Dallas Talk Radio Drums Up Local Music Support

When I was 21, I had an apartment a half-block and one possible mugging away from Greenville Avenue. Social calendars wrapped around live music and, on shitty show nights like Mondays, drink specials. There was maybe—and I stress maybe—one night a week our social activities team, Quick Like Bunny (I'm so not lying, and I have the shirt to prove it), was not out spending hard-earned cash at the bar and merch booths. Back then, I could drink today's me under the table, smoke a pack and do it all again the next day. I learned that vodka doesn't leave trace stench like gin and earplugs are God's gift to music lovers.

It's different now. I've gotten older. I finally learned how to download music. TiVo has become a member of my household and the livers of QLB just aren't functioning at the rate they once were. We've grown up and slowed down.

But we haven't stopped. Thing is, I notice that while my circle of music fans has naturally slowed down with age and added responsibilities, music audiences in general also have gotten smaller. There are a few must-see/must-hear bands for everyone, but unless there's something like a charity tie-in or a local celeb to meet, people just don't seem as excited about music. That is, unless someone they trust tells them to be.

MySpace, blogs and, hell, papers like this one give readers on the low end of the age bracket their low-down. But I've found we aging hipsters find guidance on the radio. Sounds obvious enough, but I'm not talking about music formats. It's all talk.

Dedicated listeners of shows such as The Hardline and The Russ Martin Show get their daily dose of info from these beloved sources. Along the way, they get tips on what to listen to and—even if it means going to see a cover band—what to do come day's end.

Russ Martin, the head honcho of The Russ Martin Show on KLLI-105.3 FM, avoids taking any credit for influencing his listeners' entertainment choices (a surprise to those who are familiar with his slightly egotistical shtick). "As much as radio people think they are the vanguard of entertainment and music, for the most part, we're just background noise," he says.

Still, his listeners flock to see the Russ Martin Show Band (they benefit the Russ Martin Show Listeners Foundation, supporting the families of fallen police and firefighters). Their free Christmas show is Friday at House of Blues, and based on past RMSB events, it will be packed tighter than the Double Wide and Granada put together. Fans want to see their local celebs in action and will come out for a good cause. The band could be crap or absolutely stellar, but there's added excitement. It's not just a basic local show.

Mike Rhyner, from KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket's weekday drive time show The Hardline, is the lead member of Tom Petty cover band Petty Theft, which enjoyed a packed house at Sullivan's Steakhouse last Saturday night. The audience was a mix of McMansion-ed restaurant patrons (doing the patented housewife side-to-side during "American Girl") and Ticket P1s there to see Rhyner rock out. More important, though, is that listeners, who at one time would have chosen a Deep Ellum every-band over any cover band, were in a Tollway steakhouse to worship at the altar. A dozen guitars, two keyboards, pleated pants and leather vest accompanied their radio king, the Old Gray Wolf.

"We're just some old guys trying to have fun before we get put on the short bus," Rhyner says. "I think a goodly amount of people who come see the band are people who also listen to the radio station and listen to this show. And we have played a few show events, or a few radio station events, and I think that some of the people there who probably wouldn't be inclined to come see us became inclined to come see us elsewhere, after having seen us there. It's a nice dovetail."

The Hardline does more for local music than plug two or three Petty Theft shows each month. It provides music samples, info about local shows, general music news and even the occasional music history lesson during what has morphed from sports talk into all-out pop culture talk. "We do E-News every day. We do community quick hits every day. We do 'What's on Mike's Mind' every day. Any one of those things could turn toward [music]," Rhyner says. "About once every week or two we do new music...Whenever the other boys on the show are getting curious about a band from back in the day, they'll tell me to put together a 'What's the Deal With So-and-So.' We'll play some of their music, and I'll talk about what they did back in the day and what they meant back in the day, all that stuff."

Anyone who listens to The Hardline knows producer Danny Balis (bassist for local darlings Sorta) is the self-deprecating element of the show, and he hates it when the other guys talk about his band. "It's unfair to hundreds of other bands out there that don't have a media forum to shamelessly promote their stuff," Balis says. "I'm more interested in helping other artists than shoving my stupid crap down listeners' throats." Though he says he thinks The Hardline plays more new music than most music stations, Balis won't take undue credit for affecting show turnout.

"Just because we say it's good or suggest that people should attend a show, I think it might translate to a couple of new attendees, if any," Balis says. "Now, if we have some audio to play of a band, and they're good, it will be heard by 100,000-plus people. When we debuted the Redwalls and Midlake, the response was overwhelming. But, if you suck, you suck, and no matter what we say, people ain't coming out." Fair enough.

Rhyner agrees that while the show exposes new music, motivating listeners to get out to clubs requires more than a good play list. It's hard to persuade someone who would be just as happy listening to recorded music to see a show. "You gotta get off your ass to go, and you don't really have to get off your ass and get out of your pajamas or whatever to download something," he says. "And sometimes when you're out, you might think about something you heard us talk about, and you might wheel into Best Buy or wherever and buy the thing. But going to a show, as you well know, is an entirely different and more complicated proposition.

"I think that people base their willingness to go to shows on 30-second clips of a song they hear on iTunes rather than actually being adventurous and checking bands out sight unseen. Basically, people are fucking lazy," Balis says. "Me included."

That's truer and sadder than more of us would care to admit. But what comes first? The live experience or the download? How do you get people excited enough to get off their asses and go to a show and revive that grit we all had just a few years ago? Guilt everyone by tying every show to a charity event? Have a local celeb like Martin or Rhyner in every band? It's not possible.

Non-music shows like the Ticket's The Hardline and Dunham & Miller and Live 105's Russ Martin Show are the event guides to P1s who don't listen to music radio. And they may not think they make a big dent in suggesting and discussing goings-on in Dallas, but they do if just one more person shows up, even to a cover band's show. Because, schlock or not, going out to shows is addictive. And that's not a bad thing.

I'll just have to make sure my downloads are finished before I head out.