Music Feature: Gimme Radio — Making Streaming Human

By Scott McLennan

Gimme Radio brings the human element to streaming by relying on DJs to curate playlists and provide context to what listeners are experiencing.

Sarah Borges, a Boston area musician who has a regular show on Gimme Radio. Photo: Al Pereira.

The music stream does not end at Spotify.

At least that is what Tyler Lenane believed when he helped found Gimme Radio in 2017.

“We wanted to build a music service for fans,” said Lenane, who previously worked for streaming services Apple Music and Rhapsody.

While major streaming outlets such as Spotify and Apple offer a vast selection, they do a lousy job guiding listeners through the myriad musical choices.

Gimme Radio brings the human element to streaming by relying on DJs to curate playlists and provide context to what listeners are experiencing. And, unlike satellite radio, which harshly compartmentalizes its genres, Gimme embraces the genre-bending expanse of the streaming world.

Lenane and his partners started by catering Gimme Radio to fans of heavy metal, which he described as deeply passionate about their music but woefully underserved in the marketplace.

Understandably, the concept is blossoming. Gimme diversified into Gimme Metal and Gimme Country, the latter playing a brand of country that tilts toward the rootsier, classic end of the genre. The contemporary country-pop sound that dominates commercial radio is avoided.

Both Gimme Metal and Gimme Country have grown to include mobile apps alongside the desk-top versions. The broadcasts feature robust chat features, which adds a social media element to the programming. And both stations feature high-profile DJs, such as Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Metal Blade record label founder Brian Slagel on the metal side and Chuck Prophet, Jesse Dayton, and Kim Richey on the country side.

When wooing investors to start Gimme Radio, Lenane assured them that metal fans are not “dirtbags in black T-shirts.” Beyond that, he had data that showed metal fans typically spend more on their music and are pretty adventurous when it comes to exploring the boundaries of the genre.

“The guy in the Cro-Mags shirt will talk to the guy in the King Diamond shirt,” explains Lenane. Fans of different styles of heavy music are far from purists when it comes to their listening habits.

And that’s where Gimme Radio beats out satellite radio — at least from the fan’s perspective. Any one show contains songs from across the metal spectrum. A typical episode will ball together brutal sounding death metal, ’70s classic rock, and progressive underground music. How is that possible? Because humans, says Lenane, not data, call the shots. DJs provide the context for the mix-and-match. “One of our shows can have a Thin Lizzy song go into a Carcass song. No algorithm is going to make that connection, but a DJ can explain how both bands share a love of guitar harmonies,” Lenane explains.

He likened it to the golden age of rock radio. Growing up in the Boston area, Lenane said it was not a big deal to hear WBCN play punk rock upstarts The Clash and the Dogmatics as well as stalwarts such as Aerosmith and J. Geils Band.

The Gimme format has been engineered to stay fresh. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, Brian Turner is the program director for Gimme, a role he played for 20 years at WFMU, the free-form radio outlet in the greater New York City area. Second, DJs come and go, some specifically serve guest stints, others, such as Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe, simply because they can’t commit to a weekly show. So curating remains unpredictably dynamic.

The stations also experiment, encouraging fans to submit playlists that could potentially be turned into a show. Technology has made it relatively easy to supply the banter around the music.

And, with many musicians sidelined from touring due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Gimme platform offers a welcome and important way for bands to stay connected with fans.

Sarah Borges and John Brookhouse are two Boston area musicians who have regular shows on Gimme. Brookhouse, guitarist and singer in the band Worshipper, is host of the Shadow Hymnal program on Gimme Metal. Borges recently signed on to be the host of Cryin’ Time on Gimme Country. Both programs have weekly time slots and provide new content every other week, and there are chances to catch repeats in between new shows.

John Brookhouse, a Boston area musician who has a regular show on Gimme Radio. Photo: Tim Bugbee

Brookhouse says the fan chat is one of the best parts of the format. “I now have an outlet for all of this useless knowledge in my head,” he jokes. “We can have some serious discussions in the chat about which iteration of Deep Purple is the most interesting. We have community and dialogue.”

And, even though he says he knows what is expected of him in terms of programming epic and melodic metal, that doesn’t stop Brookhouse from seeking out material that will challenge both himself and his listeners.

“I’m always on the prowl,” he insists. “I may go backwards and look for stuff from the ’80s or get into something new like Idle Hands or Slift, a band from France that’s heavy and psychedelic.”

And, in the way Brookhouse looks for ways to work a Yes song into his metal show, Borges says that she embraces Gimme’s refreshing lack of agenda when it comes to putting together a program.

She starts each episode with her show’s namesake, Buck Owen’s “Cryin’ Time,” and just takes it from there. A recent episode coursed through songs from cult heroes Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jim Lauderdale, classic artists Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, local fave Roy Sludge, and a track by alt-rockers The Breeders.

“They trust the people who are on the air,” says Borges who majored in radio at Emerson College before moving into the performance world. “This has been a positive thing to come out of the (COVID-19) crisis in terms of connecting with people.”

Lenane says that Gimme’s listenership went up by 6 percent during the period people were asked to quarantine. Gimme also addresses the disturbing issue of artists losing live gigs — bands are given program slots and virtual tip jars, which have brought in more than $27,000 for artists since May.

Currently, both Gimme Metal and Gimme Country are free and do not have advertising. The platform does have a store that features specialty items from featured artists and recently rolled out a $4.99 monthly subscription on the metal side that provides access to archived programs and other benefits.

Now that metal and country are staking their claims on a platform that combines elements from broadcasting, streaming, social media, and podcasting, Lenane says that he would like to expand the Gimme concept into other genres. But Gimme cannot do that without bringing together fans who feel that they aren’t being taken care of properly by other music consumption set-ups. “Building out the communities is our next step,” Lenane says.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

1 Comment

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