Music News: Radio K's Julian Green on how college radio is showing up in 2020


What's it like running a college radio station in fall 2020, as students return to campus amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Jay Gabler talked with Julian Green, program director of Radio K at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. (MPR)

What's it like running a college radio station in fall 2020, as students return to campus amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Jay Gabler talked with Julian Green, program director of Radio K at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities.


JAY GABLER: Hey. It's Jay Gabler with The Current Music News. Well, the world is watching college campuses - colleges and universities - as school comes back in varying forms, in all sorts of different configurations given that we are still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. At The Current Music News we were curious about how this is affecting life at college radio stations and in the whole adjacent music world. So to that end, I've been able to connect with Julian Green is joining me. He is program director at Radio K, which is the student-run radio station at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Julian, thanks for joining me today.

JULIAN GREEN: Thanks for having me, Jay.

GABLER: So let's turn the clock back to March, when the state of Minnesota and the whole country started to implement some pretty quick and severe social-distancing measures to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19. How did that work at Radio K? How did you have to adjust your order of operations to be safe?

GREEN: Well, it's actually kind of a funny story. I remember...I think it was about March 15. I was DJing on Sunday at around 11 a.m. and I got a call from our chief engineer, Neil, that I was the last DJ that would be DJing for quite some time. We would go completely remote. So, yeah. It was kind of an emotional moment, but I think Radio K has pivoted to just doing our staff meetings online, our leadership meetings online, engaging people online and really focusing on digital content. Meeting people where they're at, which was always their phone screens but now especially it's their phone screens and any screen they can get their hands on at their house. I actually wasn't the program director in March, so I became the program director in May after the old one, Darby, graduated from the U.

GABLER: Has Radio K been without a live DJ since March, then?

GREEN: Yeah. What we do is, our music director Emma, she curates a playlist based on songs that are in different categories. Our software, like, shuffles different categories and stuff like that. Making sure that the music is fresh and that the kinds of music that we want are playing at a certain frequency. We do that through the software online, so it kind of is like a person is DJing, but also the software at the same time. But yeah, since March.

GABLER: Yeah. So then you became program director, the summer happens, and you start making plans for coming back to campus, whatever that means and will look like. Can you talk about what plans you and the rest of the staff had been making to resume school and, you know, maybe change some of how things are working at Radio K?

GREEN: Definitely. Like I said before, we're just trying to meet people where they're at and, honestly, where it's safe. So we've gotten a ton of interest and new volunteers and stuff like that, and so we've created new positions like digital volunteer coordinator that will help give the volunteers things to do online and stuff like that, engage them with the station. Trying to figure out a way to get back in the booth in a safe way, making sure our sanitization measures are good, and, like, putting in times for sanitization in between each DJ shift and stuff like that. Still waiting on official word from the U, but just doing everything we can to engage people in a safe way.

GABLER: Sure. So just to clarify for people who aren't aware of the situation, as of the moment students are not back on campus. If I understand correctly, there was a plan to come back to campus, but it got pushed back a couple of weeks because of what was happening at some other college campuses and now the U has just announced a sort of phased plan to get people back on campus. So it's going to happen, but gradually over a series of weeks or months. Is that right?

GREEN: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, I think they pushed back the dorm move-in for the new freshmen and stuff like that, and then classes are going to be strictly online for the first two weeks. So, yeah.

GABLER: So is it then your hope that once students are back on campus, on the sooner side this fall do you think people are going to be able to get back in the booth, or is that more of a wait-and-see situation?

GREEN: Kind of like everything else, it's a wait-and-see situation. Our main priority is safety. Of course we'd love to have, you know, us back in the booth again interacting with listeners, but our main priority is just listening to the guidance from the U and then go on from there on how to keep people safe and healthy.

GABLER: So right now the conversation's around what you are doing to engage, you know, your audience, your community when you're not able to operate normally as a radio station. I guess, what conversations have you been having around the nature of your role and responsibility and what Radio K can do and what part you can play in people's lives right now?

GREEN: That's a really good question. I think the point of music as a whole is just to connect people. People say, like, math is the universal language, but I think music is, more than that. So I think especially in times like this, people turn back to songs they love, or even just discovering new music and stuff like that too, while they're in their house. So I think we play a pretty important role in people's lives during the pandemic, I think. And then just from an online standpoint, by engaging, with engaging our listeners we've been cranking out a lot of different weekly Spotify playlists with our Rock and Roll Over flagship show. We've been doing more interviews with local bands in Minneapolis every Friday. We've been doing our Fundamentals, which is where we geek out over artists that we love, online via video. So, yeah. We've been in people's lives and in people's screens in a big way during the pandemic and I think it's come back to us in some great ways. I think our listeners are still really engaged with us.

GABLER: As you've been talking to artists, what have you been hearing from the artists in your orbit and on your playlist in terms of how this is affecting them and how this is affecting their work?

GREEN: Well, they miss performing live, for one thing. And also just different events in Minneapolis throughout the summer - because our Friday interviews are mostly focused on local Minneapolis bands - so things have kind of pivoted more towards, like, a social justice standpoint. Also just talking about the music and stuff like that too. But the main thing is, like everything else, people are just antsy to get back to the "normal" and then just be performing live again and stuff like that.

GABLER: Have you been connecting with any peers at other college radio stations around the region or country?

GREEN: Not personally, no. We've done a pretty good job of just, like, using our leadership team just to keep doing what we were already doing before the pandemic and to expand on that. But we've been looking to different radio stations, like, in the Cities, stuff like that, to see what they're doing and how they're pivoting. Stuff like that too.

GABLER: So given all the change that's happening right now, the turmoil, the uncertainty, what kind of conversations are happening among you, your staff, and just your friends at the university community in general? I mean, where are people's heads at right now?

GREEN: I think the biggest question is just, how can we show up? How can we show that we're more than just making statements, like a lot of companies have done this summer, and actually show that we're here for our community and want to help contribute to a positive change? So that means changing our programming. Like, on the Blackout Tuesday day we did a whole four-hour block of Black artists and I myself did the breaks in between each, like, three or four songs, referencing different support organizations, different pieces of literature that people can go to. So, providing resources and things like that. Making sure that our programming is, has a cohesive message and stuff like that. But I think our main concern has been wondering how we can show up and executing those plans.

GABLER: So I imagine programming conversations, whenever you're kind of, like, you know, looking at your programming as a whole and saying, you know, what are we representing here, what are we saying, who are we speaking with, must be different at a college radio station where you've got, you know, by definition, turnover every four years than the conversations, say, we're having at The Current, where we've know, our program director's been in place for several years and you have a lot of staffers who've been there for 15 years and so there's a sense of, like, continuity and like, okay, where are we making changes? But there are always changes happening at college radio.

GREEN: Yeah. I think that's what makes it interesting and, honestly, a really dynamic place to work. 'Cause everybody has something different to say. But I think that over the past, you know, four years I've been a part of Radio K as an undergrad, I think all the different program directors we would have had would have the same kind of message. Because that's just what Radio K is. I think a certain kind of person joins it and I think they really care about their community from a music standpoint and then also just from a justice standpoint. And we do have some, you know, long-term staffers, like our station managers and our chief engineer.

GABLER: Well, so, obviously nobody knows quite what this year is going to look like, but as incoming program director, do you have any big ideas or goals or specific programs that you're looking to implement or activities, events - virtual or otherwise? Anything, you know, you're really looking forward to this year?

GREEN: I'm really looking forward to the launch of "The Vanguard." "The Vanguard" will be Radio K's new 24/7 online hip-hop stream. It'll go through I spent a lot of time in April combing through all of our CDs and just burning all of them. I hadn't burned a CD in years, so that was a good throwback. But "The Vanguard," we hope for it to be a bastion of hip-hop for the local community and help to grow that community and, honestly, this is another way that we're showing up from a social justice standpoint. We're making sure that our messages are paying homage to the people that created it, spreading knowledge about the genre, removing negative preconceptions and stuff like that. Just showing everything that hip-hop and R&B can be. So "The Vanguard" will launch on October 1. We're very excited for that. I'm also just really excited to see how we can engage these new volunteers, 'cause people, despite everything, are still coming to college and they're still expressing interest in joining Radio K. That's honestly really humbling, that people would even think about us with everything going on in the world. So I'm excited to see what we can do for them from the virtual standpoint. You know, all of this going on is uncomfortable, but it's also a growth scenario, and that's when growth happens, in an uncomfortable scenario. I think we've done a good job at that.

GABLER: Well, thanks, Julian. I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with me about everything that's been going on, and we'll definitely keep posted and see what happens next.

GREEN: Yeah. Thanks for your time, Jay. I really appreciate this.

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