Dragondeer is a quickly rising star among Denver bands, playing sets at SXSW and Red Rocks (for Film on the Rocks) earlier this year. But when members Eric Halborg, Cole Rudy, Carl Sorensen and Casey Sidwell stepped into OpenAir's spacious studio last winter to record a live session, they had none of those accomplishments on their collective résumé. In fact, they'd only written a couple of songs and didn't have any recorded material. "We were pretty new," says Halborg. "But they had seen us play live and asked us to do an in-studio [performance]."
Since it started in October 2011, OpenAir (1340 AM) -- a branch of Colorado Public Radio with a focus on the local music scene -- has hosted more than 300 bands in its Performance Studio, sharing the resulting audio recordings with listeners on the air and videos online.
"OpenAir kind of broke us, really," says Halborg. "We did two songs through them, and because of those videos, it basically broke us; we instantly got gigs."
In an era when traditional media of all kinds struggles to compete in a fractured music industry, there are a surprising number of places on the FM and AM dials in Denver where you can still hear local music. In fact, there are several shows dedicated exclusively to it. OpenAir assistant music director Alisha Sweeney hosts the show Mile High Noon on OpenAir at 12 p.m. every weekday. Local Edition, hosted by DJ Margie, airs on KBCO (97.3 FM) every Sunday at 10 p.m. And DJ Alf hosts Locals Only over at KTCL (93.3 FM) on Sunday evenings. You can hear Kabaret on KGNU (88.5 FM), a Boulder-based public station, Tuesdays at 7 p.m., and every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., Local Shakedown airs on Radio 1190 (1190 AM), with host (and Westword writer) Bree Davies often bringing in Colorado artists for in-studio performances and interviews. "Being able to say that they're played on the radio, and to have that [in-studio] recording to use, really helps a lot of bands get going," says John Schaefer, music director at KGNU. In addition, all of these stations also feature local music periodically in their regular rotations. "I think getting on some of those stations is huge to introduce people to what you're doing," says Halborg.
There are more opportunities to hear local music on the radio here than there are in many cities, but it's still a relatively small percentage of what is played overall. Even OpenAir, which makes an effort to give listeners "a chance to connect with Colorado's thriving music scene," only plays Colorado artists between 15 and 30 percent of the time.
According to OpenAir music director Jessi Whitten, the station's programming is designed to incorporate local music in an organic way. "We didn't want to seclude [Colorado music] into its own realm," she says. "[We wanted to] make it a part of the entire conversation."
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That hasn't proven difficult. "Local music is so good that it sounds good next to whatever national artist we play," says Sweeney. "We had it in our heads that we would play local every hour every day, and we still do that." But local radio stations do more than simply play hometown artists on the air. OpenAir, in particular, is interested in finding creative ways to get people excited about Colorado music. Sweeney recently started an "On the Road" series, in which she trades expertise with someone from the community. Let's say someone gives Sweeney a banjo lesson; in exchange, Sweeney will bring that person to the studio and help him or her discover some new bands. "It's all about...music education," says Sweeney. "We have a way to tell the story of a band and tell the story of why you should be passionate about a band."
The members of Dragondeer aren't the only ones to have gotten a boost from a session with OpenAir. "The in-studio performance videos that I did with OpenAir have helped reach new fans who have contacted me personally," says Natalie Tate, a singer-songwriter who also plays lead guitar for Ark Life. "Being played every now and again on the station has helped me get [my] name out to the local community in a consistent way."
It's not hard to find similar stories about every radio station that goes out of its way to champion Colorado bands. When Tate was in Colorado Springs, an in-studio at KRCC (91.5) helped draw new fans to her show, and KTCL supported the Lumineers long before they headlined at Red Rocks. "It's a good problem to have, that there are so many great stations," says Whitten. "We all support each other. We're all friends.
"It's such an awesome time for Denver," she adds. "The talent is here, and the spirit of collaboration and support is here in the music scene. It's too good to ignore."