Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Andrew Dowd

Finding Bon Iver on radio in Eau Claire

It's with a certain matter of pride that Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver is associated with Eau Claire.

The latest accomplishment for the indie-folk-rock group was four Grammy nominations announced Wednesday, including Record of the Year. In the recent past, he's joined rapper Kanye West onstage, done the late night talk show circuit, toured internationally and spent some time at the top of the music charts.

Feature stories on Vernon's past are peppered with mentions of Eau Claire, UW-Eau Claire and local school music programs, giving the area some fantastic free advertising (even if a few geographically-impaired writers refer to Eau Claire as "a suburb of the Twin Cities").

So why don't we hear his music on the radio around here?

The answer I got is that I'm not listening to the right stations - even if their DJs loudly boast that they're playing the "area's best music."

Me being just a casual radio listener - tuning into a few popular FM stations to and from work - I consulted more musically-savvy minds at the Leader-Telegram and even a competing publication.

Nick Meyer, publisher of Eau Claire's entertainment magazine Volume One, said big radio stations under corporate ownership (Maverick Media and Clear Channel dominate the Eau Claire market) are slow to put more obscure musicians in their playlists, even after other media already adopted them.

"Radio really is the last place where something new comes," he said. "There is nothing more mainstream than these radio groups."

Eau Claire's Clear Channel-owned (WBIZ) 100.7 FM posts a 223-song playlist on its website anointing itself as "All the hits ... one station." Lots of pop, rap and dance music, but not a single Bon Iver track.

Even after appearing on the soundtrack to the second movie of the maddeningly-successful "Twilight" teen-vampire-werewolf love triangle saga, "New Moon," the band's sound isn't widely-accepted enough for major radio stations.

Meyer and the Leader-Telegram's own music scene-aficionado Rob Hanson suggested turning away from corporately-owned radio stations and looking toward smaller community-based ones to find Vernon's music in Eau Claire.

Specifically, they suggested trying WHYS (96.3 FM), a small Eau Claire radio station I'd only heard of for the first time this summer.

"We get usually, in a three-hour show, maybe three requests each month," WHYS DJ Sean Hartnett said. "Of the stuff we get requested, it's a lot of Bon Iver."

WHYS been around for about a half-dozen years and bumps along as a labor of love from staffers enthusiastic about community radio. Vernon even worked at the station in its early years before he temporarily moved to Raleigh, N.C.

Vernon's music even gets to WHYS before it's sold in stores, Hartnett said. The station gets copies directly from Vernon and even has some rare vinyl versions of his early work.

The low-power signal from WHYS gets out to about a 10-mile radius, making it available throughout Eau Claire, but can be impaired by weather and terrain. You can stream it through your computer by visiting whysradio.org.

The signal strength for WUEC (89.7 FM) is stronger, reaching much of the Chippewa Valley and serving as the local transmitter for Wisconsin Public Radio.

On Sunday nights, DJs from UW-Eau Claire take over the programming.

"I'm going to be starting out the first hour of the show playing Bon Iver music and playing some of the side projects," said Scott Morfitt, host of WUEC's Local Independence program.

Starting at 7 p.m. Sunday, Morfitt plans to play Bon Iver tracks as well as Vernon's other projects, Gayngs and Volcano Choir.

And Morfitt, who interviewed Vernon when Bon Iver's breakout "For Emma, Forever Ago" was released, said he usually includes tracks from the native musician during his three-hour program devoted to local bands.

"I play something Vernon-related every week," Morfitt said.

Now that Vernon's music is getting attention from the Grammys, will Eau Claire's bigger radio stations begin to play his music?

Meyer is doubtful.

"People have given up on that a long time ago," he said of corporately-owned stations playing locally-bred music. "I don't think you hear it because people aren't trying anymore."

Even if there was a surge of requests for Bon Iver or small, local bands, Meyer doubts they would be heard now that more corporate radio broadcasts in Eau Claire are being outsourced to New York DJs and other large stations.

As for the Eau Claire music scene, Meyer said Bon Iver CDs are by far the best-selling albums at Volume One's Local Store. During the summer release of the band's second full-length album, "Bon Iver, Bon Iver," Meyer said the store's release party had a line around the block.

Bon Iver's music is not for everybody. I don't own either of the full-length albums or Blood Bank EP and have only heard a few of their songs.

But I was struck when listening to a track on the radio, momentarily stunned at the unique sound.

The problem was I was enduring Twin Cities traffic - with my personal favorite, trendy Minnesota Public Radio music station "the Current" on the dial -- to discover music hatched from the city I live in.

If you want to sample Bon Iver's music without leaving Eau Claire, here are your chances:

+ Listen 7 to 10 p.m. Sundays on WUEC (89.7 FM) to the Local Independence program.

+ Call WHYS (96.3 FM) at 715-831-9497 with your song requests. If the signal is not strong in your area, listen to the station online by visiting whysradio.org and click on the "Listen Now" link.

+ Visit the Local Store, 17 S. Barstow St., and request the sales staff to play some of the band's music while you shop, browse or just loiter.

+ Find Bon Iver's channel at YouTube.com to watch free music videos.

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