National Radio Week: Shawn Stewart (REV 105)

As part of KEXP’s National Radio Week coverage, on the KEXP Blog we will be spotlighting some of the stories and personal testimonials given by a variety of radio luminaries in interviews done with KEXP DJs John Richards, Kevin Cole, and Morning Show producer Owen Murphy. These interviews articulately explain the enduring legacy of early independent radio stations, as well as the importance of radio to shape and create a community through shared love of music.  In the words of WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas, “if you pay enough attention, radio will probably change your life.”

In the 20 years since she was given the award by Twin Cities newspaper City Pages, Shawn Stewart remains a rare bird. Beginning her radio career at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, Stewart worked for three years at Twin Cities’s REV 105, quickly amassing a wide fanbase for her late-night show Moonlight Meditations. With its blend of ambient music, live poetry readings, astrological forecasts, and Stewart’s singular radio presence, Moonlight Meditations remains a deeply absorbing radio program and aphrodisiac, available in small archives around the internet. It sounds evermore transmitted from a different society, in particular due to Stewart’s ethereal presence, which manages to come off as warm, cerebral, and entirely at peace. Following her tenure at REV 105, where she also acted as music director, Stewart worked at WPNX in Philadelphia, Seattle’s The Mountain (KMTT), and now hosts a program on KIRO Radio. KEXP spoke with Stewart about Moonlight Meditations, her approach to interviewing, and the contemporary radio landscape. Shawn Stewart will also join Kevin Cole on The Afternoon Show, as part of the conclusion to KEXP’s National Radio Week programming, a tribute to REV 105. This features exclusive interviews with Jeff Buckley, Soundgarden, Paul Westerberg, John Lydon, Rage Against the Machine, as well as unreleased music from Fugees, Wilco, Frank Black, Luna, Throwing Muses, and Michael Franti. 

Repeatedly called “the best interviewer he’s ever heard” by Kevin Cole, Stewart admits for years she would refuse to disclose her secret to preparing for interviews. In reality though, Stewart says her secret amounted to copious amounts of research, including scouring past interviews with musicians to gauge what their personalities were like. In addition, Stewart listened to the artists’ most recent album in its entirety, and read over the lyric sheet. This amounted to piecing together a picture of a musician, as portrayed by their music and public persona.

During particularly busy stretches at REV this research-heavy approach proved difficult– between three syndicated national shows and REV exclusive interviews, the interviews sometimes numbered fifteen per week. As a result, Stewart described a number of back-pocket tricks, which acted as shortcuts. For instance, the second Stewart and a musician entered the studio, “tape was rolling,” conversations beginning even before the two had sat down. This would help the musician loosen up and relax, and think about the interview more as an intimate conversation than promotional tool. Stewart recalls often “three-quarters through the interview, [the musician] would say when does the interview start? Was this the interview?”

Sometimes these encounters ended up changing Stewart’s relationship with the actual music. As she explained, interviewing David Bowie became a gold standard, the musician treating her with respect and kindness: “he was so kind and gracious to me, even though he had no reason to be.” From then on, Stewart had somewhat tolerance for artists who were prickly or unpleasant, because someone as legendary as Bowie could still find a way to be compassionate. Stewart also said that she quite often saw that a musician’s art did not reflect their personality– this was particularly true in an encounter with Marilyn Manson, who proved articulate and generous. The interview ultimately “made [Stewart] want to engage with his music,” even though not drawn to it previously.

Moonlight Meditations was envisioned as an ideal accompaniment to a Sunday night, “it’s late night, dark out, and I wanted to create a mood and atmosphere which was consistent from beginning to end.” The program mixed poetry with experimental, far-reaching electronic music, the combination of which remains a complete anomaly for radio, especially on a commercial radio station. Stewart emphasized that the show couldn’t have existed in its format without interactions with listeners. Three songs into the first ever Moonlight Meditations, she received a phone call from a listener and REV intern, Jeff Daninger, that grew to become her creative partner on Moonlight Meditations, turning her onto additional music which would fit her sonic landscape. Stewart believes her first song ever played on the REV 105 airwaves was a piece from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92.

When asked about how her stint at REV 105 impacted her later beliefs about radio and music, Stewart replied that working at REV “changed her life in every way imaginable.” She elaborates: “The station had strong principles about what it stood for and against, and a strong vision and mission,” as outlined by Kevin Cole. The station’s unified goal was to bring that vision to life. It forced her to think more about the music she was listening to. The overarching fundamental belief which unified REV was that “all good music deserves to be heard,” a belief which still remains revolutionary. This called for a disintegration of the boundaries between genres, and encouraged DJs at REV to explore the outer limits of what radio programming could be.

Ultimately, the death of the station came as a shock, even if in some sense Stewart says she had always expected it: “There was a sense we were on borrowed time. We were considered too ’boutique’ to survive” in a commercial radio landscape dominated by genre-based programming. Stewart identified the strongest lesson from the end of REV 105 was to not allow herself to let her “identity be defined by what [she] did.” Stewart was on air during the last hour of REV 105 while DJs gathered outside the station. Her last song, The Beatles’s “Hello Goodbye,” went out as a final jab at the station’s owner, who hated The Beatles. It emphasized that the revolution would continue– good music would always find a way to the radio airwaves.

At the time, there was understandably a huge sense of loss, but Stewart described the importance of soldiering on- “I still loved and believed in radio, but never again was my identity so broadly attached to what I did. After REV, there was always a remove at other stations I worked at, because I knew what could happen.”

KEXP is celebrating National Radio Day all week long both online and on the air; click here to see all our coverage on the KEXP Blog.

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