A scene-making personality: MK Burnell launches local/national music podcast

MK Burnell (photo by Jeff Bisti)

Radio is by definition and by physics a local phenomenon. A good, crisp FM signal dissolves into a mist of static and the cacophonous cut-ins of Jesus talk at about 40 miles. Because a gritty limited-bandwidth AM signal will carry up to about 100 miles, I spent too many years listening to Frankie from Fort Lee complaining about the Giants’ offensive line. 

Now that satellites and Internet pipes send all content everywhere at once, it is not purely wishful to wonder if radio might return to the seat of its power and its organic relevance: community, the local, an idea memorably explored in a Bill McKibben essay that I can’t presently find. We can see McKibben’s idea of radio’s multifaceted and agile local function embodied in the work of the relative newcomer, Radio Kingston.

One of the Hudson Valley’s many claims to a cultural importance disproportionate to population can be found in the world of FM radio. Amongst a lively crop of commercial, public, and university-helmed frequencies, three local music radio stations are recognized as innovators in formats that defined radio markets and trends nationwide. 

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The very term “classic rock” was coined in the early Nineties to describe what Poughkeepsie’s WPDH was already playing. The station was the featured crew in a Spin magazine article on the phenomenon (Spin’s interest in classic rock seems primarily anthropological). Format and focus have changed along with the times and with ownership, but Beatles, Zep, and Floyd still put the “home” in the home of rock and roll, and the station maintains a vital position in Dutchess County life.

Further out in rural eastern New York and western Connecticut, the small and independent-minded WKZE posts numbers that WPDH could barely be bothered to swat away, but the station can rightly claim an outsized importance as a pioneer in the new multicultural Americana genre, a renaissance of new music made with the old tools and the old values. And WKZE did it while also demonstrating that stylistic focus and un-playlisted, empowered DJs are not mutually exclusive. They only play local ads and their commitment to local music is unwavering and fully integrated. 

Finally, Woodstock’s venerable WDST is all but synonymous with the Triple-A, album-oriented adult alternative format. Radio Woodstock’s centrality to that moment and movement in American music cannot be overstated. Adult concerns are right in the format billing, as is the dedication to the archaism of the album. Left leaning, steeped in the counterculture classics but interested in new expressions and sounds, WDST is a figure in local concert promotion and culture. It is instrumental in the curation of the careers of nationals who came to live here and of locals whose reputations have gone national. No matter what you may think of its stylistic sweet spots, one of WDST’s most admirable qualities is the way it sticks with the artists it champions and helps sustain long careers in an age of feverish turnover. 

But these are tough times in radio. And in general.

Enter MaryKate Burnell. MK, as she is known to all, is a local culture agitator and organizer, a DJ, a working musician, and a community leader whose can-do commitment to our scene has stirred enthusiasm among local artists. She was the founder of WDST’s Locally Grown program, which included live spots, interviews, and some much needed bandwidth for regional talent. She soon became music director and afternoon drive host at Radio Woodstock, a development that really sparked optimism on the streets. 

MK’s position at WDST was an early Covid casualty. It was a somber note for a lot of us when she announced the layoff, and a portent of what was to come. MK promptly set up a home recording studio and started a podcast called More Music Please: Quarantine Beat, where she interviews professionals from all areas of the music industry about life in lockdown and whatever else they want to talk about. 

Have you always understood yourself as a scene-making personality, someone with a gift  for networking, promotion, strong sense of community What is it that drives your commitment to local culture, local music? 

There’s kind of a double-sided answer. On the one hand, I love this community and want to help it thrive. I didn’t grow up in the Hudson Valley. I moved here in my early twenties and fell in love with it primarily because there were so many opportunities to play music and meet other musicians who were so open to starting projects and trying stuff out together. I’d never experienced that growing up in Connecticut, and when I lived in New York City I was too busy struggling to pay my rent to find that community. 

So the Hudson Valley felt like this magical place where the living was (relatively) easy and creativity was encouraged. I started meeting people at open mics and joined a few bands pretty much right away, so the “music scene” was my avenue into feeling at home here. When I got the radio job, I knew I wanted to give back by providing a platform for all the talented, creative people in this area. And on a broader level, I think a thriving local arts and music scene is a sign of a healthy local economy, so I wanted to be able to contribute to that.

The “too real” part of the answer is that I am kind of a lifelong outsider (or at least, I perceive myself that way), and I saw the chance to become Hudson Valley broadcasting’s local music champion as a way to carve out a role for myself — literally, a way to feel like I belonged and was useful. As I’ve gotten older. I find it much less mortifying to admit that I’m a pretty anxious person with a lot of baggage around worrying whether people actually want me around.

So yes, I do have a genuine desire to support and promote talented artists who maybe don’t have the time or money to promote themselves. But also, selfishly, it was good for me to feel like I had a role to fill.

Even in the best of times, the Hudson Valley has struggled to create that sense of “happening” that characterizes a scene in cities. It is by no means our fault — just population density And yet so many exceptional artists live and work here, so even if the crowds can be pretty spotty, the artistic level of what is going on is disproportionately high. Mike Amari once suggested to me that it is best to look at the area today as an artist’s colony, where good performers entertain other good performers. 

Hmm. Yeah, I mean, part of that is probably that there’s no central, walkable downtown hip area to serve as the center of the scene. The scene is spread out all over the region, with great performing and recording spaces and communities of people in Kingston, Saugerties, Hudson, Beacon, New Paltz, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh. So, no, we can’t really be Athens, GA, for example, where a single small college town becomes the center of a creative scene. 

But I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I mean, if there was just one single destination for getting involved in music in the Hudson Valley, that destination would quickly outgrow itself, change, gentrify. (That’s happening in our area anyway of course, but I don’t think local music is to blame) I’ve lived in West Hurley, way back in the woods behind Hurley Mountain, High Falls, the suburbs of Saugerties, uptown Kingston and now downtown Kingston. Each place had its own stuff going on but they all still felt very much like part of a greater community.

I think that’s one reason the area is so appealing to creative types. It’s got the proximity to New York City, of course, but also you’re not limited to one town or neighborhood in order to feel connected to things.

How did your start Locally Grown and transition so rapidly to a prime DJ spot and an influential position in the music department? 

[Current executive director of Radio Kingston] Jimmy Buff hired me to do some weekend air shifts [at WDST], and after doing those for a while I decided I really enjoyed the job and wanted to get serious about it, so I just started taking any opportunity I could to do more around the station I worked in promotions, then eventually became Buff’s assistant music director, took on the midday shift. And when he left for Radio Kingston, I was moved to music director and afternoons. Just worked my way up. 

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Locally Grown was something I started pitching pretty much as soon as they let me on the air. Like I said, I’ve always been involved in Hudson Valley music myself, so it was important to me to provide a platform for it on air. Also, I felt like the station was really missing something very obvious; they’re a local, independent station but they weren’t playing local independent music. 

The show started out as a one-hour block on Monday nights, then went to two hours. When I went full time at the station it became a little too much to be live until midnight every Monday, so I turned it into a daily feature during my afternoon shift. I worked with Greg Gattine to create a local music category within the station’s music library, so now you’ll hear local artists dropped into rotation throughout the day and overnights.

I know it was tough losing that position. It must have been rather like a dream job (in all respects except salary I am sure) How did it go down for you? So many media and music institutions –venues, radio, small press — were already struggling. Things weren’t great pre-Covid. It didn’t take much.

The pandemic caused the station to lose advertising, so budget cuts were made. I took a pay cut a couple of weeks before I was let go, as did the rest of the full-time staff. My salary was low in the first place and it was stressful, but I was willing to stick it out because I figured it was better than being jobless in an economic crisis. Unfortunately, they decided to make further cuts and my position was one of those eliminated. 

It was definitely tough. The job could be frustrating but there were also things about it I loved: getting to interview and run in-studio sets with artists I loved, playing music I loved for an audience that wanted to hear it, and of course being able to put a spotlight on local talent. And I mean, when you do something for five years it becomes a major part of your identity. Losing a job can feel a lot like a breakup, and I handled it like one. It was easier to just unfollow WDST on socials and start moving on immediately. In this case, that meant focusing on the podcast. 

Today we get the news that with just a little relaxing of standards and phasing in of social life, Covid cases appear to be starting to rise again in Ulster County. It is uncertain news, but disheartening. Some of us of a certain age feel, you know, time is short, and this stable world of performance and music we have always known is seriously jeopardized in ways that will take years to play out. How are you battling despair?

Yeah, it’s a weird, sad time to be alive. I’m grateful for what I have, a solid little house, a great partner, two cute dogs, good friends, good health, enough savings to throw together a home studio. I’m doing what I can to not make the Covid situation worse than it is. I’m participating in BLM demonstrations. I voted in the primaries and I’ll vote in the general election even if I’m not super-excited about our options I’m doing what I can, basically. And when that all feels too overwhelming, I’m playing Pokemon.

In More Music Please: Quarantine Beat you have been leveraging relationships formed while you were at WDST, giving your podcast a national reach, talent-wise. That’s cool.

Yeah! My original concept was to talk to music industry pros about life in lockdown, and if we ever get out of lockdown, I can drop the “quarantine beat” part. As I’ve settled into a rhythm, it’s turning into something really fun. I have each guest pick a second, non-music thing they like to talk about, and we dedicate a solid half of each episode to these great, freewheeling chats about whatever. I talked to John Ferrara from Consider the Source about the Netflix show Midnight Gospel, Andy Frasco about anxiety, all kinds of stuff. It keeps things interesting for everyone–me, the guest and hopefully the listeners. 

It seemed like a natural next step to start a podcast. I’ve spent all these years becoming an interviewer and broadcaster, and here’s this way to use those skills that I can literally self- produce in my closet. It’s been a learning process, but I think it’s sounding better every episode and I’ve gotten great feedback. I’m really hoping it’s something I’ll be able to do for a long time.

How about your current music projects. I know you had several things rolling when this all hit. Are you working on anything?

I’m in three bands currently (although of course they’re all on semi-hiatus): Locofreeq, which is a mostly-original funk-pop outfit where I wear a wig and get weird at live shows; Cold Flavor Repair, an awesome party band that does covers and originals; and Uncledad, an all-female group that’s been described as “saloon slacker folk.” 

I miss them all very much. Uncledad has done a couple of outdoor acoustic practices, and we even did a Reddit live stream that went well, so hopefully we’ll do more of those. On my own, I’m mostly practicing violin and trumpet.

Check out More Music Please: Quarantine Beat moremusicpodcast.com, @moremusic.podcast on Instagram, and @mk.ultramatic and @moremusic.podcast on Facebook.

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