If you were born before 2010, chances are you grew up with a radio around you in some form. Music, commercials and talk show hosts followed us from the moment we stepped into a car or bus on the way to school or work. Right now, there’s a radio host queuing up a playlist for the world. Radio hosts, DJs, play a part in the integral moments of our music experiences. Through them, we learn about new artists, local and world news, and sometimes new ideas. There’s an understanding between the music and the person putting it on that isn’t always there when music is performed.
On the east side of Flagstaff in the Market of Dreams, Radio Sunnyside, a community radio station, operates with the help of volunteer radio hosts. Tim Aydelott and Erik Bitsui are two such hosts. Aydelott began hosting Words and Notes, a show dedicated to pairing music and poetry, in 2015. Bitsui hosts a heavy metal show as DJ Heavy DK called Metal Meltdown. After having worked for years as a high school English teacher with Poetry Out Loud, a national competition for students where they perform published poetry, Aydelott had the idea to pair music in the silence between poems with music and transferred this idea to radio.
If you’re making a playlist for the world, there is a lot to consider. Aydelott gives us a closer look at how he brings his knowledge to music.
“I have a thematic approach before coming up with a show. Often, it starts with a song I like,” he says. “Maybe it had been a song I hadn’t heard for a while and I’d like to play it on the radio. [I’ll ask,] ‘What’s a theme in this song? What are some songs that have a similar theme and poems?’ I get a whole bunch of songs and poems in a big disorganized list and then I start thinking about how to pair the actual song and decide what would follow this poem best. I’m really trying to make that moment between the end of the poem and the beginning of the song kind, make you hear the song differently. It might resonate more after hearing the poem.”
Bitsui says, “Having a Native American voice on the air was my mission in life, especially to have one on in Flagstaff. Whenever I go on [Words and Notes], I try to have Native American writers. I’d also been kicking around the idea of having a heavy metal show. The idea came from KUYI, a Hopi Radio Station—they play powwow and Peyote songs and some heavy metal. It was all over the place. The radio station sounded like a 14-year-old’s playlist. I really liked it.”
Local radio has the ability to reach out to all types of people specifically found in that community. Hosting radio is an art that involves understanding music, audience and listening. More than a thousand songs are released a day, and pulling from a large library of songs is already hard. A radio host knows what they’re looking for and works toward crafting an image or a feeling for their listeners.
“There’s a passion behind metal music that keeps me going. It gives me a passion for living,” Bitsui says. “My target audience of Metal Meltdown with DJ DK is one kid who lives on the east side of town, 13-14 years old, Native American, they hate school, they have no friends, they don’t read and they hate life. That kid, that’s who I’m speaking to when I present my show. I want to present them with humor, heavy riffs, guitars and lyrics and to give them hope that life isn’t bad and life can be fun and life can be passionate.”
There’s more than one kid out there, more than one type of person listening. In music, we find ourselves relating to something bigger. Each song is a tiny image or feeling that radio hosts weave together for listeners they may never get to meet.
“If [hosting radio] is an art, it’s more like collage than painting. You’re picking things that already exist and then you’re putting it together in whatever way you choose. You’re not creating anything from scratch,” says Aydelott. “You can feel in community radio where the audience is.”
“I have no idea who’s listening, but I’m working for them,” Bitsui says.