We want the airwaves

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About 120 people brave the frigid afternoon on the last Sunday before Christmas to publicly air beefs about WSU-owned WDET 101.9-FM, and its recent decision to kill weekday music programming. They want the airwaves back. They want the WDET of old, its mix of eclectic, heard-nowhere-else mix of national and local sides, where on weekdays you could hear anything from Los Lobos, Fela Kuti and Calexico, to Nomo, Blanche and the Sights.

A hand-scrawled placard reads: “Fire Coleman.” The crowd — a mix of youthful and gray-haired musicians, writers, artists and workaday fans of WDET programming — gathers at the Magic Stick music venue. To these people, there’s a battle brewing. These people are pissed. There’s a show of unity, of good old-fashioned community, of a deep-seated passion for music. All values, they say, that WDET upheld.

Complaints about the radio station’s format change shoot from mouths and echo in the stale Stick air. There are conspiracy theories (“This comes down to two people on a power trip”), empathy for local music (“The impact it has on local bands is huge”) and music-first thinking (“They might have potential problems with Martin Bandyke and Judy Adams, but we need to get the music back on”).

Nancy Adair, 55, of Royal Oak, says she’s a longtime supporter of WDET, both financially and as a listener. She’s here because WDET “is the only station I ever listen to. I don’t consider myself a groupie, but I feel like I’m a groupie and this is their funeral.”

“News is not what made that station special for 50-plus years,” says local drummer Eugene Strobe.

You’ll note that WDET was one of a few public radio stations in big markets still spinning daytime music in lieu of full National Public Radio (NPR) programming. The rationale behind nixing daytime music in favor of the NPR content was to save and strengthen WDET, says Michael Coleman, the station’s recently hired general manager. WDET’s September pledge drive came up $100,000 short of its goal, which helped fuel the format change. On-air personalities who got the boot include vets Adams, Bandyke and Willy Wilson.

This organized protest is led by Dan Sordyl, Amy Yokin and Liz Butsikaris-Jackson — all people ensconced in local music. They are simply calling themselves “The Public.” They’ve launched a Web site at savedetroitradio.com.

Yokin is an articulate and frank woman who rarely pulls punches. “Are they going to win a whole new audience with news programming? No,” she says. “’DET did this by stealth — pulling this at this time of year.

“The pledge drive was down because everything is down. How many people were donating to help Katrina victims at the same time? If they would have issued a warning that they were going to pull the daytime music programs ... they didn’t give us a chance. We’re saying give us a chance. Give us a chance and we’ll raise your $100,000 or $300,000. Watch. There’s the big fuck-you. I think we’ll raise the money if our sole purpose is getting the daytime programming back. This is supposed to be public radio. We are the public. The music programming is what drives that place. Why are they getting rid of it?”

Yokin says she’s already talked to Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club), and says the star is willing to help out the cause. There’s talk of contacting Los Lobos, Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith and others for help.

The Public’s written manifesto says, in part, “We have supported, promoted and cultivated WDET for 35 years. It is a part of the fabric of this city and was the last station format truly acting in the best interest of the public at large.” They’re asking listeners to boycott WDET, and “if you donated money during the last fundraiser, ask for it back.” They’re asking for a chance to raise the money needed to see the daytime music return. Their mission, they say, will involve grassroots tactics. Some ideas: letter-writing campaigns, faux WDET donations involving voided checks, extensive picketing (at the Super Bowl, at top-shelf North American International Auto Show soirées, at the station itself), posters, bumper stickers and more.

They’re also claiming there’s been a breach of trust — many here who made donations in the fall pledge drive feel stiffed after shelling out for music programming that no longer exists. So a class-action suit against WDET is in the works.

Although one might think that any musician who ever got 101.9-FM airtime would never utter a good word about the station’s changes, Mike Kearns, from the band Tamion 12 Inch, says he basically welcomes the change.

“I wasn’t a huge a fan of the daytime programming,” he says in a phone interview. “I felt the music selection was lackluster for all the claims they made. Some of it was really good, but for a station being funded by you and me, they could’ve been a bit more adventurous, not just sticking to so many major-label releases.

“I like the information-based programming — it’s a nice platform for some perspective from the left. But I do think they could find some compromise. Maybe do a couple hours of music in the day, and get some young blood on there. To give WDET some credit, they were the only large-scale, local station to give my band any airtime. Although the most ‘challenging’ music is relegated to the 2-5 a.m. ‘ghetto’ slot, it still counts for something. Liz [Copeland], Ralph [Valdez], Willy [Wilson] and Jon [Moshier] were/are very supportive of the Detroit music scene and they deserve the gratitude of Detroit bands.”

The death of Wilson’s Saturday morning blues show irked many we talked to. Wilson has long supported local music — first in his late-night Friday slot, and recently on his weekend show — during the nine years he was on ’DET airwaves.

Shortly before the afternoon protest, songwriter-producer Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry and the Volebeats — two bands that have enjoyed steady support from the station — said this: “WDET should have more programming that draws from this city’s musical history. Willy Wilson always played obscure Detroit soul, jazz and blues cuts and present-day Detroit rock ’n’ roll, often playing tracks just hours after they were recorded in local studios. Why can’t they give Wilson some airtime?”

And Wilson, who’s also the publicist and talent buyer for the Magic Bag in Ferndale, is obviously upset at the changes.

“In general I’m disappointed the way everything shook down,” he says. “Some of these things that they are saying about ratings ... I brought pretty much the most money per capita during the pledge drive. Martin brought in a ton of money as well.”

Wilson says most of the people who tuned in to WDET did it for music, including the local stuff. “Look at Blanche. Nobody would touch Blanche at a commercial station. They’re a prime example. Brendan Benson is kind of another. The majority of people listening during the day are not going to tune in to Ed Love or Liz Copeland. It’s just not the time of day they can listen.

“People are now going to find online radio, and whatever else. The White Stripes? Where did they get airplay first? WDET. We were on ’em from day one. Same with the Detroit Cobras, the Waxwings, the Sights, the Dirtbombs, all these bands that we started giving spins to at night became staples during the day. They can spin it anyway they want with ‘we still have music,’ but you know what? They still ripped the heart out of music in the city.”

The other question that has to be played out is how this will affect sales of “fringe” bands at local record stores, and the attendance at shows with touring acts like Calexico or Los Lobos. The argument is that with no WDET radio support, who’s going to buy the records, how many will go to shows?

In the meantime, the protesters are oiled. Tony DeNardo, from the band the Muggs, is ready, even if it means time in the clink. He takes a look at the assembled crowd at the Stick, and says, smiling, “I’ll get arrested for this cause. You can’t get any better than Willie’s blues show, or Martin Bandyke’s show. You can’t. I’ll picket anywhere.”


There will be a meeting followed by a protest march at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27, beginning at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. For more information go to savedetroitradio.com.

Brian Smith is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to [email protected]

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