(Featured Image: KQRS radio personalities pose on the station’s roof, circa 1973; photo stolen from Radio Tapes.)
We’ve already mentioned in passing how Prince’s celebrated musical heterogeneity–that genre- and race-agnostic blend of funk, soul, rock, and pop influences that would come to be known as the “Minneapolis Sound”–was at least in part a product of unique historical and geographic circumstances. It may be hard to believe today, when radio playlists are as standardized as they are irrelevant, but broadcasting in the pre-Clear Channel era was a highly localized industry. This not only made it possible for your proverbial Alan Freeds and Wolfman Jacks to wield an influence as tastemakers in their respective territories, but it also created a highly segregated musical landscape based on the perceived demands of regional audiences–which, let’s face it, often translated to the racist preconceptions of the advertising industry. In the business parlance of the times, an area populated primarily with white listeners was known as a “vanilla market.” And, with a mere 1.7 percent African American population as of the 1970 census, the Twin Cities were about as “vanilla” a market as they came.
What this meant, essentially, was a paucity of the kind of urban Black radio on which most of Prince’s peers from the rest of the country were raised: as biographer Dave Hill put it, “the people who controlled the airwaves of Minneapolis and St. Paul virtually declared that blacks did not exist” (Hill 18). The one station in the area that regularly played music by African American artists, KUXL, only broadcast from sunrise to sundown–keeping in mind that in the dead of winter, that could mean as early as 5:30 p.m.–and even then, it was predominantly a gospel station. Prince thus grew up on a musical diet that was a lot closer to what one might imagine for a white artist of his generation, tuning in after hours to the “progressive” FM rock station KQRS. “KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station,” he recalled to Minnesota Monthly in 1997. That’s where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell” (Keller 1997). And if that sounds like an odd list of favorites for a Black teenager in the mid-’70s, their influence is clearly borne out in Prince’s music.