Andrea Swensson and Jay Gabler on Writing for the Current
What’s it like to work as a writer at The Current/MPR? Whether it’s covering a community mourning the loss of Prince or spinning your writing chops into on-air segments, it seems like a fascinating place to work. To get the scoop, I invited their writer/host/producer Andrea Swensson and digital producer Jay Gabler to talk about their jobs. We shared some pink champagne to honor Prince, they played a lot of fetch with Josie and we had a great discussion. Thanks for coming on guys!
1. How did you end up at The Current/MPR? Why is it the right home for your writing?
Andrea: I could sense I was nearing a burnout from the daily churn of working as music editor at City Pages. Toward the end of my time there, I was expected to publish eight blog posts a day, three written by me and five others edited from freelancers — and so I approached the Current to see if I might have something to offer to their growing online presence. I was inspired by other music journalists who had made the leap from print to public radio, namely Ann Powers at NPR Music and Jim DeRogatis, who left the Chicago Sun-Times to write columns for WBEZ. I also sensed that the alt-weekly scene was become more and more pageview-obsessed and longed to write for a place that appreciated substance over easy clicks. To my great surprise, they were able to find a way to utilize Legacy Amendment funding to create a full-time position for me, and four and a half years later, I’m still here!
There’s a lot I could say about what MPR and the Current has done for my writing, but the thing I’m most excited about right now is that they’ve encouraged my experimentation with audio storytelling to the point that I now have an on-air presence. That certainly wasn’t the plan when I started, but over the past four years I’ve learned how to produce audio in ProTools and how to translate my interviewing skillz to the radio, all while digging deeper into long-form writing on the web. I think my writing has improved tenfold since I’ve gotten here, simply because I have the time and space to work more creatively and intentionally.
Jay: I’ve been at MPR since 2013. I’d been with the Twin Cities Daily Planet as arts editor for several years — which was great, but I was ready to move to a larger organization with some new opportunities. I decided that my goals were to find a new job where I could (a) keep writing, (b) still online, (c) about the arts, (d) at a nonprofit that was (e) bigger than the one I was at. I figured I’d be lucky to meet a few of those goals, but then I saw Andrea tweet out this job posting and I was like, yep! That’s the one. I was lucky to be hired, and here I am. It’s great to write for MPR’s music services (The Current, YourClassical, Classical MPR) for a lot of reasons, but they can be summed up in the idea that every day, we get to invent what it means to be a writer at a radio station. It’s cool to have the chance to decide what sorts of online content (writing, photography, video, social media) will complement the on-air music, and events like Rock the Garden.
2. What’s the writing style like at The Current/MPR? What’s your content mission?
Andrea: We’re your music-obsessed friend who wants to share their discoveries with you in a way that gets you excited and makes you want to nerd out, too. I have always had a mission of trying to write in a way that is welcoming and avoids being patronizing or condescending. It’s a fine line between musical expertise and snobbery, and we never want to talk about things in a way that shuts people out. My favorite part about music is the way it unites people across different cultures, languages, and geographies. Everyone here is so passionate about what we do, and I think you can pick up on that in our style and tone.
Jay: The Current’s official description is that it “brings listeners the best authentic new music alongside the music that inspired it, from local to legendary, indie to influential, new to nostalgic.” Our job, as I see it, is to contribute writing and other online content that explores and amplifies the story of that music and the artists who make it, with (for Andrea and me) a particular focus on Minnesota music — our Local Current blog is funded by the Legacy Amendment. The style of that writing varies, but in general we try to match the tone of the hosts you hear (including Andrea herself, now) on air: informal and engaging, but also informative and respectful of the artists and the community.
3. What are you most of proud of that you’ve produced there? What do you hope to produce in the next year?
Andrea: First and foremost, I’m so proud that this crazy idea of writing for a radio station actually worked, to the point that it actually helped to create jobs for other writers in our community. Working with Jay Gabler and now Cecilia Johnson, too, has been so rad. And watching Jay expand the college contributor program and get so many more voices onto our blog is killer.
Personally, I think the O.K. Show is a milestone for me, especially the live taping I did with P.O.S. And obviously the time I spent with Prince is something I’ll treasure forever. I honestly think that I became a better writer by covering him. He made me want to be excellent, and pushed me to grow in ways I haven’t quite processed it yet.
As for upcoming projects: I am writing a book! And it’s nearing completion. I’ve spent the last two years researching the history of the Minneapolis Sound, pre-Prince, and all the funk, soul and R&B bands that came out of North Minneapolis and Rondo. It’s also turned into a book about the history of the Twin Cities, the racism we’re still trying to own up to, and how everything from segregation to the construction of I-94 impacted the music community. The music from that era is so ridiculously good. The book is called Got to Be Something Here and it’s due out next year.
Jay: It became my responsibility — very quickly, under sad and shocking circumstances — to write The Current’s obituary for Prince. I wrote the opening, and then adapted a profile I’d written for a previous spotlight. Prince himself had read that profile when it was first published and he chose to share it on Twitter, so I knew he’d appreciated it, and obviously that meant a lot. In the form of an obituary, the piece took on a life of its own — not only was it read by over 100,000 people, it became the script for a national radio special on Prince’s life and music. The Minnesota History Center even printed my piece out and put it in a display case with Prince’s Purple Rain suit. As a writer, it was gratifying to have been able to help so many people understand Prince and his work. As for the coming year…I don’t want to say too much, but I am planning something to coincide with the Desert Trip festival (a.k.a. “Oldchella”) that I’m pretty excited to write.