In an iTunes era, WORT is a community

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Posted by on January 01, 2010 at 12:11:31:

WORT is an on-air community
In an iTunes era, 89.9 FM serves up human contact
Jessica Steinhoff on Thursday 12/31/2009

Beer brewers know wort as the sugary stuff that makes alcohol when it's teamed with yeast. However, Madison's most popular wort — WORT 89.9 FM — isn't a beer ingredient but a radio station that teams with the community to brew a heady blend of music, news and more.

At a time when many listeners have abandoned the airwaves for their favorite podcasts, music blogs and iTunes playlists, the folks at WORT are working to make radio not just relevant but revolutionary. While the station delved into Facebook and digital broadcasting some time ago, it's a much older concept — mentoring — that sets them apart.

"We constantly try to be a force for the younger generation of listeners, and to show people that they can be a DJ, too," says Sybil Augustine, the station's music director.

Augustine isn't referring to the "be your own DJ" concept of iTunes. She's talking about the real deal: exploring B-sides and bootlegs, taking calls from listeners and broadcasting personality along with cool tunes. It's part of what makes the local music scene a community rather than a bunch of loosely connected acquaintances.

The key ingredient is human contact, which builds community in a way that YouTube comments, Twitter updates and Facebook fan pages can't. It's the reason many people attend live shows: emotion, eye contact and great stories. As with concerts, no two broadcasts are the same. And for those who want to move beyond posting and commenting, learning face-to-face is way better than perusing a user manual.

That's where mentoring comes in. At WORT, some of the music community's most familiar faces, plus more than 300 other volunteers, share their knowledge about recording and broadcasting with those who want to learn the ropes. It's a place where people can learn how to tell a story like Ira Glass, make their voices sound as cool as Jean Feraca's (well, almost) and get to know one of the city's biggest collections of vinyl.

Several of these familiar faces — including DJ the Real Jaguar, Latin musician Tony Castañeda and Brian Steele of local metal band Wife — also share their taste with listeners. Though the iTunes store, eMusic and other web apps are thrilled to tell you which songs to try next, there's nothing like getting the opinion of a real human being rather than an algorithm.

Or, as WORT business director Maggie Weiser puts it, "You can get out of Pandora's box."

Weiser says many people listen to corporate stations because there's no guesswork. Pandora Radio can be that way, too, she suggests.

"They may be great at figuring out your taste, but [Pandora and corporate radio] don't help you appreciate music on a historical or cultural level. The people who host our programs know the context of the music, and they challenge you to push the boundaries of your listening."

Operations coordinator Norm Stockwell, who's been with the station since 1983, says community radio also challenges how the establishment records history.

"Community radio is about breaking down the boundaries between expert and non-expert. It's about people making their own media and providing an outlet for them to do it with other people, not commodifying it and selling it back to people."

After all, Facebook collects information about your musical taste and uses it to market artists and concerts to you. Media conglomerates are snatching up profitable blogs and branding them as their own. And big record labels have been peddling "indie" music for several years. The world's not quite as D.I.Y. as some would like to believe.

This isn't to say that WORT's eschewing new technology. In the weeks to come, the station will unveil an online calendar that lets bands and venues hype their upcoming events, and listeners will be able to use the WORT website to look up which songs they heard on past shows. New programs will cut their teeth, too, such as "The After Party," an underground hip-hop broadcast by Julian "Juice" Holt, and "Milky Twilight," a collection of psychedelic and international curiosities from blogger/DJ the Manic Exec, whom many know from WSUM's Friday-night favorite "How Manic Got His Groove Back."

The question, then, isn't whether WORT people will adapt to technological change. It's how they'll stay human amidst the machines.

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