Jim McGuinn is the programmer of Non-Comm KCMP – better known as The Current – since 2009. Part of the Minnesota Public Radio system, The Current is a Triple A station that found itself in the right place at a sad time when Prince passed away last month. But as we discussed in a post last week – “7 Lessons Radio Can Learn From The Untimely Passing of Prince” – these are the moments that can truly make a brand, connecting it deeper within its community.
I've known Jim since our early Edge days. He's an alum of the famous WPGU in Champaign, and has been a pioneer in the Alternative Radio community, including stints at KPNT (St. Louis) and WEQX (Manchester). In the late '90s, he programmed Y100 in Philly. When that station changed format, Jim took the brand online (www.Y100Rocks.online), and became a part of the WXPN brand.
Jim is a passionate programmer, a strong supporter of the music and what it means to its communities, and a dedicated PD of a station making a difference in his market – and beyond. I wanted to get his perspective on Prince's passing, how The Current handled the event, and what other PDs and managers could learn from it. As you'll read, The Current formed a unique and close relationship with their enigmatic hometown star, all of which came into play when he suddenly passed.
This past week, he organized a global salute to Prince – a simultaneous airing of “Nothing Compares 2 U” at exactly seven hours and thirteen days after the star's passing that coincides with the opening lines of that song.
Jim was kind enough to jot down his thoughts about this emotional event for his market, his station, and his career. He told me that process of collecting these thoughts and memories was “cathartic to write,” and hopefully, you'll appreciate his sentiments and observations at a truly unique point in time. -FJ
Here's Jim McGuinn's “5 Things The Current Knew It Had To Do When Prince Died”
Over the years, The Current has enjoyed a remarkable relationship with Prince. It started to really happen after he moved back to Minneapolis from L.A. A few months later, he attended The Current’s 5th Birthday Party at First Avenue in January 2010. From there we started being invited to Paisley Park to listen to unreleased music and see his intimate shows.
In time, we would become a conduit for Prince to his fans – as he chose us to debut new songs, and gave his approval for events like our Purple Snow Marathon when we played over 300 Prince songs from A-to-Z on our Local Current stream last December after it snowed an inch at Paisley Park.
His endorsement of the Current gave us credibility, and our respect for the music spanning his entire career put that work into context and a continuum. Every time you went to Paisley Park for an event, you had no idea what might happen – would Prince merely appear while a DJ spun ‘80s Hip Hop, would he play a set, would you meet a new artist with him in the studio control room, or would you end up spending most of the night watching Finding Nemo on a giant video screen (all of which happened to me over the years)? You left your cell phone in the car and went in, knowing that whenever you emerged (usually around 3am), you would be smiling and your world would be changed – no matter what happened.
The last time I saw him was at a private show last fall at Paisley Park – I was among about 30 ‘civilians’ in a crowd that included Madonna and her entire touring party – Prince was playful and adventurous, bouncing from organ to piano to guitar through an hour long set, while Madonna stared up to him from the edge of the stage. He gave as much to a room full of 100 as he did in front of the millions who saw his legendary Super Bowl performance.
1. Honor the music.
With Prince's sudden passing on Thursday, April 21, we at The Current were uniquely positioned to cover the story, and also feature more of the music than maybe any station in the world. Within minutes we began scheduling a tribute that would cover his career in chronological order – playing anything from a few songs from a lesser album to Purple Rain in its entirety. At the same time, we reached out to as many folks we could to put on the air that could speak to his talent and humanity – from former bandmates to recording engineers to local writers to fans like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
As the story grew to a worldwide level perhaps none of us expected (I mean – they turned the Eiffel Tower AND Niagara Falls PURPLE!), and the listener reaction to our chronologically curated retrospective went through the roof, we decided to follow-up with an encore of the A-to-Z we had run on our stream a few months before.
We flipped the Current to nothing but Prince from Friday, April 22 at 6p until Saturday night – it ended up being about 30 hours of non-stop purple. One of the benefits of being a Non-Comm is that we can quickly make a decision like this without having to run anything up a corporate flagpole. So while anyone can grab “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Kiss” and drop it in, our tribute to such a special artist whose work varied all over the map produced a feeling that was both cathartic and illuminating as we dug deep into every aspect of his career. And it worked – the online audience exploded, and fans tuned in all over the world to the Current.
On Friday, April 22, we also created a career retrospective public radio special, which was picked up by over 15 affiliates in the days following his death, and included audio from the interview with his associates that we had gathered over the previous day.
2. Be a hub for the community.
While we were creating our on-air coverage on the spot, our events team at Minnesota Public Radio collaborated with the City of Minneapolis and First Avenue to create a street celebration to take place later that afternoon in front of First Avenue (iconic local club in Minneapolis where much of “Purple Rain” was filmed). First Avenue had a metal show scheduled that night, but decided to open their doors to a dance party that would run from 11p-7a for the next three nights.
But before that kicked off, we organized a celebratory wake – and that required getting the permits, finding a stage and PA, hiring a band and lead singers out of our rolodex for an event on Thursday night that drew 10,000 fans into the downtown streets, It was highlighted on national news coverage that night by MSNBC and other news organizations around the country and the world. We built a web page for fans to leave their remembrances, and gave Prince news updates frequently on air and online throughout the first days after his death.
A few days after his passing, the Director of our Events Team, Jeff Hlinka, suggested we air “Nothing Compares 2 U” at the exact time from his death referenced in the lyrics. Thinking this was a simple and awesome way to gather Prince fans, we put the word out to the industry press and reached out to some of our peers in Non-Comm AAA, who all quickly agreed to participate. As best I can tell, around 100 stations all aired the song AT THE SAME TIME. I'm not aware something like this has ever happened before in radio, especially across formats from AAA to Urban AC to Alternative to CHR! Media outlets all over the world covered this story, and we again heard thanks from listeners everywhere. From New York to L.A., Alaska to Texas, we all took a moment to share in listening to Prince’s music – I like to think he would have thought that was cool.
3. Drop everything else and go all in on the story and coverage.
The Current has the good fortune of being part of Minnesota Public Radio, which also includes the local NPR News affiliate in town. We shared resources with MPR News – I was on the air for several hours on our news station (www.KNOW.org), helping with their coverage, and we had our main music blogger, Andrea Swensson, on hand at Paisley Park for all the major developments, providing written reports and on-air content from the site.
We have a wonderful team at The Current, and everyone stepped up. We quickly sensed this will probably be the biggest story of many of our careers, and we covered it as fully as we could, and coordinated across all our platforms – from Twitter and Facebook, to TheCurrent.org website, to our local stream, to the Current airwaves – and that is ongoing still today. When a story this big hits you, you just have to go for it and program on instincts, thinking about how to best serve your audience and reflecting the needs of your community as best you can.
4. Remember it’s not about The Current; it’s about Prince and the listeners he touched.
It’s been an incredibly intense couple of weeks here in Minnesota since Prince’s passing. At the same time, the radio station is seeing the kind of response from listeners around the world that you only dream about – with digital traffic growing so much that at one point we had to move from two to eight servers dedicated to our content in order to avoid a meltdown.
And our staff and I have been included in telling the story as guests or experts on news outlets from the BBC to CNN to NBC to The Guardian, Rolling Stone, PBS, and dozens more. In the first few days we were balancing between providing our coverage, being covered by other sources, and lending our insight to others, bouncing from interview to interview until I started to get confused over which stories I’d told to whom.
And while it’s an honor to share that insight, this story is not about us – it’s about a tremendous musician and his work – a body of music that touched the lives of millions of people worldwide, cutting across generations, race, genre, and geography. Prince is a rare musician to whom the tag “genius” is richly deserved, and he applied himself to the music while also reaching a nearly unprecedented audience in size and scope.
We happened to be his local station, which enabled us the access to build a relationship with him, which was rare, given the control he exerted over his image and circle. But while part of our brains were looking at metrics and coverage for the station and freaking out with pride, this has not been a time for glee or self-congratulation.
And that extended to our idea to invite any and all stations to participate in playing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I was especially proud that when I emailed a bunch of our local commercial radio PDs about it, so many of them readily agreed to participate together with us, realizing that honoring Prince’s legacy is something we can all collaborate on, even among competitors. Maybe our status as a Non-Comm enabled us to be Switzerland in a way, creating a better reception for the idea that had it come from a commercial station.
5. Give ourselves time and space to grieve.
Not only was Prince a world-class artist, but he is someone that many of us at The Current have met and somewhat gotten to know over the past six years. Nearly everyone on staff had seen him play and we all respected his music. While I have been so proud of the work our entire team has done to cover this story on and off-air, it’s also been important that we take the time to process the loss ourselves. Our hosts were not afraid to show that emotion on the air, occasionally breaking down, and the audience responded to that authenticity.
I still feel like I haven’t really processed this yet. There have been a few moments when it hit me – standing in the studio on May 4 when Mary Lucia sent the world into “Nothing Compares 2 U,” catching a showing of Purple Rain on VH1 a few days after he died, and heading into First Avenue’s Depot bar during our public wake and seeing BET screening non-stop Prince videos. Those have been the times when it has started to hit me that we’re not going to see the dance moves, or hear those guitar flourishes, funk beats, and falsetto vocals ever again.
I mourn for the songs he didn’t get to write. It’s still surreal to think he’s gone, because more than any artist I’ve ever encountered, no one was as alive as Prince – always moving forward and searching for what’s next. Through his work, he enabled us to be ourselves. He was black, white, male, female, rocker, soul singer, religious, sexy – sometimes in the same song. If you felt like an outsider, he was an inspiration to you to be your true self.
I don’t know when, but one day when the sensationalist coverage dies down, I’ll really listen to my favorite album Sign O’ The Times, get lost in the songs, and be able to truly thank Prince for that music, and the role it played in shaping my life and the lives of so many others.
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