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What's Up Magazine

Fifteen Minutes with... Alex Cortright, Local Celebrity and Radio Personality

Mar 05, 2015 04:00PM ● Published by Melissa Lauren

WRNR’S Loss is WTMD’s gain – local treasure Alex Cortright joins 89.7 FM Radio for Music People, an NPR station. We sit down for an exclusive interview with the morning show man, musicologist, and music mixologist extraordinaire. You can listen to Alex on the dial, online at Wtmd.org  or with the free WTMD App for your smart device Monday through Friday 6 - 10 a.m.

Congratulations on your position at WTMD!

Thank you very much.

You have a history of spinning music in the area. As a University of Maryland, College Park graduate you were a DJ at WMUC 88.1 FM. What did you learn about radio while on air in college?

In college? Boy, that's a good question because when something is absolutely new, everything is scary. You don't know what you're doing. It was the first opportunity to open the mic and explore topics and learn how to put music together. At MUC it was anything goes. It was fun to learn those first steps on how to structure a show and tell a story.

What were some of the most outstanding bands you may remember from your discoveries in college radio?

Back then it would've been bands like the Screaming Blue Messiahs and Suicidal Tendencies. There was a lot of Punk going on back then. It would have been bands from the DC scene, Minor Threat, that kind of stuff.

When and how did you make the move to commercial radio?

A friend told me that RNR was looking for someone. I went down met with Jake Einstein. He told me he was the 'oldest hippie on the planet'. We had a fun time and he brought me in. That was '96.

And which time slot were you on when you started at RNR back then?

I had regular weekend shift, initially.

Do you remember any tips that Jake may have taught you? He started the legendary HFS for our What's Up? readers so they have some context. He is a legend locally in the radio business. Do you have any take aways from your time with him about how radio should work for the listener?

Jake told me something that Chrissie Hynde [lead singer of The Pretenders] then told me 10 years later and that is, ‘play what you love", which is kind of a DJ spin on, 'follow your bliss'.

While you were at WRNR as Morning Show Host and Music Programmer, you were especially known for your savvy interview skills with the best bands in the business including Sting, Gnarls Barkley and even Pete Townshend. Which artists have you interviewed that have been very memorable and why?

There are a lot of standouts from very young and unknown people who surprised me with their intelligence and their wit, people like Annie Clark who is actually well-known now as St. Vincent. But I've had the opportunity to interview her on every album cycle since Marry Me. I think she's a national treasure. Nothing really can compete with interviewing a hero, someone you grew up with. That is really kind of irreplaceable and it is really special. I had an opportunity to interview David Bowie on a couple of occasions and for me that was pretty amazing because literally for me his records were the soundtrack of my youth and he's so bright and so interesting and so creative! I think the same thing could be said of David Byrne – very different personality but enormously creative and a wonderful human being. There have been so many.

I think it’s fascinating that you're mentioning musicians that are truly visionary like St. Vincent, David Bowie, David Byrne. They really push the envelope – some may say too many notes.

Or in the case of David Byrne, too few notes. His first records were really spare and it really had more to do with the space in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.

Which components are necessary for a piece of music to make it compelling?

All music is controlled sound. It could be a virtuoso on a piano or any other instrument, but it doesn't necessarily have to be an instrument. It could be an interesting avant garde artist from Baltimore banging two bones together and then manipulating that sound with a computer. Duke Ellington observed, “If it sounds good, it is good.” It’s really that simple. Music can come from anywhere. There is this strain in Baltimore, which I find really interesting where artists are using found sound, not only in creating music but in creating shows. Sam Sessa who does the Baltimore Hit Parade at TMD was telling me about an artist who came across a box of that clear plastic packing tape. You know that sound it makes? That HuuuuuhhhhwwwhhiiiiiiiiPPPP! He was using that to record that into the microphone and then handed the tape to a person in the audience who then handed it to the next person in the audience and the next person and soon he had tape throughout the audience all the while he was recording these sounds, manipulating them or in some instances just presenting them live as part of the sonic structure. I think that kind of creativity is really pretty sweet.

And how do you feel about this vinyl 'fad'? I hate to use the word fad because I've been collecting vinyl forever. Are you excited about kids your children's age getting into vinyl?

You know, one of the coolest experiences of the last few years was breaking out the turn table and making sure I actually had the kids' attention and just putting the needle on and letting it go. And they did exactly as I thought they might. They kind of looked at it and then they got down real close and they looked at the needle touching the licorice platter and… magic! It was pretty cool! Honestly, if you talk to artists, particularly those who are inclined to the audiophile, you know, Bob Dylan will tell you, ‘Look, if you wanna listen to my records, the best way to do it is on vinyl, a good quality vinyl with a good sound system. That's as close as you'll get to how it sounds in my head and in the studio’. I think that's probably true. You know, people talk a lot about the difference between digital and vinyl and there is a difference. Analog does have a kind of warmth, especially if you have a really good system. It’s remarkable!

What is the most outrageous answer you've received from a musician? Have you had someone that was hard to control and sort of steer during an interview?

Sure. Lou Reed [of Velvet Underground fame] was not easy to talk to. I remember there was one instance of Fred Schneider, the lead singer from the B-52s, he and I were hosting an event at The American Visionary Art Museum many years ago, their Mardis Gras Ball. He came on the air with me that morning and I just as anyone might expected him to be flamboyant and energetic and effusive and talkative and he was none of those things and I thought, boy, this is not going well because we didn't really do much of a pre-interview or anything. I put on a long B-52s track and just walked around the console and gave the guy a hug. I think he just needed a hug.

Was it Rock Lobster?

(Laughing) I think it may have been because that gave me a good 6 and half minutes. But I think the guy just had a bad morning, or just heard some bad news, or maybe just didn't get enough sleep. You never know. People are people. I literally felt his tension release. Out of the song he was back on and he was Fred Schneider.

Great!

That's not outrageous but it, you know, it sort of goes to the heart of…

They are our heroes but they are also human, right?

Yeah, right. They're just people. We may love them for what they do and the way they make us feel because they are important artists but they are just men and women who have good days and bad days like anybody else.

Do you recall something that has maybe been a hard question to ask of an artist during an interview or a bold question?

Sometimes artists may not want to talk about being a member of another band. I had a specific question about Led Zeppelin when talking to Robert Plant but I knew I couldn’t ask it because those were the only type of questions he would ever get. I think it was shortly after The Raising Sand project with Alison Krauss and he was putting Band of Joy together with Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. He was kind of doing his own Rootsy Americana thing. And you can imagine, people want to talk about Led Zeppelin and it’s about not asking about Led Zeppelin but sort of working your way around a given question, sort of almost shadowing it, sort of lurking in the shadow and sort of adumbrating it. Eventually, if you do it carefully enough, he was talking about Led Zeppelin, talking about being in Baltimore in 1969 getting ready on that first U.S. tour to get to the stage and they got lost underneath the streets going from the Holiday Inn to the arena, which – this may or may not be the source for the story from Spinal Tap.

(Laughing) Yeah, I was gonna say… that sounds awfully familiar!

I think he's kind of convinced that that story may have found its way to the producers, you know, years later and made it into that film. They could hear the crowd and all they saw was an occasional plumber, or a guy delivering trays somewhere. It was really kind of silly.

Which features are different at WTMD that you're able to do now on public radio that you didn't have the opportunity to do in commercial radio at WRNR?

One of the most prominent things is the business model is very different. I'm not having to sit through long commercial stopsets, which is pretty great. It is a blank canvas and I'm beginning to add features and shape the show. The people I work with are terrific and they get what I do and what I want to do. I will leave it like this, expect some cool things coming up soon.

Expect the unexpected from Alex Cortright, right?

There we go! I like it!

So is it fair to say that it is less formulaic and perhaps there's more wiggle room for spontaneity in public radio?

I think so. And radio is about sharing time and space with another person. If I'm doing a broadcast and you are listening along, you and I are sharing that moment in real time together and you really can't fake that. You can't manufacture that with an online service or a satellite service. It is intimate and it is very real, and yes, there is spontaneity and responding to things in real time – what's going on in the real world, what's going on in our lives.

Are you allowed to discuss why things ended at RNR or why you made the transition to public radio?

Honestly, there's not much to be said. I think RNR wanted to make a change and they have every right to do so and that was it. I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue to do radio here in the area at TMD with a great bunch of people. I'm really excited for this year!

Why do you think listeners should tune into your show versus listening to their iPod and the Pandoras and Spotifys of the world?

There's nothing wrong with those services. You can find wonderful music in any number of places. I still believe to my core that there is something magical about radio. There is really no human behind it when you're listening to Pandora. Radio is curated by humans moment to moment. It’s different. From my point of view, the handmade product is superior.

Legendary radio DJ, Weasel has a specialty show at TMD. How is it working with Weasel and company?

It’s great. He's a fun guy! A really kind guy and as everyone knows, he really knows his music. He is one of the DJs I grew up listening to in the 1970's when he was at WHFS in Bethesda. It’s fun to have him around, seeing him in the hallway and then hearing his show.

Yeah, I'm sure it’s safe to say I first heard David Bowie as played by Weasel back in the day.

I would not be surprised at all.

I worked with you while on-air at WRNR and I've worked at WTMD and the whole team there is great. I learned a lot from you during my time at WRNR and also Scott Mullins, the Program Director at TMD was a great mentor. WTMD has an agreement with Towson University to foster young radio talent and the graduates of the university's Communication Department feed into WTMD, if they make the cut, of course. What are you looking forward to teaching those young jocks about radio?

Well, it really depends on the direction; in fact, I met a bunch of young interns today from the university. And of course, WTMD is a professionally staffed radio station. The license is owned by Towson University but it is a standalone non-profit and fully professional in every way. In fact, I invite people to take a look at the new studios at Olympic Place because they are amazing. It is a beautiful new building. Anyways, what do I look for in students? First of all, enthusiasm. You've gotta love it, you've gotta want to do it. In terms of actually being a disc jockey? I don't know, people say you have to go to broadcasting school. I don't think so. I didn't. I think if you're able to put a sentence together and you're really passionate about music and sharing music, I think it’s almost enough. It’s not the easiest job to find a foothold anymore because, for example, the overnights that used to be the training ground of disc jockeys back in the day, that doesn't really exist anymore. I'd look for enthusiasm, passion, knowledge and willingness to do things at crazy hours and on the weekends and stuff. It’s sort of like when a new doctor hits the hospital, they have to pull these crazy hours and do these insane shifts. It’s kind of like that in radio. There's a certain soldiering on quality that's necessary as well but essentially its passion that is the most important characteristic.

Well, you're known to be a credible source for local and national news in your morning shows and sometimes you editorialize a bit, which further engages the listener. Is there more flexibility when providing your opinion on news items on public radio versus commercial radio?

I think it is comparable. Public radio and commercial radio are definitely two different kinds of animals and to be honest, that's something I'm still figuring out. I think I was hired specifically to be me so we'll see how that develops..

Do you think the experience is limitless at WTMD because you're really able to shape it and make it your own there since you are given that freedom?

I think so. I think that's why the folks at TMD were interested in having me come up, to do what I do. The sky's the limit! I really like it!

Cool! Well you're a skilled musicologist and I’m sure you were informed by Weasel and your other experiences coming up through college radio. What have you taught your children about music? And do you give them listening assignments over the summer? Like, sit down and spend time with this new record from St. Vincent?

(Laughing) I do my best and I think parents will be able to sympathize here. I do my best and yeah, we listen to music but they are people too and they've found their own interests in Pop and in in Hip Hop and so forth but I'm proud to say that both of them can readily identify all four Beatles.

Oh good! WTMD is a National Public Radio station based in Baltimore and in past years they have increased their signal strength so the station does reach as far as Annapolis.

Mmm-hmm.

WTMD also has an app for smartphones as well as online streaming. You mentioned Sam Sessa, host of The Baltimore Hit Parade where he features local musicians. He has featured some Annapolis bands but are there any standout Annapolis bands that you're looking forward to highlighting possibly on your feature, Acoustic Sunrise?

Well, Melissa, you know, having lived in Annapolis, there is just an embarrassment of riches when it comes to musical talent in Annapolis, so much talent, it’s pretty crazy. We're really living in a Golden Age in terms of the music coming out of Annapolis and Baltimore! The technology is such that young people are able to record what they do and learn quickly how to actually create records and how to record songs. Wow! There are so many. There are too many to mention. It’s pretty amazing! I love Pressing Strings. I think what Jordan and the guys do is fantastic!

What is the Acoustic Sunrise feature?

It’s simply greeting the new day in an unplugged manner and it could be an artist you know and love and it could be something new, but it is acoustic. I look at the Farmer's Almanac and if the sun is showing itself at 7:12 then we greet the sun with an acoustic song.

Do you want to tell What's Up? readers about Live Lunch and how it works? To draw comparisons to the RNR Private Artist Showcases, I know at WTMD's Live Lunch shows, it’s a kind of a free for all, it’s open to the public and you don't have to win tickets.

Right. Like public radio it’s free and open to everybody. Live Lunch at TMD this year have drawn big crowds and have become really popular I think for that reason. Other stations will sell the tickets or give them away so it’s limited. Live Lunches are very cool because TMD not long ago moved into new studio space at 1 Olympic Place, an 8,000 square foot facility with a fully decked out performance and recording space, which when weather permits, the doors can literally be opened out onto the terrace and literally hundreds of people can gather for free to enjoy a performance. It’s pretty amazing!

That's great! WTMD also has a program in the Spring and Summer seasons called First Thursdays Concerts in the Park. Do you happen to know who's slated for the upcoming season of First Thursdays? That is also free and open to the public.

Yeah, we have some stuff coming. I'm not permitted to tell at this point. I wish I could. It is one of TMD's hallmark concert series.

Has there been an artist or a band that has fallen off the label track that maybe has made you upset or disheartened since their label didn't keep them on?

No, it makes no difference because that happens all the time. I mean, look a label's job is to sell records and in this climate where music is seen as free by an entire generation, it’s tough. I'm amazed that many labels still are in business because it is a really difficult business model. If a young band can get on a label it can be really important promotionally because the job of the label is to sell the records so they will spend money on artists to get their music out into the world but it doesn't really matter. A lot of bands that have had a label, they don't really need a label anymore because where bands are making money is by touring, by playing and selling their merchandise. That's pretty important for them now.

Which up and coming bands are you excited about that are trailblazers that may be huge five years from now that no one may know about just yet? Do you have a crystal ball?

I was really big on this Irish artist, Hozier about a year ago and at the time I don't think I would've told you he was going to be an international star. It’s hard to say sometimes. Sometimes, you get an idea. Like when I first heard a couple of songs that were sent to me a long time ago from a friend in the music business in New York of this very young artist from New Zealand who called herself, Lorde, I was thinking this young person really has a chance to pop because these songs are incredibly catchy and this one in particular will be sung by people all over the world! But you never really know, it’s hard to say. It’s like lightning in a bottle. It’s like, how do you capture that? There's a number of young bands that I'm really digging right now. I like this band out of Moss, Norway called Death By Unga Bunga. They are very fun! They are catchy. It’s very melodic Psychedelic Garage Rock. I like this band, Always. There's so much happening! One of the things that frustrates me from time to time is when I hear friends go, 'There's nothing new and fresh happening.' And I go, 'There is! Just turn on WTMD.'

Yes! It’s out there! It’s great that you're providing a platform where listeners don't have to do all the digging and they have WTMD as a resource to discover new music on Radio for Music People. That's how 89.7FM branded itself and it truly is for music people.

It truly is. I think one of our jobs as radio personalities, radio programmers is to provide a filter because there is so much. It seems to be multiplying not only with music but with pop culture, in general. Pop culture is so broad and so big and it’s the same way with music. It’s really incumbent upon us to make the best choices, highlight and feature talent regardless of where they come from. It doesn't matter if they're on a label or not. If it sounds good, it is good and we want to put it on the air.

Cool! Well, in my opinion WRNR's loss is WTMD's gain so we're happy to have you on the air still locally on a station that truly is Radio for Music People, 89.7 WTMD. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for continuing to introduce us to new and exciting music and remind us of some oldies too.

Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you, Melissa.

—Melissa Lauren

The print abridged version of the interview is available in this month’s issue of What’s Up? Annapolis magazine. What’s Up? Media’s Community & Resource Editor and former WRNR and WTMD DJ, Melissa Lauren writes the weekly What’s Up? Events Blog and E-Newsletter every Thursday. To subscribe visit WhatsUpMag.com
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