Rocker Bruce Hazel conjures up Springsteen with an anthem about Detroit. Then Nicole Atkins breezes in, sweetly singing her moody,'50s-infused orchestral pop. Lucky Five shakes things up with its funk-rock mix before Appalucia introduces its edgy, front-porch folk. After Aqualads serve up twangy surf rock, Grids hammer things home with slam-bang hardcore. An eclectic concert featuring notable Charlotte artists? No, you're listening to Plaza Midwood Community Radio ...
On a Wednesday morning in November, Jason Michel shows off his new radio studio in a small salmon-colored building tucked behind Intermezzo Pizza at the edge of Plaza Midwood. As he talks, the faint scent of cooked cereal wafts from the nearby Kellogg's factory. Farther down, across the railroad tracks, city garbage trucks sit waiting for trash pick-up day. It's the perfect, hidden-away, industrial area for a modern-day pirate radio set-up. Only, Michel's station isn't forced to broadcast over airwaves from a ship off the California coast or a suburban bedroom in Phoenix. It's available to anyone via UStream at www.pmcradio.org.
"That was totally the spirit of this whole thing," Michel says, referring to the '80s pirate stations that came to mainstream attention in the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume. He laughs. "We've already gotten our share of Christian Slater jokes."
Plaza Midwood Community Radio, which Michel and partner Scott Slagle soft-launched in January, is a commercial-free station that's evolved from a Frankenstein computer in Michel's living room into brand-new equipment inside this 10-by-11 studio. The place has a rich history: countless artists have recorded here over the past two decades. On the walls are gold records and pictures of regional acts such as Southern Culture on the Skids. In addition to PMCR, the building currently houses recording businesses like Studio B Mastering.
Michel and Slagle just moved in, and they say being in a proper studio will enable them to broadcast live and offer a place — other than some dude's living room — where aspiring hosts and DJs can put together a range of quality shows.
"This whole year, until now, has been a beta mode," says Michel, who plans to officially launch in early 2012. "We have to figure out who wants to do live shows and who can produce them. We hope to have a set schedule by the first of the year. We're looking at different ways for people to interact, too, so listeners can chime in or have a dialogue with us through Skype or a chatroom."
When it's up and running at 100 percent, listeners will hear a variety of sounds, from local acts played on shuffle to shows such as a recent Wu Tang Clan special to music from the farthest reaches of the avant garde. You'll find rebroadcasts of local performances including Find Your Muse Open Mic night at The Evening Muse and my own Off the Record series, which combines stripped-down performances with on-stage interviews.
It's been a lot of work for 38-year-old Michel, a manager at Snug Harbor, and Slagle, the 39-year-old owner of Electric Mountain Recording Studio. Michel handles the legal and software end of things, while Slagle designed the initial website and works on the audio. If all goes as planned, the station won't be exclusively about music. Michel dreams of opening air time for citizens to discuss and offer opinions on all manner of community issues.
"I'd like it to become a place where there could be a live show or someone can call in to talk about local news or politics," Michel says. "The doors are open. Anyone who has an idea or wants to share something, bring it. We'll figure out a way to make it happen."
He envisions an all-ages format for the station: in addition to hipster music and issues, he hopes to find long-time residents willing to tell old stories about the neighborhood as well as a morning children's show. Although there's no censorship at PMCR, Michel and Slagle are cognizant of the kinds of shows they run during particular times of the day. "There are people in the community who won't be cool with the f-bomb in the middle of the day," he says. "We might have a safe-for-work period and a kids playlist in the morning that would feature bands like the Plaza Family Band. Right now though, it's the wild west, which is kind of exciting."
Most importantly to Michel, PMCR should be a forum for "traditionally excluded voices. I think people have become disenfranchised by commercial radio, which seems to occupy a bubble that has nothing to do with anybody's lives. It's so contrived and so paid for. I think there's a longing for something that feels more genuine."
Michel and Slagle already have a database of more than 1,500 songs. Right now, the station plays on shuffle when no show is on the schedule, but the new studio means more opportunities for DJs and hosts to experiment. The station's software creates schedules and is capable of generating a local playlist that ensures an artist isn't heard more than once in a four-hour period. Michel admits the station is still missing some homegrown talent. That's why he and Slagle are inviting area musicians to submit their works, either by e-mail or physical CD. And Michel adds that just because the station is called Plaza Midwood Radio doesn't mean contributors must live in the neighborhood.