a true local-music fan with a clear agenda. "I try to make a show that I'd listen to," he says. "Because what else can you possibly do?"
In a world of robot DJs and payola, it's easy to think of radio as a wasteland, but the medium itself has so many possibilities. At its best, it ties in with clubs, newspapers and artists to become another part of the community. It's rare, these days, for a radio station to live up to that role, but Jeremy Petersen is proud to be one of the shrinking pool of FM DJs who take on that responsibility.
"I feel honored to be able to put stuff like that on the radio and say, 'Hey, here's a new Point Juncture, WA, song'—to be able to bring it to people for the first time."
Jeremy Petersen's show can be heard at 91.5-2 on your HD radio, opbmusic.org on the Web, or 91.5 FM on Saturday and Sunday nights between 8 and 11 pm.
For part three of our five-part series on local radio, we asked local singer-songwriter Nick Jaina to write a column about the impact OPB music has had on the local music community.