Break beyond Spotify, Apple Music and the like, and even commercial radio, and hear some greats.
I’ve been a fan of non-commercial radio for a long time. However, a lot of public radio can sound like, to quote a viral essay by Chenjerai Kumanyika, “middle-aged white dudes who just drank some really warm coffee.” He’s not lying. Much of what I found is the stuff of your wait time in Starbucks.
My search yielded some gems, however. Real music radio stations are alive and well. I blow out my filter bubble often by finding new music not on Amazon Music or Pandora, but through eight ridiculously good stations (and others). It’s not always wonderful — in fact, it’s occasionally weird or annoying, not unlike my fellow Americans at times — but it consistently challenges me to hear new cities, cultures and genres, which is what I was after.
The eight stations you need to hear this year to get past your own filter bubble, in no particular order, are:
- KBOO | stream (Portland, OR) — If all you know of Portland is Voodoo Doughnuts and Stumptown Coffee, something even more delicious is not too far from Voodoo’s original Third Street location. KBOO is indisputably a hall of fame station. It’s been a hub of Pacific Northwest punk, avant garde, rock, folk, soul and noise for almost 50 years. Boasting tons of smart volunteer DJs and scores of live performances and local events, KBOO is wildly eclectic as its community and lots of fun.
- KDUR | stream (Durango, CO) — This southwest Colorado town is known to most people because of skiing and the outdoors. However, nestled up there is a superb station with its share of treasures. Musically, it’s all over the map. You’ve got bluegrass and jam bands that you’d guess would be a favorite of a woodsy place, along with an uncommon amount of electronic dance music. The radio station possesses quite a few surprisingly sharp DJs too. No rambling morning shows or goofy factoids of commercial radio. Instead it’s all playful and educational sets about music you may not know too well. And isn’t that the mark of a fantastic listening experience?
- KRBX | stream (Boise, ID) — Although I didn’t feature it on this list, Los Angeles’ KCRW is one of the few total packages for music stations. Radio Boise is the next generation. It has plenty of specialty programs, like metal, but where it shines is in music discovery. Up and coming bands, well-known indie pop and rock performers and the right touch of old and new make its lineup dynamic and tremendously entertaining. Dismiss your assumptions of Idaho, and enjoy Radio Boise as it gives New York and California a run for their money.
- KVNF | stream (Paonia, CO) — Most people do not know Colorado boasts one of the United States’ most robust alternative media scenes, featuring the nationally recognized High Country News, the nationwide Free Speech TV and a killer independent radio culture. That sort of current is perhaps what endows the mountain town of Paonia, with its U.S. Census tracked population of less than 2,000 people, something you’d never expect: a radio station with impeccable taste. You’ve got indie. You’ve got specialty sounds, including Latin American music of all things. But mostly there’s a particular care to quality music and informed, engaging DJ breaks. Start with The Sweet Sound or Music Box for a taste of what KVNF does well.
- WVQR | stream (Vieques, Puerto Rico) — Don’t speak Spanish, but curious about Latin music? Or wonder if all there is to Spanish-language music is the regional Mexican genres of norteño and banda that all the commercial stations seem to play? Then Radio Vieques is a superb entry point for learning about the wildly unique music of Puerto Rico and beyond. Along with a polished commercial-style delivery, Radio Vieques offers minimal DJ chatter, high-quality and diverse Spanish-language music and upbeat energy all the way. You’ll want to listen on a laptop, so you can Google the sounds you’re hearing with your phone.
- WEAA | stream (Baltimore, MD) — I confess, I was one of those college students who professed to like jazz, though my knowledge of the genre spanned John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and the artists we all know. I recognize I’m not the only one. Let WEAA help you from trying to look cool and instead to knowing what you’re talking about. It is my go-to source for the classics, subgenres like Latin jazz and many trends in contemporary jazz. In addition, it features reggae and Caribbean sounds, gospel and more. If you still need convincing, catch one of the best voices on radio, Marcellus “Bassman” Shepard, hosting afternoon drive time. That guy can win you over to listening to Chihuahuas barking.
- WSFM | stream (Asheville, NC) — If you know Asheville, it’s an outstanding music town. AshevilleFM bottles up that rhythm for some awesome turntable magic at any given moment. The radio station is at its best with its freeform programming. Commercial radio tends to waterboard the freeform concept with the plethora of “Joe and Jane FM” formats that spin Journey and Adele. Let AshevilleFM show you the true spirit of freeform, with punk, pop, funk and stuff you never thought could work together. If you’re really into going deep on a particular genre, the station has some divinely obscure shows you’re sure to enjoy.
- WXNA | stream (Nashville, TN) — Far from simply blaring the Americana or alt-country of its hometown, WXNA’s DJs are stellar at finding blues, indie and rock programming with an eye to originality. It stands out as the one station you music nerds out there will end up calling to find out who that was they just played. The DJs seem to pride themselves on looking for the talented bands most people have never heard of, and their mixes sound dazzling, even when you have no idea who you’re listening to really. WXNA also does a splash of the music that put the city on the map, with a nod to rockabilly, churning honky tonk and regional hip-hop. With a sound this big, you’d never guess WXNA is all of 100 watts.
You should check each radio station’s program schedule and see what works for you. Like many music stations, these radio stations may also feature news or public affairs programming at particular hours.
A lot of people recognize Ira Glass, the bespectacled host of the podcast and radio program This American Life, a.k.a. that show that launched the podcast Serial. Glass scoffs at the idea radio is dying. As long as people want to hear a good story, he says, there will always be radio. Just as these radio stations do exceptional music, they also play host to DJs who are storytellers in their own right. It’s something I never quite got from Spotify, or even the best of Apple Music. I am happy out of my bubble, at least for a bit. I’m learning about new music, but hearing someone’s story too.