On the Air with Mike Flanagan
OpenAir's Guru Talks Up the Future of Radio
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 03:01
When OpenAir debuted at 1340 AM on Halloween 2011, it represented a new direction for its parent station, Colorado Public Radio—and a new approach to broadcasting local music. OpenAir is the brainchild of the CPR crew and Mike Flanagan, an old radio hand who last spent time at Boulder’s indie station Radio 1190. The station celebrated its first birthday last October with a party at the Hi-Dive and a bevy of local bands passing through the performance studio.
In between shifts on the air, Flanagan chatted with the Advocate from the CPR offices about Johnny Cash, how radio is still relevant, and his life on the dial.
Advocate: What do you remember about the first time you ever went on the air?
Mike Flanagan: I was on the air for the first time when I was 16 years old. And I remember the first song I played then was “Turn Down Day” by The Cyrkle, who spelled their name C-Y-R-K-L-E. And I went on the air and said, “That was The Kirkle!” So my very first announcement I screwed up. Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been on the air, I think, at 14 different radio stations. But that’s what I remember about my very first song on the air when I was 16.
A: Does it feel odd to have started your career when bands like The Cyrkle were around, and now you’re announcing the Dirty Projectors and The New Pornographers?
MF: Yeah, I should have grown up at some point. [Laughs.] But I’ve always been fascinated by new music. ... when I was young, The Beatles were still together, and we still had The Kinks and the whole British Invasion. ... Surfing music was really big in 1961. But the funny thing is, you have people playing surf music today. I think there’s a staying power that lots of people didn’t realize was there. I mean, Johnny Cash is like a holy figure among a lot of [today’s artists]. And at the time I think Johnny Cash thought he was just making music for that time and space. So it’s funny how things change, but they stay the same in a strange way. I feel very fortunate to have been around in the times that I’ve been around.
A: Before you were 16 you had visited radio stations. And what attracted you to radio?
MF: Well, I actually visited that very first station with a Cub Scout group when I was about eight years old. And what attracted me to it was, these DJs were running the world. They were the center of the universe. They had two turntables and a microphone—and usually a giant ashtray in front of them—and the phones were ringing and the records were spinning, and they were doing this kind of Top 40 puker type of announcing. I just was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great. People are getting paid to go in and play music and talk to people and be the center of attention, I love this.’ Communication has always been a big interest for me. And the fact that you could play The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Cream was all the better.
A: Now, how did you come to Colorado Public Radio and then come back to start OpenAir?
MF: I’ve been in radio since, you know, the earth’s crust was cooling, but there’s been a dozen years in there that I did things outside of radio. I worked for CPR the first time in their classical service ... and it was a while before they broke [news and classical] into two stations. So I was here from 1991 to 1999. Then I left here and was with KWAB in Boulder for a while, and I worked a little at 99.5 The Mountain, and then I was general manager for Radio 1190 at CU Boulder for six years. And then we reconnected and started talking, and they had this 1340 AM, which they were using to rebroadcast the new signal. ... We just started talking about the possibilities of coming up with a station that would play contemporary music. Because there are some public stations around the country that are doing this. The Current in Minnesota, KEXP [in Seattle] has been doing it for a while.
People are always trying to grow a new audience in radio, and in public radio it’s always been classical or jazz, and now this is just kind of a new iteration. And it’s a nice fit. ... It’s a good time for both; it’s a good time for the music and a good time for public radio to stretch their wings a little bit. So my whole idea was, we can do this in Colorado and we could have a wonderful oasis here for local bands, and not just pay lip service and play two or three local bands and call it good.
A: Radio 1190 has always been one of the most respected radio stations in Colorado. Could you tell us about your time there?
MF: I was their general manager, so I was in charge of all the volunteers who come in and out. There’s a huge turnover at 1190, you have people who are very dedicated and spend their entire college career there, and there’s people who are just curious and check it out.
When I was a kid and I walked into the little station in Wewoka, Oklahoma, somebody who had a good voice and some speech classes might have been able to talk themselves into a job. But since the whole corporate wave that came in, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for young people to get hands-on experience. And to me that was always my goal with 1190; rather than force some kind of grand vision I had for conquering the universe, it was to make sure people got that early on experience that you just can’t get anymore. And there’s really nothing like being on the radio with a microphone in front of you.