Jacksonville’s Greatest, Newest Radio Station

Rain Henderson 

Listen to The Independent here

Something important has happened! WJCT Public Media has unearthed Jacksonville’s new music discovery station, The Independent 89.9 HD4. You might be asking: radio, who still listens to that crap? And the answer is, a lot of people. Unfortunately, traditional radio stations are run like a cartel. They’re fueled by corporate money, one big station generally rules the revenue and they play the same 20 songs (that aren’t even good) from 10 years ago, over and over and over again. The Independent is exactly what it sounds like—independent, championing artists generally ignored by commercial radio, breaking out of any genre-based restrictions, definitely not following corporate mandates and playing artists from right here in Jacksonville.

Paired with the site jaxmusic.org, where they consistently crank out curated playlists, reviews, profiles, music history, think-pieces and concert recommendations, they’ve created a non-profit, publicly supported music platform based in Jacksonville named The Jacksonville Music Experience (JME). The JME team is a pool of talented musicians, award-winning writers and cultural gurus including big names like Matt Shaw, David Luckin, Geexella, Glenn Michael Van Dyke, Mr. Al Pete, Daniel A. Brown, Toni Smailagic, Jose A. Cruz, Heather Schatz and a few others.

In hopes of building a community that supports its local artists and caters to curious music listeners, JME and The Independent 89.9 HD4 are the most exciting things that have happened to the Jacksonville music scene in a long time. With no algorithm to follow, I sat down with WJCT’s art and culture editor Matt Shaw and legendary radio host David Luckin to find out exactly why and how they made something so cool.   

So tell me how the Jacksonville Music Experience (JME) came about and how The Independent 89.9 HD4 plays a part in that?

Matt Shaw: When I came on, the transition had already been made that 89.9 FM would go all news and talk 24 hours a day. But prior to that, David Luckin had been doing Electro Lounge at night for 15 years, so music had been part of WJCT for its whole history, 50 years. So the idea was there would still be music on the radio, but we wanted to enhance the music offerings of WJCT. Because all other news is being digitized, I was brought on to build a website, a landing page for music editorial, and it was clear that we needed to have a radio experience for what we’re doing with JME in order to tap into the audience.

David Luckin: The genesis of the whole thing started at a public radio program directors conference, where I hung out at KUTX [in Austin] for a lot of it. They were a new indie station, and they had the Austin Music Experience. So I brought that back and said, that’s a cool name. The whole idea, like Matt said, is the whole coverage for Jacksonville, a nice big umbrella.

MS: We’ve been filming the live performances on our sound stage here, too, where we do a similar thing to KEXP [in Seattle]. The band plays live, and we have interview questions in between. We’re joining this thing called NPR Live Sessions, which has 20 affiliate NPR Sessions. All the stations do a similar thing and that stuff will then be shared with NPR Music’s national platform.

So the goal of JME to open people’s minds to new music, I read that Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist was played 2.3 billion hours over the last five years, but I feel like it’s like a less authentic way of finding music. How do you think someone who doesn’t work in the business finds music?

MS: I think there’s probably a spectrum, but one of the problems that we’re trying to solve with this is that there are a lot of people who don’t know where to find new music, and they are who we’re catering to. Spotify is going to be our biggest competition here because there’s the entire history of recorded music for $10 a month. I think people are starting to find problems with the algorithm, in that it plays you exactly, you. With this station I want to go outside of my personal listening tastes and just play stuff that is endearing for whatever reason. It could be a band that was influential or somebody doing a cover of a song that maybe you’ve heard 3,000 times.

Are you making a specific playlist every day or is it a library on shuffle?

DL: We built a clock that a template is based off of. So the first three songs on the top of every hour are brand new or current. And we’ve got a folder we call “Spice,” which is where Johnny Cash might appear. But [the playlist] always gets touched before it goes out.

MS: And we get to do stuff like that because we are independent. We don’t have any sort of mandate. We can play The Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves” and then Junior Murvin’s version of “Police and Thieves.”

What do you mean by “mandates”?

DL: Most radio stations are given a corporate playlist because Clear Channel owns 300 stations. “If you’re rock, here’s your playlist. If you’re oldies, here’s your playlist.” But they only play 250 songs.

MS: And all the stations play those same songs.

The Independent is an Adult Album Alternative station. I have a funny quote from a 2018 NPR article written by Allyson McCabe that described Adult Album Alternative stations as “a different listening option for boomers tired of hit-obsessed commercial radio.” She also called it the “Birkenstock format.” Is that how you would describe it?

DL: I think everything said was pejorative. It’s the typical spiel of your Birkenstock-wearing, Volvo-driving, latte-drinking f*ck head. They always lump us in that group; it doesn’t matter how diverse we are here.

You recently wrote an article “Is music getting old?” on jaxmusic.org referring to the fact that older music accounts for about 70% of the entire U.S. music market. Luckin said, “There’s no such thing as old music; it’s just music you haven’t heard. I think there’s a kind of comfort in the music of your youth. When people are young, they’re more likely to be interested in what’s new. When we’re older, we go back to what’s familiar and warm.” What would you say is the youthful music listening age?

MS: I think the music of your 20s is your biggest music discovery phase. That’s when you’re super social, you’re going to shows, you’re around a diverse group of people who are turning you on to new music and then eventually your life experiences shrink and that same music you liked in your 20s is the music you like for the rest of your life. For NPR, 35 is young. But that’s Jacksonville—if you looked at KCRW in L.A. it’d be a much younger demographic.

How are you getting new music for the station?

DL: We have a company in New York called Co-sign, and they rep all the bands. So the bands bring them new music, they send it to us. They’re one of many.

MS: I get 25 press releases a day that are either from Pitch Perfect PR or a company called Shine On, which is like Co-sign. If they know that you play a certain kind of music, they start sending their stuff to you.

I know that you were talking about trading libraries. Is that something they’ve worked long to collect in this way?

DL: This thing [The Independent] was finally coming out, but what we didn’t have was a big fat library of indie music. So we reached out to a station in Nashville and said we’ll trade you. You give me your 4,000 indie songs, and I’ll give you 2,000 jazz, 2,000 chill out, 2,000 Christmas, 2,000 country…because I have 10,000 songs downstairs. We’re not going to air every song they gave us, but at least they gave us a bit of a bed to build from.

Is there a way to get older music without asking another radio station?

MS: We’re focusing on emerging artists but there are established artists who are making new work, for example, Kurt Vile. His distributor has been sending us his new music because he just put out a new album and I just asked them, how do I get Kurt’s back catalog? And they just sent a download link.

Do you have boxes that you check to deem a song worthy of inclusion? Or is it more subjective?

DL: [Being] No.1 can’t be the only criteria because if it’s a crappy song at No. 1 it doesn’t matter. But if everyone else is listening to it and it’s been on the top of the chart for eight weeks, it’s probably worth a play.

MS: He’s talking about the North American College charts, all the AAA stations report what’s in heavy rotation to them and they give you a top 200. And we get that every week. And so we can cross reference stuff. For example, Sasami I knew of because my friend Lena [Simon] is friends with [her], so I knew of her record and had been listening to it. And then two weeks after it came out, it was in the top 10, and we already had it in rotation, so when we do see that everybody else is playing it, it gives us motivation or a reason to put it on twice a day.

What are your thoughts on local music? Is there a city that you wish Jacksonville was like?

MS: I mean, there’s a lot of cities I’d like Jacksonville to be like, but we don’t yet really have a great ecosystem for supporting artists who are making work here. If you look at Atlanta, which is the closest city I can think of that has a really similar history with a really vibrant hip hop culture similar to Jacksonville, they do a great job of cultivating artists. I don’t know exactly how they do it, but they have radio stations that will play local artists. So if you’re somebody in Atlanta making worthwhile hip hop, you can get your song on the radio. And Jacksonville hasn’t had that before. And I think it’s a part of this music ecosystem that we’re trying to support and hold up with things that we’re doing and offer a platform to local artists. There’s a few dozen artists I can think of in Jacksonville that if they lived in another city, they would be played on the radio. And as far as models like Nashville’s NPR station and Philadelphia’s NPR station, they are very similar in that they don’t have a local music program. They don’t have an hour where they’re just going to play local stuff, but they have local music in rotation.

DL: We took the extra step to say around 20 minutes after hour we’re playing local bands.

I read that a lot of the management looking to AAA radio stations are in search of crossovers, mostly into pop. Do you think bands are catering to this or just get bored with their old stuff?

MS: I don’t know. I think that people are coming from different points of view when they do make that transition. If you’re trying to make a career out of being an artist and at a certain point you’ve saturated anybody who will listen to you at that point, you start to be ambitious.

When they’re saying “pop” what are they talking about? “Pop sound” or “popular”?

MS: The definition of “pop” is “popular,” originally, yeah. But pop music in the ’40s was show tunes.

So pop music doesn’t really have its own sound?

MS: It’s depending on the era.

DL: Exactly. So in the 60s, we had all those girl pop groups playing on mainstream radio, and most people find it accessible and acceptable.

MS: Michael Stipe of REM would tell people in interviews “we’re a pop band.” You listen to REM and they’re all over the place. They were trying to make music for mainstream consumption.

Speaking of genres, Electro Lounge was known as “music without walls” and now The Independent has been dubbed “unrestrained by any genre.” I am obsessed with the specificity of genres now, like math rock or pirate metal or bedroom pop. Do you believe all artists can fit into a specific genre? Or what’s the purpose of genres?

DL: It’s interesting what you’re saying. I think the real music lovers or the bands who really like all kinds of music are genre-defying, don’t you?

I guess I’m referring to writing about music.

MS: That’s who dictates it…but you’re trying to communicate music, which is already a form of communication in itself. And so you’re trying to speak about something that’s written in a different language and you’re trying to translate that into a language to an audience of readers. And so music writers, music journalists, get inventive with what they want to say about a band. And it depends on person to person and even within a band, so it’s a conversation between the artist and the audience that happens. And then as a music journalist, you’re sort of an intermediary between those two. And so you’re trying to translate things as an expert.

Who’s coming up with all the genres, the bands or the music writers?

MS: It’s happened both ways, but usually it’s the writers. The etymology of genre words is really funny. The term “grunge” was first used to describe this band called Mudhoney. It was used by music journalists in Seattle who called their sound “grunge,” but it wasn’t used as a new genre of music. They just called them a grunge rock band, and it stuck. So then it was just the label for white guys with flannel shirts and greasy hair.

Similar to how the term “pop” is very convoluted, I feel like “indie” is also. What’s the idea behind the name The Independent?

DL: We’re The Independent because we play whatever we want. We’re not the indie.

MS: Indie is another one of those things that’s just been overused to the point where it is devoid of meaning in a certain regard. But I really latched onto the term “independent” because it goes back to the roots of the word to begin with, which is early ’80s to early ’90s music culture in cities across the United States. You had bands who were making music that had no chance of ever getting on the radio. Black Flag and Minor Threat and Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü and all these bands who were called independent because they were independent of a major record label. They started their own damn labels. They made their own zines. Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth] had his own zine, and he would interview Ian McKay [of Minor Threat and Fugazi], who had his own zine and Dischord Records in D.C. It was these communities, siloed small, tiny music communities that found larger communities in other cities by just being into weird independent music and independent music culture and sharing.

So The Independent is referencing DIY not the genre?

MS: DIY is a better word for it, but I don’t think you can call a station DIY. But I think zooming out, it fits the mission of what we wanted to do when we started this thing to begin with. There was no other place for this in Jacksonville, and so we might as well just do it ourselves.

DL: For us, our music has been as important as our news, and it will continue to be. We take it very seriously.

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