Elmo is chilling with Bob Dylan. The denizens of Downton Abbey are introducing themselves to Eric Clapton. Doctor Who is having a drink with U2.
Who is this party being thrown for, you ask? Hey, introduce yourself to a new union in Kansas City, a partnership between Kansas City Public Television and 90.9 the Bridge. Go ahead, shake hands. They don’t bite.
This new “multimedia and multiplatform” couple on the block is bringing us an adult album alternative radio station. AAA for short, these stations focus on music that includes Americana, alternative rock, alternative country, blues, folk, songs of the world and, for this station, a lot of local artists.
KCPT purchased the FM outfit from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg back in April. With a just-out-of-the-box radio station now set up in its 31st Street headquarters, they are trying to take a specific approach to the Kansas City market.
“The bet we are making for our whole company is, let’s be more valuable locally,” says Kliff Kuehl, KCPT CEO and president. “The more that we weave ourselves into the city and help arts and culture and help the nonprofits, basically the more we help people make Kansas City cool, the more we will benefit and the more the community will benefit.”
The man behind the music is Jon Hart, program coordinator and DJ of the Bridge in Warrensburg. He listens to 250 new releases every week to help get a variety of local music exposure to listeners. He also maintains a 4,000-song playlist for the station. By contrast, many commercial radio stations have 800-song playlists.
“We are going to be developing a relationship with all of these local bands, and we are going to be trying to do our part to help them end up getting not only more local exposure, but exposure on a national level,” says Shane Guiter, vice president of digital media for KCPT.
The plan is not to cut costs but to attempt as much cross-pollination of music, art and culture as possible.
The main problem is that as millennials (anyone born after 1980) continue to grow into consumers, many aren’t going to be as interested in paying for cable service and won’t even own a radio, except in their cars. With the Internet as the big playground, Big Bird and Dave Matthews are going to have to find a way to keep millennials’ attention.
KCPT and the Bridge think that by using social media and a brand-new website, they will be able to stand out.
“Local radio and local television are most at risk,” says Harvey Young, associate professor at Northwestern University. “I think that it’s a shame if you lose local stations because that’s where you actually get local content and local news. You get to support local artists on the radio and that’s the different types of support that actually help to feed a community.”
That support has to work two ways, though. KCPT and the Bridge are funded through donations, not advertising.
Kent Collins, professor at the University of Missouri, says the broadcast landscape is shifting beneath our feet. “I think that cable will die out, but television won’t. Now for radio, it’s similar, but it is increasingly going to broadband and Internet deliveries.”
Even if KCPT and the Bridge develop new delivery methods that help them mature with the millennials, they still will have to compete with companies like Hulu, Netflix, Last FM and Pandora.
“One of the things that we realize as a company is that being multimedia and multiplatform is so important,” Kuehl says. “What can we do that is special and that can help us engage people? That’s what we’re focused on.”
The new website for the Bridge is based on the concept of Spotify, the online digital music service, and will almost become a local version of the popular website.
“We have a page for every artist that is on the station’s playlist,” Kuehl says. “It has a convenience factor of, ‘You just introduced me to new music, I now know where I can go see them, now I know where they are on tour, now I can go read about them.’”
Meanwhile, the partnership is hosting two bands in its studios each week. Some of the artists who already have been filmed are Fitz and the Tantrums, Michael Franti and Deer Tick. Videos of performances and interviews with the artists will be posted to the website for listeners to explore.
A good sign for the venture is that AAA stations have been dominating other markets around the country.
The Bridge is based on a AAA station called the Current, based in Minneapolis/St. Paul. This station has a list of almost a thousand active volunteers, and that’s without the help of Curious George to recruit.
“We intend to do some of what the Current does, but we also intend to recruit volunteers for a little bit of a higher purpose,” Guiter says. “To actually ask them, why don’t, as a group, we go make something better together, under the banner of the Bridge.”
So while the Current is simply gathering volunteers to help out with basic operations of the station, the Bridge wants to start a movement to help the community.
By being at every single local show and music event, Kuehl and Guiter believe, they can attract enough attention that some will splash over on the new station.
They know that they don’t want to be like everybody else.
“If we end up looking like a commercial station, then why would you write a check voluntarily at the end of the year to support us?” Kuehl says.
Also, the Hale Center for Journalism opened in November in the KCPT building. The center, which operates under the KCPT umbrella, will produce content for the center and contribute to local programming on KCPT.
Over time, we will all get to watch as KCPT’s characters and the Bridge’s musicians get to know one another. A party that has the Cookie Monster, Sheryl Crow and local artists? Hard to turn down or tune out.
Tess Hart is an intern working for Ink between semesters at the University of Missouri.