Even with a job at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, spending time with his wife and young son and planning one of KDHX's most genre-bending shows, Ryan was still able to take a bit of time out of his busy schedule for coffee and a chat about his show and history with music.
Brian Benton: How did you get started with KDHX?
Ryan Heinz: It was about eight years ago. I was familiar with the station, but relatively new to St. Louis. I met my wife, girlfriend at the time, and she was interested in getting involved so she started volunteering. I've always been passionate about music and interested in music, and she told me I should get involved, too, so I started volunteering in the music library and I befriended Nico Leone, who is the former co-director. He had a show called "Coin-Operated Radio" and he was looking for a partner. Probably eight or nine months after that he brought me on to the show, at first just to start entering playlists and then from there the responsibilities involved.
How has it been different working with Nico on the show to doing it on your own?
At first, I was more of an assistant, but started working on playlists together, kind of spit-balling things we were listening to and almost debating various new artists and new music coming out. Over time, his responsibility started taking him on the road more, and it just kind of made sense for me to start stepping up in my responsibility on the show.
So some KDHX shows are pretty specific, maybe just one time period or one genre, but you kind of play everything. How do you start narrowing down songs to play and making a playlist?
That's a good question. Well one thing I've tried to do over the last several years is make the transitions from the shows and the songs within the show a little bit smoother from one to the next. The show before me focuses on a lot of New Orleans-style music, and fortunately I do like some of that music, so I usually start at the very beginning of the show and try to start with something that is maybe New Orleans-style funk or classic rock that will fit with that show. Pokey LaFarge for instance, or Tom Waits, or something like that. From there, I'll kind of transition more to my music and the things I more typically play at the heart of the show, and then on the back end I have "Stumble in the Dark," which is more jam-band and classic rock-type music, so I'll end with something more like that.
Do you think having such a big range of music to pull from makes it harder to build a playlist?
Oh, yeah. And it can be time-consuming putting the playlist together, so I've tried to streamline the process by keeping up with music and things like that. And I've always been an album guy myself, so I always like to sit down with music and give it a lot of time. I was always a big Radiohead fan, and on the first listen "Kid A" didn't grab me, but by the third or fourth listen, I was like, "This is amazing!" I always try to stay on top of as much music as possible, so that means listening to individual songs, trying to pinpoint the individual standout songs on albums. I take a lot of notes, I listen a lot to various radio stations, I read up on bands and try to streamline the process as much as possible given my other responsibilities -- a full time job and a family.
It's funny that you mention liking full albums, because I was noticing that over the past few weeks, there are some albums you've played almost all of on your show one song at a time. Almost the entire new National album, for example.
And that's the other thing. Commercial radio has a tendency to pick a few songs and play those songs to death, and I certainly have repeated songs over the course of my show, but I like really good albums and I don't want to be married to just one song.
The new My Bloody Valentine album came out, and it's hard to pick a favorite album of all time, but one of my favorites is definitely "Loveless" by My Bloody, so when they dropped a new album out of nowhere I was just so excited by it then when it first came out, I was just making my way down the track list playing a song a week. I definitely prefer albums as a whole, but on a radio show, it's obviously about individual songs so I like to try to work as much of an album I really like in over time.
Does your son listen to the show? I guess it might be a little past his bedtime.
[Laughs] It's interesting. He can be kind of a handful just before bed and he doesn't necessarily listen to the show, but sometimes between songs when I'm on the show, I'll be doing Face Time [on the iPhone] with him just because sometimes that helps him calm down before bed. As far as music, he has a tendency to really like reggae, really simple kind of grooves, and he'll kind of bop in place. And we'll play him instrumental versions of the Beatles or Radiohead or things like that.
I did have him in the station one night. My wife was out and about with him and they swung by the station on the way home and he didn't seem to care for it too much. [Laughs] But I think at that point, he was just fried, it was close to his bedtime and he was thinking, "Why I am not at home drinking a bottle."
What about when you were younger? What did you listen to growing up?
So I grew up in a small town in central Illinois, and it was pre-Internet, and we didn't have MTV, but all the radio stations around there were mostly classic rock. I was fortunate that my parents were big music listeners and had a big vinyl collection. I remember as a little kid growing up in the '80s that my dad had a CD player before a lot of people had CD players and I would get scolded for jumping in the house because it would make his CD player skip. But they listened to a lot of '60s and '70s rock, a lot of Southern rock, the Beatles, a lot of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, so that's kind of what my listening was when I was growing up.
As I got older, I started getting my own tastes, and I remember hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when I was a little older and just being enthralled and then I started subscribing to Columbia House and picking out CDs that I was interested in. I started subscribing to Rolling Stone and Spin, and I would just consume them from cover to cover and memorize discographies of bands. I remember reading about Wilco, and I love them now, but I had never heard Wilco at the time. I remember "Being There" was the feature review in one of my first few issues of Rolling Stone and I was like, "How do I not know this band that's big enough, apparently, to have the feature review?" It was reading about bands that really helped me learn about them.
And around that time, my parents got satellite and MTV2 had just come out, and it was playing all this great indie music. That's how I discovered Radiohead and Blur and bands like that, and I got really intrigued by a lot of indie music and my Columbia House picks started becoming these indie artists. I was always so intrigued by new stuff. I just kept wanting to explore, so there were new bands coming out, but I was also going back and discovering great artists who I missed growing up. And today, I'm still going back and discovering older artists in addition to all the great new artists.
Are you able to get to a lot of shows? I assume that's harder now that you have a son.
It is harder. You know, I first moved to St. Louis and I was working as a journalist, not making much money, and it was hard to go out. And there was also just the shock because where I grew up, I was halfway between St. Louis and Chicago so going to a good show usually meant travelling, too. But once I got here, I was like "Wow, there's a lot of great acts coming through" and I started going out more and enjoying the nightlife.
When my wife and I got together and started dating, we started going out to a lot of shows together. We were going to shows two or three times a week easy, and we'd go to a few festivals a year, so with headliners and opening acts we were seeing a couple hundred bands a year, probably. That obviously has scaled back, big time. We went to LouFest this year, but other than that I got to Jeff Magnum, when he did the Sheldon show, and a buddy of mine wanted to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and a few local artists here and there and various in-studios, but that's about it. Last year, we saw the Avett Brothers at the Fox and Okkervil River at the Pageant, and we used to get a kick because my son, before he was born, would sort of respond to the music and kick a little bit.
I know you play a lot of local music on your show. Where does that fit in for you? Do you try to work a certain number of local bands into each show?
I don't set a quota or anything, but I think last week's show was a good example, because I played almost half a dozen local artists. A typical show is about 24 to 30 songs, usually more towards 30 songs because I tend to play some longer songs. But this week, I think I got about six in. Middle Class Fashion was on there, Grace Basement, and Pretty Little Empire has a new album out. I had actually planned to play a Sleepy Kitty song too, but I just ran out of time. [Laughs]
We have a great local music scene, but it's not maybe as recognized as LA, San Francisco, Chicago or New York. But you know, you start to get artists like Pokey LaFarge performing on David Letterman, and I think that starts to add exposure to this scene.
Do you ever feel like, because you're on KDHX, not a commercial station, that there is pressure to play the songs that wouldn't be heard on other radio stations?
I could definitely see why there might be pressure, but KDHX gives complete independence to their DJs. There might be a tendency to think, "This is independent radio and we maybe want to focus on those songs that aren't on commercial radio," but I also like the idea that you can take an artist like the Rolling Stones and play it after a newer artist or Arcade Fire or a local artist and it can all be tied together. It doesn't have to be commercial lumped with commercial or obscure with obscure or local with local, it can just be good music.