As The Current celebrates 15 years on the air and we launch our winter member drive (join now!), Minnesota Public Radio’s Michael Popham is asking the hosts who’ve been with us since the beginning about their history at The Current and in radio. First up: Mark Wheat.
Michael Popham: Hey, Mark! Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. Where did you grow up, and what was radio like there? Who did you listen to?
Mark Wheat: I grew up in a tiny village called Clenchwarton, just outside King’s Lynn in Norfolk, U.K., close to Cambridge. All the radio in those days was supplied by the BBC: Radio 1,2 3, and 4. Radio 1 is the pop station that had John Peel on at 10 p.m. every night and he was my hero, introducing me to the Clash and the Fall, reggae and early electronic dance music. He had eclectic taste and a rapport with the audience that I use as my template.
What was the first record you bought?
For my birthday in April of 1971 I brought my first two 45’s: T. Rex “Ride A White Swan” and the Kinks “Apeman.”
Where was your first radio job, and what did you do?
Not sure if it’s a “job” if you volunteer, but that’s how I did radio for 10 years before I ever got employed to do it. Firstly at WFMU in East Orange N.J., then in 1993 when I moved here, at KFAI. I was hired at Radio K in 1998 to be the program coach, making sure the students didn’t break anything.
What did you do during your time at Radio K?
Behind the scenes at Radio K I always saw myself as a sounding board for the student staff that actually run the station. David Safar was both music director and program director of the station during my time there; I helped teach him how to push the buttons! I was also the liaison with the university and got to do radio too, producing a weekly two-hour slot called The Music Lovers Club on Sunday afternoon and filling in when needed.
How did you end up coming over to The Current?
I knew Steve Nelson from working at Zone 105, and he’s a Radio K alum; and Euan Kerr, who I’d met at KFAI. So when the news broke that MPR had brought WCAL’s signal I reached out to both of them for a way to get involved. I met with Sarah Lutman in the first week of November 2004 and produced a blueprint for the station that she presented to senior staff and from which we created the station as it is now. I was the first DJ hired by Steve after he became program director.
How was The Current originally pitched to you?
There were other stations used as examples of what MPR wanted to do — KEXP, WXPN and the World Café format in particular — but we knew we wanted a variation of what was out there that didn’t really exist yet. A 24-hour station based on the canon of indie music, that would sound consistent across the entire day, but have a personalized style dictated by the strengths of the hosts who could encourage new music discovery.
Any hesitation about joining a station that hadn’t even started yet?
No hesitation whatsoever. Not many times do you get the chance to create a station from nothing, and the company gave us a lot of freedom to do this!
What were the early days at The Current like?
A culture shock experiment! Cramped quarters — we hadn’t moved into the new building yet — and a sense that no one really knew what we were going to become and if it would work within the confines of MPR. But there was the right mix of experience on the staff; Sarah, Steve, Thorn, and the veteran hosts like Mary [Lucia] and Bill [DeVille] with young and idealistic upstarts like myself and Jill [Riley] who were thrilled to be getting the chance to be creating something new. Our creation must have touched everyone in the company in some way and they‘ve been very supportive over the years.
When did you first realize the station was going to be a success?
I always said it would be a success if we supported the local music scene, and continued the tradition of making great radio that our audience had come to expect of us. This format that hadn’t been done well, or even ever before, so I thought we could fill a gap in our local airwaves that would resonate internationally.
You’re well-known as a guy who loves to meet listeners at the State Fair. What are the fans like out there?
It’s always surprising to me at the State Fair: I can never predict who will be a big fan just by looking at people, they’re of all ages, shapes and sizes and come from every area in the state. It’s great. They care about what we say and play, referring to things I have only said once. They listen.
What’s the most common question you get at the State Fair?
They most often ask, “How do you choose what music to play?”
In recent years we’ve heard you at Iceland Airwaves. What’s the coolest thing about that?
Iceland is cool for a variety of reasons. It looks like another planet, for starters! But the most significant thing is the people love music and art. That it’s a point of pride for them to have created such a wonderful festival and to host people who also care deeply about music from all over the world. In that way I think we here in Minnesota have a lot in common with the Icelandic people.
Fans know that you have kind of a tradition of wearing different kinds of slippers in the booth during your shift — “booties,” I think you call them. What kinds are you wearing these days?
Actually I have always worn the same kind; large, black Polar Feet fleece socks which I have never knowingly called “booties”! I just never like wearing shoes for too long, especially indoors. I wondered if it would fit when I first came to MPR…we couldn’t wear shorts, so perhaps booties were out too?!
Do you have any pets? Are you a dog person, cat person, or other?
I’m a cat person, but we don’t have one right now, as my wife is a ceramic artist and there’s a lot of breakable objects in our home.
A lot of people at the American Public Media Group are musicians of one sort or another. Do you play any instruments?
No. That’s why I became a DJ!