Detroit's Digital Underground: WDET Brings Back the Music

When radio station WDET dropped nearly all of its music programming a couple years ago, it left a deep dark void in Detroit's music scene. Even as Detroit gained some excellent local news talk in shows like "Detroit Today," local musicians lost one of their biggest media outlets. And those who wanted to tune into FM radio to hear something different lost their place on the dial.

Now, however, WDET is using its HD radio capacity -- which gives it multiple "stations" to broadcast on -- to offer something more to music fans. And that would be music. And lots of it.

WDET 101.9 FM is an NPR affiliate located on the campus of Wayne State University. Through the magic of the high def radio and the Internet, the station is bringing a vanguard of local DJs together to represent Detroit's creative class to the world through a series of innovative broadcasts, collectively called The Avenue. Having the HD radio station also means Detroit Public Radio will get to dust off its extensive music library, which includes more than 30,000 titles.

"If you listen to 89X or 97.9 FM, they're only playing one kind of music," says Aaron Vince, WDET public relations assistant and a DJ for The Avenue. He hosts a Thursday night show called "Cookie Breath." "What makes WDET different is that you're exposed to so many different forms of music, through a single station."  

The Avenue is broadcast nightly from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on WDET's HD station. You can also hear it on the web here. HD radio is digitally broadcast radio, giving FM stations CD-quality sound, and AM stations FM quality sound. Unlike satellite radio services like Sirius or XM, the service is free; but like sattleite radio, you have to purchase a special  receiver to get HD radio. Learn more about it here. Or, like we said, just listen to it on the web here.

The Avenue DJs spin all kinds of music -- new wave, industrial, hip-hop and lots of local stuff. It's a commercial-free station, and WDET says it will replicate the mission and values of traditional public radio programming, and of course it will abide by FCC guidelines. Just think more music, less talky talky.

"Everyone's really musically oriented, and they're going to educate you, if you listen," says Vince of the fellow DJs. "I think that's why a lot of people are here at WDET."

"Detroit Today" talk show producer Monica Isaac says her own background influences the music she plays on "The Outer Ends," which mixes Afrobeat, Motown, soul and hip-hop sounds.  

"I really want to play more North African beats, because I'm Egyptian," she says. "And I find that you can't play Afrobeat without playing soul or funk. You can really hear those influences, too, in the 1959-1960 Motown sound."

Some shows chronicle the city's indie music scene. On "Musicians' Pick," "The Back Story" producer Mike Blank spends an hour conducting personal, in-depth interviews with some of Detroit's up-and-coming recording artists. "We just hang out, and listen to music they like, and talk about what it means to them, and how it influences their own sound," Blank says.

Other DJs bring hard-to-find music from around the world. "Detroit Today" producer Amanda Le Claire says her show, "Soft Edge," reflects the music she lives for: electro-pop, new wave and electronica.

"I find my music through digging," says Le Claire. She digs through music blogs, foreign art magazines and stacks of 12-inch disco records from the '80s to create her playlists. One recent "Soft Edge" show explored "remixes from producers Designer Drugs, a new track from New Look featuring former Detroiter Jimmy Edgar, music from Belgian label Kraak, and much, much more."

Clearly, this is not "A Prairie Home Companion."

"It's incredibly exciting," Le Claire says, "to find new music in your own time, created by people your own age, in your own generation."

Through social networking, The Avenue DJs are also revolutionizing the connection between DJ and listener. Le Claire's "Soft Edge" Facebook group allows musicians to submit their songs, and a "Soft Edge" web site is currently in the works. John Notarianni's show, "Electric Park Radio," links listeners to a MySpace page updated with weekly playlists. WDET Sound Engineer Matt Treviathan creates podcasts of his industrial show, "In the Flat Field," that are available to download on iTunes and at his web site, During an episode of "The Outer Ends" celebrating Motown's 50th anniversary, Isaac used Facebook to solicit real-time song requests from her listeners. 

The HD format could also bring back music lovers who felt spurned when WDET moved to a mostly news format in March 2007, canceling five popular music shows and dismissing popular hosts in the process.

Vince says the HD programming will target a new generation of music listeners: Young people who develop their musical tastes through a computer, not a radio. "They're always on a laptop, either on MySpace or doing research. So what better way to find out about new music than to go online and hear it, literally 24 hours a day?" he asks.

And hopefully those listeners will become part of the WDET core audience, too

"I think what music offered, back in the day, was the ability to grow up with WDET," says producer Grant Malsberger, who hosts the music show "Multiplicity" on The Avenue.

Malsberger says he became interested in the NPR news shows as a teenager, after listening to WDET's local music programming. "I think the HD can offer a similar sort of accessibility. We can make a whole new generation of people ask, what is WDET all about?"

Ashley Woods is a recent Wayne State grad and an intern for Model D. Send feedback here.

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WDET's studio

Stacked vinyl on a cart in WDET's music library

Aaron Vince

Monica Isaac

Amanda Le Claire

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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