How important is college radio to today’s underground bands? 

An exploration of modern radio’s role in music discovery with WPRK’s “Local Heroes” and the Modern Music Movement

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF R.E.M.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF R.E.M.

R.E.M. TRIBUTE NIGHT “DRIVER: 8 TOOK THE BREAK”

with Stephen Rock and Wheeler Newman 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28 | The Imperial at Washburn Imports, 1800 N. Orange Ave. | 407-228-4992 | free

Will streaming music be the death or salvation of radio? It depends on how you define modern radio. As radio options divide listeners across streaming services like Spotify Radio or Pandora and digital services like Sirius XM, the good old AM/FM dial accumulates a thin layer of dust. But while radio may be an evolving concept, so far it hasn’t phased out traditional channels.

Local station WPRK at Rollins College continues broadcasting, as it has since 1952. On air every Wednesday at 5 p.m. is “Local Heroes,” which has been on air since the ’90s (facebook.com/wprklocalheroes), when alternative rock dominated freeform shows. Currently hosted by George Wallace, Ilene Lieber and Daniel Pacchioni, the show’s intent is to highlight Orlando community figures doing interesting things in our city.

It also features live performances with a primarily local focus, inviting a range of talented area bands like Roadkill Ghost Choir, the Sh-Booms and Ancient Sun to perform songs on the show. For Pacchioni, who coordinates the music schedule, it’s an opportunity to expose less-motivated music listeners to sounds they otherwise wouldn’t encounter without specifically seeking it out, a true return to the roots of college radio.

“It’s funny,” Pacchioni says. “When I ask people if they like music, they’re like, ‘Of course!’ But then I ask them what sort of bands they like, and it’s all the bands you hear on popular radio. At that point, I’m like, ‘Do you have time to look for new music?’ Maybe it’s just convenient for you to like the stuff that’s out there already, and just jam out to that. So maybe it’s not your fault that you like what’s popular. Maybe it’s inconvenient for you to find new music.”

In the ’80s, when college radio was a vital tool for audiophiles to discover underground bands, R.E.M. ruled the airwaves and defined what later became identified as college rock. An independent rock band from Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. released their debut LP, Murmur, in 1983 and, somewhat shockingly, Rolling Stone named it their No. 1 album of the year. Through constant touring and college radio airplay, the band ascended to define an era and a genre without the support of a major record label, which would change in 1988 when the band signed with Warner Bros.

It’s this introductory era of R.E.M. that local show promoter Nicholas Sellitto of the Modern Music Movement is celebrating with his free R.E.M. tribute night at the Imperial 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, featuring Stephen Rock and Wheeler Newman.

“It’s gonna be a broad selection of R.E.M. songs, but it’s not going to be the Warner Bros. years, meaning it’s gonna be all the real college-based stuff,” Sellitto says. “The stuff off of Murmur, the stuff off of Reckoning, Chronic Town, Dead Letter Office, obviously Fables of the Reconstruction.”

In the ’80s, Sellitto worked at bygone Orlando independent record store Murmur Records, which was named for the seminal R.E.M. record. The owner, Don Gilliland, was friends with R.E.M. and frequently invited other Athens bands to perform in the store, exposing Sellitto to that scene, as well as under-the-radar bands whose records the store carried. Other than his independent explorations, Sellitto credits WPRK for supporting underground music at a time when Orlando lacked many alternative means for music discovery.

“I listened to a lot of underground music, obviously, because I worked at the independent record store,” Sellitto says. “There was WPRK, of course, which was a lot bigger. They had more pull than they do now, because that was the only place you could hear modern rock bands, unless you went to some of the clubs that were into underground music.”

He continues, “Orlando didn’t really have a big underground scene, so you really had to listen to WPRK. That’s really the only station that was doing that.”

WPRK maintains this role, and Pacchioni says he gets calls every week excitedly inquiring after featured bands. He’s never had a band turn down a session. To increase the visibility of “Local Heroes,” though, Pacchioni also releases it in podcast form through iTunes. Upcoming performances include local bands Case Work, Bellows, and Beebs and Her Money Makers. Sellitto, who remains a WPRK listener and active music promoter, admits radio’s role in his life is diminished since those early college rock heydays.

“Nowadays, you have so many options with the streaming and stuff, I think radio’s kind of gotten lost in the wake,” Sellitto says. “And as far as marketing goes, how do you make people interested in the local college station?”

Pacchioni says it’s important to adapt, but he also points out that motivated music lovers are more self-reliant, as the Internet enables their niche addictions without the need of radio to force-feed them a broader scope of music styles.

“If you’re good at finding new music, you’ve been doing it for a while,” Pacchioni says. “It’s kind of like tying your shoe or brushing your teeth. You find new music; then you comb your hair. It’s part of your life. If it’s part of your life, then it’s really easy to find new music.”

Sellitto’s R.E.M. tribute night is part of a regular series the Modern Music Movement hosts at the Imperial with the seemingly opposite goal of “Local Heroes,” highlighting classic songs of major music legends, like Neil Young, Sam Cooke and David Bowie. However, this particular theme night touches home a little closer for Sellitto, who personally experienced R.E.M.’s rapid rise, and the local heroes he selected to perform are uniquely suited to bring the band’s alt-country-leaning sound to life.

“Stephen Rock and Wheeler Newman are two of the best local writers of that alt-country Americana,” Sellitto says. “They’re originals in their own right. R.E.M. is a band that the guys like that really admire. Stephen is an amazing talent, and so is Wheeler, they’re great friends of mine, and I just knew that they would pull it off brilliantly.”

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