(By Spencer Phelps) In the county of Marion, Ohio, population 70,000, there are six radio stations – three iHeart stations that all share one roof, and three independent LPFM stations. Most of the time, LPFM stations don’t cause much of a stir. According to Radio Research Consortium (a Nielsen subsidiary), only a small handful in Ohio ever get an audience large enough to show up in the ratings at all. But in April of 2016, when I turned WDIF-LP 97.5 FM into the only LPFM in the country to play blues music as the main format, we didn’t just show up, we blew up. Now, every six months when the diary reports come out, I frame them and hang them on the wall in our studio. I’m here to say: blues music works, and it works in Marion, Ohio, of all places.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, Central Ohio was home to jazz/blues station WBBY. My dad loved that station; listened all the time. He loved it so much that when they announced they were changing formats, he got some blank cassette tapes and started recording the station on his boombox out in the garage. That’s dedication. So when I was presented with the opportunity to run a local LPFM, the choice was obvious. It had to be a blues station.
I subscribe to the “quality over quantity” theory of marketing. I love Columbus, OH, stations like CD102 (indie/alt rock), The Blitz (hard rock and heavy metal), and my favorite that doesn’t broadcast over the Internet anymore because they got too popular and couldn’t afford the music licensing, Mountain Chill out of Telluride, Colorado. On top of the initial inspiration, I had a gut feeling blues would work in this area. Marion is a rural-ish area. People are mainly blue collar, salt-of-the-earth types. We work, we drink, and a lot of folks in the 35-64 age range here seem to have an appreciation for a solid guitar or harmonica solo.
Sure, the local Country station has fans, but when you laser-in on non-mainstream genres, you can create “superfans,” which is what I want. These people don’t just enjoy the music. They care about the station itself. They wonder how we’re all doing. They actively listen to our sponsors/underwriters. They have literally called these businesses just to thank them for supporting our station and blues music. We still receive a couple “OMG I just found this station and I love it and I never turn it off” letters and e-mails from new fans every week – even three years in. Our superfans send in personal donations. Imagine that – people sending money to your station just because they love it. That “superfandom” translates to results for our clients.
Now, when I started compiling the music, I figured we could join up with a great blues music radio network, share resources and ideas, really get plugged into the blues radio scene. Turns out, there is none. Some stations around the country have occasional blues music shows, but that’s about it. According to www.radio-locator.com and Wikipedia, there are only 13 stations in the entire country that even have blues as part of their main format. Most of those 13 are what I call “blues and” stations. They play “jazz and blues” or “blues and gospel” or “blues and AC.” Only one or two of them are pure 24/7 blues stations. Then there’s us. We’re the only LPFM with a dedicated blues music format in the entire country.
So is blues music dead? Absolutely not! As told by the title of 2018’s #1 blues album by Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive and Well. It’s gone local/regional without a strong national network to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds. Columbus has a huge blues scene. Their blues society, and the societies in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, etc. send blues bands to The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge held in Memphis every year. For a week at the end of every January, tens of thousands of people flock to the main drag in Memphis to hear blues music from all over the world. Last year, finalists of the IBC included bands from Spain and Israel.
Does anyone outside of Marion care that we’re playing the blues? Absolutely! We have station IDs from some of the most prominent blues artists today – Charlie Musselwhite, Jim Allchin, Bobby Rush, just to name a few. We’re now on the mailing lists of the biggest blues music distributors and we feature new blues whenever we can. We’re really plugged into the blues scene, and our online numbers continue to grow. We’re also creating original content that is getting syndicated out of Marion. We produce the only Top 10 blues singles report show in the nation – Toppatha Charts. It’s playing on a few online networks now and we’re in negotiations with a couple other LPFM stations in Ohio to replay it as well.
But it’s not just the blues that is making our station such a force in Marion. As with every LPFM, we are licensed by a non-profit. Ours is a 501c3 public charity called Marion Makes Music, Inc. We have two main goals: to keep the American cultural heritage of blues music alive on this station, and to use proceeds generated by our station and events (we also run Marion County’s annual Blues & BBQ Festival plus other events) to provide free music lessons to children in Marion whose families couldn’t otherwise afford such an opportunity. Marion Makes Music vets local music teachers and matches them with children looking to learn.
And I instituted one major rule for our station: no politics. Blues is already a narrow-enough genre. Absolutely no need to split it to the left or right. Contrary to what you might think of blues music, our station maintains a super-positive attitude. We’re grateful to our supporters and to our community. For our local content, we host live shows that feature guests from the community, and (to the occasional annoyance of our hardcore blues fans) we have a weekly two-hour show that features underground/unsigned Ohio hip-hop – Grihine Time Radio. We’re really trying to be a herald for music in the Mid-Ohio area, and we focus on blues music because blues is the foundation of a lot of the music we hear today – oh and it’s just awesome.
If you’re ever in the Marion, Ohio area, stop by and say hello! I’d love to show you our ratings and tell you more than I’m allowed to mention publicly. We have big plans for this station and the blues, including but not limited to a blues radio network and our very own club that draws big-name blues artists to Marion. As we march forward towards peak market saturation in Marion, I always fantasize: What if more full-power stations had the stones to switch to blues music?
Spencer Phelps is Station Manager of TruBlues975 and President, Marion Makes Music, Inc. Contact him at [email protected] or (740) 244-9836.