When the ol' boob tube debuted in the late '30s, the general consensus was that radio would eventually disappear into the dinosaur-format ether. Well, thanks to forward-thinking media outlets like OPB, radio's not only here to stay—it's more future-friendly than ever. That's in large part due to radio's willingness (and ability) to embrace the Internet. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, "[Radio] is more technically nimble [than TV]. You can even download NPR broadcasts onto your iPod."
OPB music director David Christensen agrees: "The Web is the place to do things," he says. "Down the road, with wireless access, a radio station can be in everybody's hands everywhere." As such, Christensen helped to implement OPB's new online and HD radio last fall, which coincided with the termination of his own 10-year-running, world- and folk-leaning program, Eclecticity, and forced other shows, like Steve Cantor's ambient, experimental jazz program Beats & Pieces, to move (in this case, to KMHD). It also gave listeners an alternative to OPB's regular programming of NPR-streamed shows like Morning Edition and Fresh Air.
Christensen, a 44-year-old Nebraska native who's been involved in radio as long as he can remember, calls OPBmusic's format "adult sort of pop music" (not to be confused with adult contemporary). A happy medium between the oft-dry programming of KMHD (or OPB's own FM service, for that matter) and high schooler-friendly mainstream stations like KNRK, OPBmusic is breaking ground by inviting discussion and keeping it local.
By way of the ever-growing blogsphere, OPBmusic gives listeners a forum to discuss what they're hearing, and what they want to hear. "It's really fun to have an exchange of ideas," says Christensen, who notes the world-infused sound of Yeasayer and alt-folk starlet Thao Nguyen (who recorded a forthcoming in-studio session for OPBmusic), as current faves. "It's not just, 'What can [I] create for three hours?' Other people bounce stuff off you."
Much of that "stuff" is part of our own thriving scene: Tune in for an hour and you're likely to hear three or four local artists, from piano-folk troubadour Nick Jaina to whispery emo collective A Weather. Christensen says he and fellow DJ Jeremy Petersen (host of In House) felt a local slant to the programming was a "no-brainer." "Local bands get played [on mainstream radio]," says Christensen, "but it's after they've been in Garden State or Grey's Anatomy or something. There's so much good stuff that just stays under the radar. And it's not token local stuff; people are doing really creative things." He also acknowledges a need for regional identity amid literally worldwide competition: "What really makes you yourself is playing what it sounds like where you are."
And Christensen's seen more than just the sound of public radio change: "When I started out, we were using reel-to-reel tape and vinyl only," he recalls of his early years playing classical music on OPB or working as a college radio DJ in Corvallis. "I can remember when it was a big deal to say, 'And here, on a compact disc, the Berlin Philharmonic….'" Much like his chosen medium's longevity, Christensen's radio career was mostly accidental: "I got out of school and walked around Europe and ate gelato and slept in hostels for awhile," Christensen recounts, chuckling. "I came back and ended up getting a 'job job' [in radio]. The rest is history."
Or, he could say, the rest is the future.