103.2 gives locals genuine alternative

  • 2001-05-24
  • Daniel A. Kronenfeld
RIGA - Let's face it, if you're looking to hear the latest music by The Wedding Present, Latvia's the last place on earth you should be.

Sure, if you want to hear Britney Spears for the thousandth time, the Back Street Boys or Latvian teen sensation Linda Leen screaming about one thing or another, Latvia is perfect, with its radio stations featuring a lack of variety and a plethora of dreary overplayed hip-hop. But The Wedding Present, Wumpscut or even Lou Reed? Rather than wasting your time surfing the radio waves, just start booking your flight to London or New York.

Or, stay in Riga? Yes, stay in Riga. One small station is trying to breathe some life into the stale music world of Riga. It's called Radio KNZ.

KNZ bills itself as one of the Baltic's few alternative student radio stations and has been serving up a somewhat eclectic blend of international and local rock, punk, funk, metal, and other music genres that are thrown into the "alternative" category.

Girts Solis, the morning DJ (and a student at the agriculture department of Latvia University), explains the station's beginnings. "Well, there were two guys, students at Latvia University, and one of them bet the other that he could start a radio station."

He started looking for financing and, amazingly, the prospective station managed to beat some stiff competition to win a coveted broadcasting frequency.

For nearly a year, that was all that happened. By November 2000, Girts says, an unpleasant realization had set in: getting the airtime was nice, but now they had to fill the space with something. Besides, soon the station would lose its license if it didn't get on with the business of broadcasting.

And that was all it took. The students slapped together a studio on the first floor of a student dormitory, they brought in their personal record collections, and KNZ hit the air on November 25.

The station is not exactly the big time. It consists of three cramped rooms that look as if they were put together in two weeks. The uneven bits of carpet range from a sort of dirty light brown to a somewhat dirtier dark brown. The color of the walls roughly match the carpet. There are some perks, however. For instance, Girts, whose morning show has him at the console by 6 a.m., has a bed on an upper floor of the dorm.

The early days were tough. For one thing it was not absolutely clear that anyone was listening. "We would have contests inviting listeners to call in. Sometimes nobody called."

This could be embarrassing for a DJ with a lack of innovation. On one such occasion Girts enlisted a couple of colleagues to make static-like sounds while he explained to possible listeners that the station was experiencing problems with its phones, which regrettably prevented them from getting any callers on the air just at that moment.

Now, happily, such measures are no longer necessary. "People always call," Girts says. He pulls them into his morning show with a mix of music designed, apparently, to wake listeners up, a sort of audio cup of coffee. It can include "funny old Latvian songs," as well as other Baltic and Soviet songs from the 1960s, underground music and even cartoon tracks. There are also, of course, staples from the station's playlist, news, sports and business updates.

In addition to playing bands like Sick of It All, Limp Bizkit, the Deftones, Nick Cave, Radiohead, and Placebo, Radio KNZ considers it a duty to support local musicians. Girts explains that the station tries to throw out as wide a net as possible and often plays demo tapes sent in by garage bands all over Latvia. Indeed, like most DJs Girts himself plays in a band. His is called 68 Kristines.

A very crucial question still remains. Has Radio KNZ ever played, ye-gad, Britney Spears? Girts thinks for a minute before responding. "Yes."

Before any tears fall, however, he explains. "I found some parody of her on Napster (an internet music site). Something with the sampled voice of the lead singer from Korn. It was very funny. We also play the song 'I'm afraid of Britney Spears' by Live on Release."

With that kind of outlook things are getting brighter for KNZ. Their listenership has increased (official ratings come out shortly), they are involved in numerous promotions and events involving the local music scene, and they will soon install a more powerful transmitter.

"One day we may even get a new studio," Girts says wistfully, his eyes drifting across the brown mottled floor.

It's important to have, at last, access to an alternative radio station in Latvia. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems they play the same songs over and over and over again. It's true that the list of musicians they air contrasts enormously with those of their air neighbors. But the list of songs played by those musicians could be longer.

Even so, for the moment the station continues to do what it does best, which is to give Riga's residents something refreshingly different. In the end, the battle against pop music's bubblegum Goliaths may be unwinnable, but even so, at Radio KNZ they've got their slingshots out. You can bet they're aiming it at Britney and her local wanna-bes.

If you are interested in getting more information about the station, or make requests, www.radioknz.lv is their Web site.