It’s 6 a.m. on a Friday in Haverhill, and Dana Marshall has already been awake for two hours. With veins full of caffeine and a head full of headlines, she breaks the morning silence by warming up her voice— uttering the vowels, changing her pitch from high to low—and sits in front of a microphone. All that’s left to do is the same thing she’s done off and on since she first came here 15 years ago: play the music she loves for a Greater Boston radio audience that’s tuned its dial to 92.5 FM.
Whether you know it by the place on the dial, its call letters (WXRV), or simply as The River, the station recalls an era before radio’s dark days of consolidation and corporatization. Instead, it’s an independent 50,000-watt throwback whose tunes reflect the tastes of its music-junkie hosts and growing audience instead of demands from a boardroom, where you know real people are at the controls because you can occasionally hear them sneeze and cough. With the station’s 20th anniversary coming up on August 1, The River has proven that radio stations can thrive by being genuine, by being part of the lives of the people that listen, and by giving them something more than background music.
Marshall’s Friday morning playlist meanders from The Beatles and Stevie Nicks to Mumford & Sons and The Head and the Heart, with “Freeform Facebook Friday” listener requests filling some of the gaps. In industry parlance, The River is a triple-A format station; in everyday terms, it plays singer-songwriter-based music for the grown-up children of the ’80s and ’90s. Every 15 minutes or so, Marshall warmly interjects, relaying news bites, a forecast for more snow on the first day of spring, and yesterday’s March Madness scores like she’s telling dinner guests what the entre?e is. At 10 a.m., she passes the mic to Carolyn Morrell, another of the music junkies that comprise the station’s nine-host lineup. “To go to work each day and dance crazily and unabashedly to the music you’re playing—that’s a pretty great job,” Morrell says.
That music—which reaches radio dials from the New Hampshire seacoast to below Metro Boston (the “river” has equal claim to the Merrimack, the Charles, and the Piscataqua)—emanates from an art deco building on How Street with solar panels on the roof. Back in the 1940s, before vinyl 45s, big bands used to play live in a studio on the station’s top floor with granite floors and rubber-rimmed doors. In 1995, the year that 92.5 FM became The River after a half century of changes at the station, the space became the River Music Hall. Ever since, the walls have been covered in Sharpie scribbles from Jack Johnson, The Lumineers, and more than 1,000 other artists who have performed for pint-sized audiences.
In 2008, Donald St. Sauveur had been mulling over whether or not to take a job as the station’s general manager. When he saw Ingrid Michaelson play in the River Music Hall, he made up his mind. “It was just so intimate and so magical,” he says. “I’d been working in corporate radio for almost 10 years, and I hadn’t seen a performance at a radio station in almost 15 years. Radio stations looked like insurance companies.”
Dana Marshall has been part of The River for 15 years
In the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, commercial radio went through upheaval and consolidation, with a handful of corporate owners like iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) taking over the dial, often swapping out human hosts and regional character for automated playlists. Independent Boston stations like WFNX, which The River sees as something of a vanguard of its format, closed their doors, and there’s been no shortage of 21st-century disruption, from Pandora to Spotify to satellite radio. But even without the might of a publicly traded company behind it, The River still speaks to an audience of 500,000—nearly double the 286,000 listeners it had in 2008. To hear the staff tell it, that’s because curated experiences haven’t satisfied an appetite for discovery. “Initially, you think, ‘Wow, they’re playing all the things that I love,’” Marshall says. “But what I’ve found, from a personal perspective, is that it very quickly becomes about sameness. There’s not much undulation, or element of surprise, or personal connection.”
Instead, The River’s Greater Boston audience demands a station that sorts through music and finds the great in the glut. “It’s like I make 24 mix tapes every day,” says Matt Phipps, the afternoon-drive host and The River’s program and music director. “We’re doing the work for you, and the variety that you hear every hour is what’s made us an important part of the radio landscape.”
Charts and sales and industry research factor in to what the sta- tion plays, but to an unusual degree, so do social media requests and the hosts’ intuition. Phipps and St. Sauveur took a train to see Irish singer-songwriter Hozier play to 80 people in a New York City lounge. “We said, ‘This guy’s going to be mammoth,’ and we were the first station in Boston to play ‘Take Me to Church,’” Phipps says. On Sunday mornings, Marshall hosts Brunch by the River, a ramble through jazz, blues, folk, and the more obscure sounds on the edges of the station’s format. The playlists can also have a spontaneity that corporate stations do not: When The Band singer and drummer Levon Helm passed away in 2012, The River played an hour’s worth of his songs.
And whether it’s putting homegrown artists on a pedestal, recapping the Red Sox box scores between songs, or putting on the Riverfront Music Festival, a free Labor Day Weekend concert in Newburyport that traditionally draws more than 10,000 spectators, The River is firmly connected to the place that surrounds it in a way that other radio stations increasingly are not. During planning for the 2013 Outside the Box festival on Boston Common, its organizers had a mandate to work with local vendors. “We were literally the only locally owned and operated Boston station,” St. Sauveur says. He and Phipps booked the festival’s finale, lining up Boston-begotten acts Buffalo Tom, the Lemonheads, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The River also sponsored a contest to benefit music programs in local schools, awarding a horn section from Ipswich High School the honor of joining The Bosstones during the performance. And in front of a crowd of 40,000 on a sweltering July night—while wearing plaid jackets to match the Bosstones’ iconic getups—the Ipswich High students accompanied them in playing their 1997 hit “The Impression That I Get.”
“They belted out this pitch-perfect performance that blew away the band and the audience,” St. Sauveur says. “And I thought, that’s the difference with what an independent radio station can do. It was about the music, it was about being local, and it was about sharing that moment.” theriverboston.com