August 18, 2006
After playing a music montage that included samples of tunes such as "That's What Friends Are For" by Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen's "Philadelphia" and TLC's "Waterfalls," The Current's Nikki Tundel asked DJ Mary Lucia what the songs had in common. Lucia laughed and answered, "They're all songs that I pray we never have to play on The Current." While Tundel acknowledged Lucia was partly correct, the main commonality was that the songs reflected the influence AIDS has had on culture.
St. Paul, Minn. - It's an unexpected way to begin a talk about a serious topic, but The Current is often about the unexpected. "My whole approach," says Tundel, "is to ask, 'What does this story say about who we are as human beings?'"
Tundel, a reporter at The Current, talks about newsy topics with Lucia two to three afternoons per week. They've discussed heavy issues such as bird flu, AIDS and surveillance cameras as well as lighter fare, such as new words that have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
Tundel, who spent four years working in the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom, searches for topics in the public consciousness and finds the personal side. "I like to pick topics that people are already talking about," she says. "We can then get into how the story affects people and our regular everyday lives. I think we're a good complement to Minnesota Public Radio News."
So why should a music station bother with news topics at all? "One of the goals of The Current is to engage and activate listeners to be informed citizens," says Steve Nelson, program director at The Current. "The news pieces do that perfectly." And the stories are carefully designed to fit a music format. "The idea is to treat the news piece like a long song," Tundel says. "We try to keep stories to that length so they fit with the pacing of the whole show."
The conversational and slightly unorthodox approach is the hallmark of Tundel's features. Lucia acts as the stand-in for the audience, asking questions that are likely on listeners' minds. "I don't show Mary what we're going to do [ahead of time]," Tundel says. "The topic could be anything. We just go through it and it's really exciting for me because Mary brings up things I never expected. She's very clever and funny and I love what she adds to the story."
In the early days, Tundel was concerned whether listeners would appreciate news stories in the middle of a music show. She was encouraged by feedback about a story she and Lucia did about Wal-Mart. "That was really one of the first pieces we did and it was really interesting to see people are actually listening to this," she says. "It's so great that people are engaged and feel they can call or e-mail us and talk about it."
That engagement is something Tundel, Lucia and The Current's listeners share. "There's so much irony and complexity in the world," Tundel says. "I'm always asking questions. I don't know all the answers. We're finding stuff out. We're curious."
Listen to Mary Lucia and Nikki Tundel weekday afternoons on The Current, 89.3 in the Twin Cities and 88.7 in Rochester. To hear archived stories, visit mpr.org and click on The Current.
(This article also appeared in the September 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)