what I do at WRIR, part 1

In 2009, I started volunteering at WRIR, a low-power FM community radio station located in the heart of Richmond, Virginia. Initially, I was simply an overnight DJ playing whatever music I felt like, moving time slots as more favorable to me options became available.

I liked playing anything from the new rock and “adult album alternative” (aka singer/songwriter, folk, etc.) shelves, as well as anything else that caught my eye. But around 2013, I noticed there weren’t many/any new releases being shelved.

That’s when I found out that the music director at the time was a college student who was away that year for study abroad, and no one had stepped up to fill in. Seeing my interest in the new music workflow, the World music director encouraged me to take this on. I’ve been doing it now for almost a decade, and I thought it might be interesting to share some of what I do every week, though it has changed quite a bit as the dominate format of music sent to us is digital files rather than physical media.

The first thing I do is go through the music director email inbox and download the albums and EPs sent by promoters or record labels. I keep a spreadsheet of all the details. Originally it was to also keep track of what got played and communicate that back to the sources, but it wasn’t sustainable and now that we use a playlist tool, I can theoretically run reports from that (or the interested parties can pay that provider to send them reports). Now I only use it for internal workflows.

Once I have everything downloaded and the compressed files unzipped, I use the spreadsheet to quickly format standard naming structures for each folder that represents an album or EP: Artist – Title (Label, Year). I’m a librarian — I can’t not impose some sort of structure to the way these get organized!

After that, I go back through all the emails. Promoters and record labels often send useful information about the recordings, such as recommended tracks, any songs with FCC prohibited language, similar artists, and often a brief description of the music. I will copy/paste that information (and reformat it somewhat so that the major points are consistent) into a text file that lives in the folder with the MP3s.

Then, I use a program to edit the MP3 tags. You’d be surprised by how many promoters and record labels send out MP3s to radio stations without ensuring that someone later on will know what the heck it is. About once every few months, I’ll even get one where the songs are just labeled track 1, track 2, etc., and I have to try to find the information elsewhere. This is also when I try to figure out the genre for the recording.

After all that is done, I move the folder to one of our large genre buckets: Rock, AAA, Hip-Hop, Loud, or RPM. If I get anything that might fall under World or Jazz, we still have genre directors for those areas and I just pass it along to them instead.

Tangent: These genre buckets have been around for a while because they were what the now defunct CMJ New Music Report used to designate genre charts. We switched over to reporting to the North American College & Community Radio Chart in 2017 when CMJ stopped publishing the New Music Report, and they changed a few of the genre labels. Namely, AAA went away and for us was replaced by Folk, and Loud became Heavy. It didn’t seem worth it to change our labeling at the time, and it still doesn’t.

When I’ve finished that week’s new music, I transfer the files to the station’s server where we keep a “digital music library” and send the details to the DJ list. Any of our active DJs can get access to this server and make use of the music for programming their shows.

At this point, about once I month I will sort through the physical media sent to the station. Some of it duplicates the digital copies we already have, and if it’s something that I know our DJs will like, I may slap a sticker on it with a review by a music reviewer and some recommended tracks, and put it on the shelf in the studio. Some of it is new to us and I may rip a copy for the digital music library. Some of it is “bless your heart, you tried” and it goes into the freebie bin for DJs to sort through and make choices about it for themselves.

The reality is, we get 30-50 recordings a week, and I don’t want to spend all of my free time on this volunteer work. The new music workflow is also not the only thing I do at the station, and I’ve worked to streamline it as much as possible. I still enjoy it and it definitely feels good to be able to impose some order on what would otherwise be a chaotic mess.

my music of 2020

Last year was a strange year for music in my life. January and February passed much as they had for years before, with most of my music listening being done in service of my show on WRIR. I had decided in late January that I wanted to step back from doing a weekly show, but it took another month for the program director to find hosts to replace me. As it happened, I stopped doing my show just one week before the realities of COVID hit and Virginia went into a state of emergency.

I began working from home, and found that the quiet, intermittently interrupted by noises from my neighbors on either side of my townhouse, was not easy to stay focused in. I needed something to listen to. But what?

For a while, I would tune into WRIR and have the news and public affairs programming that ran from 8am to 3pm most weekdays fill that space, but some of it was annoying to me, and I’d shut that off. I tried listening to some albums on Spotify, or playing some Spotify playlists, but after a while, that got annoying, too.

When it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a short-term arrangement, I reworked my home office to accommodate my work equipment (laptop, keyboard, mouse, and dual monitors). To do this, I turned my chest of drawers into a stand-up desk for my home computer, and moved my work setup from the dining table up to my desk, which is also in my bedroom. Aside from wanting a more functional workspace, this gave me back my table and put me within range of my 87GB digital music library, with nearly 13,000 songs.

For most of the 2000s and the early part of the 2010s, I spent a lot of time and money collecting CDs of anything I thought I might enjoy. More than I made time to listen to. But now I could work and listen to as much of it as I wanted, and so I did.

Back in 2010, when Lifehacker was actually useful, I read an article about how to make a few smart playlists that would ultimately create a playlist that would shuffle through your entire music collection, hitting up favorites more frequently, and ensuring that at some point, you’d hear every track. I had made such a playlist then, throwing a random 6 hours of it onto my iPod to take with me to work. But, it was kind of a hassle, and after a few years I stopped doing it at all. TBH, I’m not sure where I put my iPod after I finally bought an iPhone.

Months have passed since I moved up to my bedroom, and during that time, I listened to a lot of music from my personal digital library (and some still from Spotify, as well as a few favorite WRIR shows). I also paid for a Last.fm account, because I wanted the report function. And now that the year is over, I’m eager to reflect up on the data.

One thing that stands out is that Enya was the top artist, her album Watermark was the top album, and the top track was the song “Watermark”. I do love me some Enya, but those stats mainly came from a period of time prior to the move closer to my music library, and early in the pandemic when I was reaching for anything to calm and comfort me. Watermark is still a fantastic album, and I do not begrudge it the top spot.

The other thing that stands out is how much listening to only my small collection of Christmas albums in December really skewed the album chart. Half of the top 20 albums for the year were Christmas albums.

You can definitely see the change in my music listening habits prior to the pandemic (Jan-Feb), the early months of the pandemic (Mar-Apr), and when I moved to my current home office space in May.

I mostly listen during the work day, with some evening jamming.

Because I wasn’t listening to as much fresh-off-the-presses music as I had done in previous years, I dropped a few spots on the discovery leaderboard. On the flip side, my personal collection is apparently less mainstream than the music I was listening to in 2019 that had been sent to a non-commercial community radio station. Go figure.

I checked my iTunes library, and I still have another thousand or so songs to listen to for the first time (in iTunes – many I had heard elsewhere which prompted the acquisition of my own copy). I am hoping that by this time next year, that number will be much smaller.

Finally, I will leave you with what I consider to be the song of 2020. At least for anyone who listens to Reply All.

2018 in music

a summary of my music listening in 2018

Last.fm has released their annual charts for users, I’m not surprised that Hinds​ topped my artist, album, and track charts. I was super obsessed with them last summer. Still love that album, but maybe not quite that much, although I am listening to it again while I write this post.

The report shows me listening the most on Sundays, which is kind of surprising because I do a lot of music listening at work, but not too surprising because I’m also quite often listening to new music on Sundays to prep for my radio show on Mondays if I haven’t been quite as on top of it as I would like to be, which is most of the time. 77% of the music I listened to last year was new-to-me (or at least newly scrobbled to last.fm from me, which is virtually the same thing at this point).

on my playlist

Chris Burris recently conducted an email interview with me for a profile in the NASIG Newsletter. One of his questions was, “What’s currently on your playlist?” I listed a bunch of albums, and I thought it might be useful to create a short Spotify playlist of a favorite track from each.

new albums I really dig

061/365 - music
listening to new tunes

Editor’s note: I drafted this in August 2014. I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it.

One of the things I do in my “free time” is volunteer as music director at WRIR. Basically, I be a librarian for the genres we don’t already have covered by genre directors, namely Rock, AAA (Adult Album Alternative), and RPM (electronic). I receive the physical and digital albums from promoters and labels, keep track of how many times they are played, create weekly charts of the top 30 albums, and make sure that the new & recommended shelves stay fresh.

As you might expect, I get to hear tons of new music. We receive 25-40 new albums a week, depending on the time of year. It’s particularly notable, then, when an album catches my ear more than, “Oh, that’s pretty good. So-and-so will probably play it on their show.”

Land Observations – The Grand Tour (Mute)
This is the second album by James Brooks with the moniker Land Observations. It reminds me very much of Tycho, with whom I am mildly obsessed. Hypnotic patterns and melodies driven by acoustic guitar over electronic soundscapes evoking hazy dusks in late spring when the air is perfect and all seems right with the world. [Spotify] [Amazon]

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
I’ve been a fan of Rilo Kiley ever since I heard their 2007 album Under the Blacklight. Yeah. A little late to the game. I tried following Lewis after the band split up, but her music didn’t grab me until this album. Tight pop/rock arrangements that remind me of the early 90s in that they don’t have the over-produced sheen of modern rock. She doesn’t shy away from tough subjects in the lyrics, and the voice that drew me in seven years ago is still compelling. [Spotify] [Amazon]

Damien Dempsey – It’s All Good: The Best of Damien Dempsey (IRL)
Dempsey is an Irish singer/songwriter with an impressive catalog, as reflected in this double-disc retrospective. And yet, I hadn’t heard of him before. Well, technically I had, as he’s the subject of Amy Ray’s song “Damo,” but I didn’t know that until I listened to this album. Poignant lyrics paired with acoustic rock arrangements and a rough but steady voice you’ll learn to recognize immediately. [Spotify] [Amazon]

The Glitch Mob – Love Death Immortality (Glass Air)
I was introduced to the band through their last album, Drink the Sea, and played the song “Drive It Like You Stole It” more times than I’m willing to admit (last.fm says 17, but it’s probably more). Needless to say, I was looking forward to the new album, and I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. For the most part, the arrangements are driving, glitchy, electronic, and melodic with an aggressive rock vibe. It’s hard to sit still while listening. [Spotify] [Amazon]

Tycho – Awake (Ghostly International)
Scott Hansen’s first album as Tycho (Dive) came out in 2011, and I heard it because I happened to play it on my show at the radio station back when I was doing mostly electronic music. I was instantly captivated by the acoustic guitar and synth hooks over atmospheric soundscapes. Where Land Observations’ The Grand Tour reminds me of late spring dusks, Awake is more like cool summer sunrises. The styles are similar, but Tycho puts a little more drive in his arrangements, which almost lend themselves to lyrics and vocals, but remain instrumental. [Spotify] [Amazon]

on milestones

singing with the Ellensburg Women’s Chorus in the 2005

Some of you may know that I enjoy singing in choirs/choruses/chorales these days, even doing a solo every now and then, but I’ll bet few of you know that I was too shy to sing in front of most people until my second year of college. Most of my college friends could sing pretty well, and many of them were in the university chorale or the chamber choir. I loved singing, but I was too nervous and shy to audition, as much as I wanted to. Somehow, they convinced me to take a voice class. Not private lessons, but with a small group of students and one teacher, all at once.

This was safe for me to start out in. We sang everything together, until our final, and that was the first time I’d sung for real, alone, in front of anyone. It was terrifying! But it also gave me the courage to go through the audition process the next year, and I was in the chorale for the second half of my college career.

Since then, I’ve sung with Sacred Harp groups, church choirs, community women’s choruses, and a university women’s chorus (I still sing with two groups that fit in the last two categories). It’s been an amazing learning experience, and I sometimes marvel at how a person who was too shy to sing in front of a handfull of friends can now stand on stage and sing in front of hundreds of strangers.

In college, I was obsessed with singing low. I was proud to sing the alto part, and one of my fellow altos and I would frequently try to hide with the basses until our director made us go back to our section. For me, alto meant harmony and something interesting. Soprano seemed, well, boring.

These days, I sing first alto or second soprano, depending on the group and the arrangement. And the strange thing is, I’m finding that the low notes aren’t as much fun anymore, and sometimes are rather uncomfortable to sing. My voice, as women’s voices do, has been changing and maturing over the years. When I moved over to the second soprano section in my community women’s chorus last year, it was the first time I acknowledge that shift to anyone, including myself. It was a bit of an identity crisis at first, but I’ve come to embrace it.

Back in that voice class in college, my instructor called me a “chicken soprano,” and she was right. I could sing higher than I was willing to (or brave enough to) back then. Now I know I can, and I have quite often. The strange thing is, I can feel my voice changing. I started noticing this on octave leaps that would take me up to the C above middle-C, and beyond. They didn’t feel strained anymore — I just thought it, and then sang it with confidence.

My ear is much better. I have a good sense of certain notes and placement and intervals, although I couldn’t tell you what a perfect fourth or a major seventh sounded like to save my life. Those names never stuck with me. But, I can sight read pretty well, if you give me a starting point, and back in the day I had to hear it a few times before I could follow along.

So, I’m moving into my upper range, and it feels fine. But also weird. Sometimes, I can’t trust my sense of place anymore, because what feels like a G may be something else entirely now. My voice breaks are shifting, or maybe I’m just not as aware of them anymore.

This makes me feel less certain. Unbalanced. And it doesn’t help that I’m turning 37 this year.

Back to that voice class and the instructor who told me I was a chicken soprano… she also told us that women’s voices hit their peak maturity around age 37. To my 19-year-old mind, that seemed like a future so distant I couldn’t even imagine it, and now I’m here. Or nearly there.

People talk about how turning 30 wasn’t as big of a deal as turning 31. I get that. For me, as a woman and a singer, I think this 37th birthday is going to be more significant than either of those previous milestones. I’m just not sure if I’m ready for that to happen yet. Luckily, I have about six months to figure it out.

pitch perfect hits it out of the park

Pitch Perfect Original Theatrical Soundtrack CoverI’ve never sung in a collegiate a cappella group, and have no idea what it’s really like. That being said, I do have years of choral group experience to draw on for comparison. But, do you need any of that to enjoy the movie Pitch Perfect? No. Just a good sense of humor and an appreciation for modern pop music.

In case you haven’t heard of it, and I’m not surprised if you haven’t, there’s a new movie out called Pitch Perfect. It’s about college a cappella, the first year college experience, and taking risks.

It’s also fiction, so don’t take it too seriously. The boy gets the girl. The troubled youth defeats her inner demons. The underdog wins. Typical movie with a happy ending.

The real thrills came from the music. It was fun! Simply fun! Like the performances we saw on the three years of NBC’s The Sing-Off, there’s nothing quite like watching/hearing a group of singers using only their mouths and voices to perform creative arrangements of pop songs.

Simply put, I enjoyed Pitch Perfect. It was funny without being gross, and touching without being melodramatic. Go see it. It’ll be worth the ticket price.

standout albums of 2010 (in my humble opinion)

It’s 2011, and these are the albums of 2010 that I’m still listening to on a weekly basis.

I haven’t listened to every album that was released last year. Who has the time? I have, however, listened to quite a few of the 2010 releases over the year, both out of personal interest and for the local community radio station where I volunteer.

There were quite a few surprise favorites among the bunch. Surprise in that I didn’t expect I’d like them, much less become obsessed with them and continue to listen with great pleasure months later. So, with that, I bring you the top unexpected favorite album of 2010.

Dan Black – ((un))

Released in the UK last year, the album made its way to US shores in February this year. I saw the press releases due to my work with Blogcritics, but nothing about them made me think this would be an album I’d enjoy. However, when I saw it on the “to be reviewed” shelf at the radio station in April, I gave it a cursory listen and decided it might be worth giving more attention.

Eight months later, I’m still listening to it, and count it among my go-to albums for when I need energy and a happy mood. Black has successfully melded synthpop, creative lyrical songwriting, and addictive hooks. This is no flash in the pan album/artist — there’s potential for longevity and continued freshness in Black’s sound.

Marina & the Diamonds – The Family Jewels

Marina Diamandis released her debut album in March, but I didn’t notice it until a friend sent me a link to the video for “I Am Not a Robot.” This sparked my interest enough that when I had the opportunity to review it for the radio station, I gave it a few spins. It’s still spinning on regular rotation in my personal library now.

The album is chock full of pop hooks, delivered by a woman who’s vocal range and technique is impressive in this age of female pop stars who are more popular for their paparazzi photos than their musical talents. She frequently belts out higher notes that make my cats cringe when I attempt to sing along. Marina can hit them with ease. I cannot. This is probably why she’s a huge UK pop star and I’m some shmuck writing music reviews.

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies

I can’t remember how I first ran across this album — whether it was one I picked to review for the radio station or one that a music director handed to me thinking I’d like it. Regardless, I found myself listening to Phantogram on repeat for a week or so in May, and few things will make me happy in the way I am when I hear the first few bars of “Mouthful of Diamonds.”

Sarah Barthel’s sweet and pure vocals are a nice balance to the rough (and often bizarre) vocal delivery from her partner, Josh Carter. The arrangements are a meld of synthpop, hip-hop, and singer/songwriter folk/pop. It’s similar to Dan Black, but a little more digitized and dirty.

Honorable Mentions:

Jennifer Knapp – Letting Go
I reviewed this for Blogcritics back in May, and you can read the full review if you like. In brief, this is her best album to date, and well deserving of a listen for anyone who enjoys thoughtful lyrics, strong female vocals, and music that straddles the line between acoustic and electric folk-pop.

The Like – Release Me
From what I understand, this is nothing like their earlier releases. The album has a 60’s girl-group sound with a modern attitude, similar to the Pipettes.

Indigo Girls – Staring Down the Brilliant Dream
Of course I have to include this in my list, but mostly because I’ve been a long-time fan of the group. This is a live album, and serves both as a gift to fans and as an excellent “best of” album to introduce the group to new listeners. I gave it a full review in August, if you’re interested in reading more.

Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup – “We No Speak Americano
I discovered this song when a friend linked to a video created by Irish step dancers Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding doing their hand dance to this track. I watched the video countless times before researching and discovering that the track is an international hit. Even without the hand dancing, it’s still one of my favorite dance tracks of 2010.

Article first published as Standout Albums of 2010 (In My Humble Opinion) on Blogcritics.

2010 Richmond Folk Festival

Boukman Eksperyans at Richmond Folk Festival 2010
photo by Eli Christman (CC BY 2.0)

The Richmond Folk Festival got its start five years ago when the National Folk Festival was hosted here from 2005-2007. The first year I could attend was 2008, but it happens that the RFF coincides with my undergraduate homecoming weekend, and it was a reunion year for my class, so I opted to do that instead. The following year I went to homecoming again, but this year I decided that it was time to check out the festival instead.

The festival starts on Friday evening and runs through Sunday evening. There are seven stages scattered throughout the riverfront area, including two on Browns Island. The terrain is helpful for blocking sound between the stages so that concurrent performances aren’t interrupting each other. The performances are scheduled in a slightly staggered manner, and many of the artists have repeat performances on a different stage and time/day, so in that regard the festival organizers are making sure that everyone has a chance to see the performances they want to see, which is pretty handy considering that more than 190,000 people attended this year.

I was particularly thrilled to hear and meet some of the Sacred Harp singers from Sand Mountain, Alabama. They performed on one of the stages on Saturday, and thanks to some friends, I had a seat in the second row. Then on Sunday, as I was walking through the festival, I stumbled upon them holding a somewhat impromptu (not scheduled but sanctioned by festival organizers) open sing, and was able to join them for the last four songs.

The most entertaining performance award goes to Capoeira Luanda. They showed amazing strength, flexibility, and focus in their demonstration of this African-influenced Brazilian dance/game/martial art. Here’s a video that someone shot during the Saturday evening performance I saw:

The two other stand-out performances I saw were Benedicte Maurseth and Andes Manta. I have heard recordings of the Hardangfele, or Hardanger fiddle, but it wasn’t until Maurseth explained the construction that I understood why it sounds like two people playing when it’s only one. The fiddle has a set of strings under the ones that are touched by the bow which resonate when the string above them vibrates. She played some trance tunes that were so hauntingly beautiful that I felt a little lost when the music ended. Andes Manta are group of brothers who perform traditional Andean music, including flutes, panpipes, and several stringed instruments. I could have listened to them for hours.

One of the aspects of the folk fest performances that I particularly enjoyed was the educational component. I walked away from most performances with a greater understanding of the context, culture, and technical aspects of the music. Getting some education with my entertainment is a nice bonus.

Unfortunately, because I volunteered about 8 hours of my time at an information booth, I missed quite a bit of the festival (minus what I could hear from one of the nearby stages). While I enjoyed helping out, I think next time I will try to pick a volunteer shift that doesn’t overlap with quite so much of the performance times.

The folk fest is admissions-free, but they do suggest a $5 donation per person per day. There are people carrying bright orange five-gallon buckets all over the event, asking for donations from the people attending, but on average, they collected less than $0.40 per person this year. Thankfully, they are able to get sponsorships to cover the rest of the costs of the festival, but there’s some concern that the festival may have to scale back or start charging an entry fee if they don’t get more donations in the future.

So, if you’re in the Richmond area next October and you are looking for something relatively inexpensive and fun to do, please be sure to check out the folk festival!