A Conversation with Kevin Murphy

A boomerang via the Seattle post-grunge scene, Kevin Murphy is the leader of West Michigan’s flagship independent radio station, WYCE-FM, found on the dial at 88.1. In his two years as station manager, Murphy has been given the sometimes difficult task of keeping the 21-year-old station relevant in an era where new music is as likely to be found online as on air.

Since arriving at the Community Media Center, which broadcasts the station, in 2006, the Michigan native and graduate of Kalamazoo College has been helping WYCE transition to a new technology platform, complete with updated equipment, an HD transmitter and a second online/HD feed, WYCE 2.

One of the region’s most prominent spokespeople for undeservedly obscure music, Murphy talks about his return to West Michigan, the evolution of WYCE and what’s happening in the local music scene.

After you graduated college, you moved to the Seattle area for five years. What brought you back?
My then-girlfriend, now wife, Amy, and I had kind of topped out on our careers, and so we started looking at the next step. Both of our families lived near Grand Rapids, so we came back here with the intention of staying for a couple of months and figure out what to do next. That was in December of 2003.

So you’re a boomerang that stuck?
Amy’s family has a cottage on Lake Michigan, and the other side of our family has a place on Lake Huron. Most of our friends from college and all of our family are within a day’s drive. So we have friends and family close, we have jobs that we like and we have the absolute beauty of Lake Michigan and the other really beautiful parts of Michigan. I really can’t fathom why I would want to go to London or Chicago or whatever.

Were you on the water in
The water stays pretty cold all year long. You don’t ever get a nice beach day. You don’t get to enjoy doing stuff in the water, just looking at it.

Then why there?
It was the late 90s and the dot-com boom was in full force at the time. We had wanted to move out west and do the back-to-the-Earth thing, be hippies and have our own little organic garden/Mother Earth News lifestyle, but we had the unfortunate disadvantage of not having trust funds. So we moved somewhere out west where a college graduate could get a decent job. It was a compromise from the get-go.

It must have set the stage a little for what you do today. I imagine that at that time
Seattle had a strong music scene.
My first job out there was at a pub. I play guitar and sing, so I was hosting the open mic night every week and doing the band booking. The grunge Seattle that was on top of the musical world was over by that point, but there was definitely some interesting stuff coming up. Death Cab for Cutie, who is now a big international hit, was one of the bands that just played around town when we were living out there. A lot of the people who I had some interaction with or got to see live are now people we play on the radio station.

After you moved back, you came to WYCE as a volunteer programmer.
It was a lot of fun and a very well listened to time slot. I would say that I made a bit of a name for myself. At that time I was working as a newspaper reporter and didn’t want to blur the line between my professional life and my on air life, so I used the pseudonym Arthur Longrapids. When I started working at the radio station people would call me Arthur, but eventually they got it straight.

Unlike most commercial radio stations, WYCE doesn’t have a defined play list. Does this put you in a better position to interact with the local music scene?
I do a local show called Local Resonance on Friday mornings. I try to keep up pretty well on what is happening locally. WYCE has the advantage of not being beholden to strict rules of what to play and how to play it and when, so you can have a local music scene that includes blue grass and old-time string bands and hip hop and noise metal and all sorts of different kinds of music. But our listeners tend to be older and a little more traditional in their music styles, so we don’t play a lot of the harder stuff because our audience doesn’t enjoy it.
Having a radio station where you have free range to play whatever you want is very good for the local music scene because without us there would no place for a local Middle Eastern fusion band like Ensemble Al-Asdeka, Maybe a band like La Famiglia, one of our leading hip hop bands, would get some play, but it seems pretty unlikely.
I feel like we serve a real niche in the local music scene, especially for people who don’t go out to see music quite a lot. The local bands are playing around all the time, but there are a lot of people who like to experience new music but don’t go out to bars. That is a good niche for us.

How is that changing in the iTunes era?
That is the biggest thing we wrestle with. We by and large have an audience that is older, and most of those people grew up in a time where the radio was your first entry into discovering new music. For people born in 1980 or afterwards, what I've heard Stephen Colbert call the Ghostbusters 2 era…
That was 1989
…certainly 1989, why would they go anyplace other than online? Whether that is iTunes or MySpace, file sharing with friends or whatever. Now it’s not a question of getting those people to listen to our particular radio station. They don’t listen to the radio, period.

This must be one of your biggest challenges at the station.
Taking WYCE into the next generation of broadcasting has been my major marching order since I got here. Hopefully in 2009 or early 2010 we’ll have our new digital transmitter online. We will hopefully be able to do a further expansion of our coverage area and launch a second programming stream online, WYCE 2, that when we switch to HD broadcasting will allow those with an HD tuner to listen to WYCE or WYCE 2. 

 From my understanding it’s fairly competitive for programming slots. That should alleviate that.
We try to be fairly democratic about it and not have it be about pushing ratings and that sort of thing. People tend to hold on tightly to their spots when they get one they like. Right now we’ve got about 100 people on the volunteer programmer list, of whom 60-some have regular every week or every other week shows.

How much freedom do programmers have?
We’ve got 15,000 records and CDs in our library. There are some pretty broad guidelines in how we encourage programmers to mix up and play a good selection of music, but more or less we provide the music and they provide the inspiration of how they want to mix things up. The music has been carefully chosen over the past 20 years for its being good and outside of mainstream, so you’re going to have to work hard to convince our music director and program director that you need to bring in music from outside.

Don’t you have programmers come forward with the next big thing?
Our music director, Pete Bruinsma, runs a music review committee. Anybody is welcome to bring in music for consideration. We do get instances where somebody on a whim starts a band and makes a recording, brings it in and it’s terrible. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a friend or a record label. If it’s not good we’re not going to put it on.

Do you ever get the opposite? It wasn’t that long ago when disc jockeys were the trendsetters of the music world.
On the local level, every once in a while we put stuff on that becomes a hit. Drew Nelson, a local folk singer-songwriter, has a couple of songs that are frequently requested. We’ve played him since his first record came out in 2004, and he has had some good success. He was one of the featured artists for Coca-Cola’s My Coke music promotion.

What local band that WYCE is playing now do you think has the best chance of breaking out?
Four Finger Five out of Muskegon just signed a national record deal with a small label out of Portland, Ore. They played at the Rothbury Music Festival and have been touring and sharing the stage with people of some pretty remarkable caliber.

Well, that's it. Anything you would like to add?
That if you enjoyed this interview donate to our fund fall drive. And that our Hat Trick concert series starts September 8 and runs every other Monday: Six up-and-coming, under-the-radar national acts come and play a free show at One Trick Pony.

Daniel Schoonmaker is Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.


Kevin Murphy on the roof at the Community Media Center

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved