Posted March 9, 2008 by Drew Jubera
It’s afternoon, you get in your car, you turn on the radio. You’re the kind who still turns on the radio. You punch buttons until you find something you can stand. It takes a while. You hear Bob Dylan singing “Love Minus Zero.” You look where you landed: 1690 AM.
You think: interesting. You might not even know what Dylan you’re listening to, but you know it’s not a Dylan you usually hear on the oldies station. So you stick with it until it ends, and before you can hit the button again to move on to something, anything else you can stomach for more than 10 seconds, somebody’s reading. Poetry.
Poetry! Former poet laureate Richard Wilbur is reading his poem “The Juggler.” You’re so stunned you can’t help but listen for a minute — “Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom’s / balancing up on his nose… / Damn, what a show, we cry” — and you wind up so lost in the sheer, quirky, nerviness of it that you forget to mash the button again until the next new thing is already on: Debussy’s “Serenade for the Doll.”
Now you think: This is my radio?
In an age of Googling, the iPod shuffle and attention deficit disorder, WMLB might be the most aptly random soundtrack on Atlanta radio.
It’s surely unlike anything else. In a medium where format rules, WMLB embraces chaos theory: blues, opera, country, R&B, comedy, jazz, roots, bird calls, spoken word that ranges from Muhammad Ali’s “Sting Like a Butterfly” poetics to the croaking pathos of Babe Ruth’s Yankee Stadium farewell speech. All of it’s just another hour of programming at WMLB.
The station’s audience of about 40,000 is minuscule by commercial radio standards — “It’s a niche format, and our niche is we’re not a niche,” says general manager Jeff Davis — yet its listeners tend to be blood-relative loyal, each treating WMLB as a personal pass-along find at the end of the dial.
Blacksmith Ray Bowen keeps WMLB on in his Clarkston shop all day and urges it on anybody who walks in. Pete Knapp, owner of Atlanta music label Shut Eye Records, plugs it in his weekly newsletter.
Even local indie buzz band the Black Lips recommended the station on its blog, calling WMLB “good music you can listen to in your car without having to fumble with the knob forever.”
“I’m playing in here. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Joe Weber, the station’s trim 62-year-old owner, allows from inside the sixth-floor Midtown studio where twice a week he hosts the afternoon “Long Drive Home.”
“Maybe I’m just doing a better job than the average guy who’s hitting buttons and can’t find what he wants,” he adds. “Part of it is my strange musical tastes.”
WMLB wouldn’t exist without Weber‘s tastes — or his money.
He owned a bakery supply company that had been in his family for three generations when he bought a radio station in 1997. That station, with a format much like WMLB’s, became his focus until he unloaded it three years later and returned full time to the bakery business.
Then he sold his business and bought WMLB for $12 million in 2006, re-establishing his anti-format format. The station has yet to make a cent.
“Once he was able to sell that business, he had the time and money to invest in a different project,” says Mike Rose, general manager for about a year during Weber‘s first run as station owner. “He was a multimillionaire who could buy a retirement home and live on the beach. Instead, he bought a radio station.
“My impression of him is he was a struggling artist on the inside looking for a way to express himself,” Rose adds. “All those years he devoted to business, he felt a little hindered in what he wanted to do. He wanted a venue to express it. This gives him his own venue.”
Weber‘s take: “I felt a radio station is something you could grow old with, especially if you own it. They can’t throw you out if you own it.”
Weber comes by his eclectic musical preferences honestly. Raised in New Jersey, he took classical piano lessons as a kid, played in a rock band during high school, listened to doo wop and jazz on the radio. At 40, he took voice lessons and “learned about Italian song.”
“At a certain age, you stop listening to Top 40. For me, it was in my late 20s,” he says. “You become curious about other things. You see a movie, hear the soundtrack and say, ‘What is that? It’s not Iggy Pop.’ And you find out it’s the aria from ‘Gianni Seicchi’ by Puccini, from ‘A Room With a View.’ Millions of people loved that.”
“Variety was something missing in radio,” he adds. “Radio became so predictable. There are a thousand stations and eight formats.”
Weber‘s idea of a format is, basically, keep it interesting. The station’s 3,000-plus record library is sorted into a number of categories. Sets are then built, with the help of a computer, by plucking from them all and arranging musical narratives with artists that range from James Brown to Ralph Stanley. Added to that are interviews and Weber‘s own comic bits.
The four daytime DJs — an actor, a bass player, Weber and his son Jacob, a 30-year-old screenwriter who tapes his show from Los Angeles under the alias Grover Gnoman — add their own choices and tweak the sets.
“We’re encouraged to go with our mood,” says Scott Glazer, the bass player, on air from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
There’s no late-night DJ. The playlists are devised by assistant program director Max Arbes and assistant musical director Neal Cohen.
The addition of Arbes and Cohen in the past year signals a kind of sea change to WMLB’s whatever-Joe-wants philosophy, which Weber himself says began to “feel stale.”
Both 24, Arbes and Cohen have injected a younger, sometimes contrasting view of roots and Americana music, as well as more current tastes. Weber‘s son, Jacob, slips in indie and alternative bands his father previously would have deep-sixed. There’s more White Stripes, Flight of the Conchords, the Decemberists.
“He’s opened up substantially from the person he was in his first radio venture,” says Jacob Weber. “If the Big Man hears something he doesn’t like, then you have to fight for it. I think he expects us to say what we want and push things.”
Still, Arbes adds, “It’s definitely [Joe’s] baby.”
That was clear one afternoon when Weber replaced one of the bird songs that serve as the station’s musical signature.
The playlist on a studio computer screen showed “white breasted nuthatch.” Weber, an obsessive bird watcher, wasn’t having it. “I always get that nuthatch,” he complained.
He mulled a replacement from the station library, including sounds other than birds. He said he was thinking maybe a gray wolf. Or even a human baby.
Then he made his choice. On the air that afternoon at WMLB: a pilot whale.
Like most of the station’s programming, it’s doubtful a pilot whale was heard anywhere else on the dial.
A TYPICAL HALF-HOUR ON ATYPICAL WMLB
“Kiss of Fire” Louis Armstrong
“Lucky Lips” Ruth Brown
“Dracula” (Part 1 of radio play) Orson Welles
“Little Ghost” The White Stripes
“The Underdog” Spoon
“Fox on the Run” The Country Gentlemen
“The Moose Story” (standup comedy) Woody Allen
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe Goes Before Us” Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
“My Journey to the Sky” Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“Reggae Got Soul” Toots and the Maytals