Silence quickly settles in to Studio B at WKMS. "One minute, one minute," says Tracy Ross, host of the radio program, Sounds Good. A reporter with Kentucky Public Radio wraps up the noontime report, his voice muffled through the wall of the studio next door.
"Thirty seconds, thirty seconds," says Tracy. The air holds still for a few moments.
Tracy smiles and takes a deep breath. "Good afternoon!" he exclaims, "and welcome to another live lunch here on Sounds Good. I'm your host, Tracy Ross, and today it's my pleasure to welcome Nashville band Year of October. Guys, thanks for coming out!"
After brief introductions, Josh Sullivan hits some rhythmic riffs on his electric guitar, and the band sets sail into a set of hard-hitting, blues rock. Tracy closes his eyes, soaking in the artistry swirling about the room. A small audience sits across from the band, nodding with the beat.
Before long, the band is rocking out, creating a sound that stands in contrast to the genteel tone of NPR programming.
"Having a live concert up here actually makes the station sound as vibrant as we all feel that it is in the community," says Tracy. The station's ties to the community are real and enduring, yet they aren't always tangible". A visit to WKMS can be a lonely one, depending on when you go.
"A year before Sounds Good started, a guy walked up through here on a Tuesday around noon," says Tracy. "He said, 'Well, I heard the radio station was up here.' I looked around and said, 'This is it.' He got this weird look on his face, one of almost disdain, and he said, 'Well I thought something would be going on the middle of the day at a public radio station in the middle of a university campus.' I realized that we are automated a lot. It's a computer playing everything, the lights are off, and no one is here.
"Just contrast that to what you see here today with Year of October. We have a studio full of people and guests, and you can see what we try to accomplish on a daily basis, which is a real, physical connection to our community. These live musicians make that connection even more tangible."
WKMS has always been a proponent of broadcasting live music through special coverage of shows and programs such as Music from the Front Porch. When Tracy conceived the lunchtime, weekday program Sounds Good, he wanted to include the same, intimate feel with local musicians.
"We figured out bands were interested," says Tracy, "so one day we invited Johnny Appleseed to play. Jim Carter, who was the Vice President of Institutional Advancement, called and said, 'I was driving down the road and thought this is the kind of thing I want to hear on the station. I'd like for you to continue it in a bigger fashion.'"
In the fall of 2014, the WKMS team went to work, tearing out a dividing wall in Studio B to open the room, providing more space for full bands. The back wall of the studio, lined with a portion of the massive WKMS vinyl album collection, set the stage. Murray State's Digital Media Services jumped on board, providing live camera work for video streaming online as well as viewing on the WKMS site afterward.
After the station's first Battle of Bands contest, Tracy realized the value of their work. "We got thirty-eight entries, and most of them were really good. And through these live lunches on Sounds Good we can give these bands more exposure than just once a year. Air time is our commodity, and we already had this local show, so local, live music had to be a part of that, too. That's what we should be doing as a public radio station, especially in a region that can support it culturally and musically. We need to reflect what is going on here."