Andrea Swensson created her own job title.
Before becoming a music blogger at Minnesota Public Radio’s 89.3 The Current, Swensson served as music editor at City Pages’ music blog, “Gimme Noise.”
Swensson found herself speaking to a high school-age hip hop artist at a networking event and was inspired by what the “old soul” said to her.
“Apply for the job before it’s available. Don’t wait for an opening.”
And that’s just what she did.
Swensson had coffee with her — unbeknownst, at the time — future boss at The Current, cursing herself for a crazy idea she wanted to pursue. Her goal: To do for The Current what she had done for City Pages.
Nine months later, that’s exactly what happened.
On Friday, I spent the day with Swensson, experiencing what her job at The Current is like, two and a half years after she created it.
The subdued Friday bustle of downtown St. Paul greets me as I cross Cedar Street and gaze at the crawling news ticker that wraps around Minnesota Public Radio headquarters.
After listening to The Current almost religiously for five years, I’ll finally get to see what it’s like behind the microphone — and the work that’s put into creating blog posts that deliver updates on the local music scene. I’ll witness music journalism firsthand.
Swensson greets me in the lobby and we proceed to her desk, where a half-finished “Friday Five” blog post sits open on her computer. After a flurry of introductions, I’m acquainted with about half of the radio personalities I’ve come to know so well through the airwaves.
As the clock approaches 11, Swensson and I enter the studio for her weekly check-in with DJ Barb Abney to discuss the weekend gig list — and nudie suits, among other things.
Swensson tells me that Abney is probably the most outgoing DJ I’ll meet at The Current studios. And she’s right. As I’m awestruck by the signed posters and other memorabilia that cover the studio walls, Abney chats with me about her Cincinnati roots and our mutual appreciation for Skyline Chili. She’s going to bring a can to get signed at that night’s Skyline Music Festival inside Target Field.
Later, as Swensson finishes her blog post, The Current’s weeknight host, Mark Wheat, offers to show me the nuts and bolts of programming a show. As I follow him to the music library, I notice something off. Well, his shoes, to be exact. He’s walking around the office in two different colored socks and nothing else.
Though it’s not the first sign that The Current houses a relaxed, comfortable work environment, it’s certainly the most eccentric. (Later, I would read in Wheat’s foreword to Mark Allister’s “Chasing the Light: The Cloud Cult Story” that he bonded with frontman Craig Minowa for his tendency to perform without shoes.)
Wheat sits down at a computer and calls up a spreadsheet of jumbled colors, numbers and letters that — he explains — make The Current, well, The Current. There’s a precise art to choosing cohesive songs and sound bites to include in his show, whether those choices are based on tempo, release date or popularity.
He also shows me the mathematics of song repetition: Some songs can be played more often than others, same with artists. All of these tiny details are monitored within a complicated computer program that holds a massive database for all of MPR’s music.
Swensson finishes her blog post and we head out for an interview she has later in the afternoon. Stopping on the way for lunch, we discuss reporting and interview nerves. While I can still count the number of interviews I’ve conducted on both hands, Swensson isn’t fazed anymore.
Recalling her first interview as a freshman at Hamline University, Swensson tells me the sophomore she spoke to was far more nervous. In fact, he even drove the wrong way down a one-way parking ramp.
That’s not to say that Swensson has been operating smoothly since the beginning. She’s had her share of mishaps — like recording only her end of a phone interview and having to call the source back. These stories encourage me — even reporters that I look up to still make mistakes, and more importantly, it’s OK. You fix them, and life goes on.
Swensson said that the hardest interviews are the kind we’re about to embark on — situations involving disputes that jeopardize the local music scene. The community is expecting someone to report back and tell them what’s going to come of a music venue or band.
On Friday, the dispute in question is that of Cause Spirits and Sound Bar, a music venue on the corner of Lyndale and Lake, that unexpectedly changed its fifth anniversary celebration to a closing commemoration. Much beloved by its neighborhood, Andrea said some bystanders were even brought to tears on Cause’s last night.
The reported conflict that brought about Cause’s abrupt shutdown was between the landlord and owner. But at the interview Swensson conducted with the owner, he wasn’t willing to give details. His expectation was that Cause would reopen, and soon.
FOR VIPs ONLY
The last event of my daylong shadow was an in-studio performance from indie-pop group, The New Pornographers (who played Skyline Music Festival later that evening). I won’t deny the feelings of exclusiveness I felt as digital producer Jay Gabler held open the door with a taped sign that read, “CLOSED SESSION TODAY.” He smiled and asked, “Are you ready for some Canadian rock ‘n’ roll?”
Once again, I witnessed the finesse with which producers fine-tuned various volumes on control panels and instructed the musicians to adjust their instruments. In between songs, as DJ Mary Lucia interviewed the band, I reflected on the myriad facets I had seen that day that contribute to the music industry: Community, performance, journalism, production and so many more.
As far as the day’s impact on my future career choices, I can say that my goals have only become firmer. After learning about Swensson’s progression from freelance writer to City Pages editor to her present position at The Current, I am inspired by her eagerness and curiosity. Although, unlike Swensson, I doubt that I’ll make connections by being a designated driver for a co-worker while working at the Electric Fetus.
The only bad thing about her job, Swensson said, is that you always feel like you’re working. She can’t go to a show without bumping into a colleague, but ultimately, it’s a good thing to complain about.
Yeah, I think I can handle that.
SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC!
Special thanks to Andrea Swensson for allowing ThreeSixty to hang out with her on the job. To follow the latest local music happenings from her MPR chair, follow The Current’s local music blog.