News Column

DJ Walt Dizzo keeps local music current

October 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 03--In 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put out an album called "The Last DJ." Its title track was a withering criticism of what Petty saw as the poisoning of radio by the hand of corporate America.

"The boys upstairs just don't understand anymore / He won't play what they say to play / There goes the last DJ," Petty sang, his sneer almost audible. While things didn't end up quite as dire as Petty feared, they haven't changed a whole lot from a decade ago, either. Radio station owners figured out they could make more money by letting go of their staff of local talent and beaming in a DJ via satellite, and so this is what you hear a lot of -- a generic DJ talking vaguely, so their patter is not

region-specific, playing songs from a playlist the home office selects.

Walt Dizzo is not one of those people.

Truth is, the Petty song could practically be about him. No one's telling him what to play, and that's pretty much the way he wants it.

Dizzo -- real last name: Raschick (the nickname is a dorm-room joke that stuck) -- is a disc jockey of the old order. Over the past nine years, he's held a regular Thursday-night slot on the air at KUWS, playing exactly whatever he wants to play during his three-hour program.

He's like an old-fashioned FM-DJ from the early 1960s Wild-West era of radio, before record labels and radio stations became gigantic money machines trying to please the most people possible and maximize profits for shareholders. Dizzo plays it all: hip hop, death metal, disco, punk, folk -- local and regional.

"I literally like everything," he said.

He never aimed to be a DJ, but those seeds were sown in his youth.

"My dad had a giant record collection, and we would always listen to music together," Dizzo said. "I always liked sharing music with people."

His love of music led him as a college student to the "free box" at KUWS in 2004, where he found a Nellie McKay CD. Dizzo asked the student manager why the disc was being given away instead of played. His passion didn't go unnoticed. "Within a few months, I was hosting a show," Dizzo said.

And now, this stubborn focus has led him into a new gig that Dizzo said is "made" for him: as a DJ with Minnesota Public Radio's "The Current," a well-loved station in the Twin Cities that added Dizzo's "The Duluth Local Show" to its selection of streaming programs in March. The show airs fresh episodes on Wednesdays at noon on the station's Local Stream.

It's kind of a big deal. Once upon a time, musicians had to break into the Twin Cities music scene the hard way, by shipping their music blindly to writers and radio stations and hoping someone would listen to it instead of throwing it onto a pile of similar albums, or by booking any gig on any bill they could get with the goal of eventually being heard by someone who could help them. Now, with the Duluth Local Show, people all over the state -- and, really, all over the globe -- can listen to Twin Ports music with a level of ease that did not exist until recently. And local bands have an advocate with a platform.

His job hosting and curating the Current show came after Dizzo saw the job listing and applied. Simple as that. His qualifications were solid -- in addition to hosting his weekly radio show, Dizzo also is the director of the Homegrown Music Festival -- and so his hiring was basically inevitable. "It made sense," Dizzo said. "I can talk to anyone for hours about local music. Old stuff, new stuff -- I'm hungry for it."

Dizzo produces the show at his home, on gear provided by The Current.

"After doing it for a while, I'm getting better at it," he said. "My goal is to play a diverse array of music, and make it relevant to what's happening, now. I look to see who's playing locally in that week following my show, and I play something by the bands that are playing that weekend."

"The cool thing," Dizzo said, "is that the show is online, and you can listen to it anywhere. Plus, The Current puts those shows up as archived editions, so you can go back and listen to old ones."

The audience for his Current show is significantly larger than for his college-radio one. "I'm getting a lot of people who have listened to the show who used to live in Duluth and now live in the Cities," Dizzo said. He adds that fans of Duluth groups like Low and Trampled by Turtles have told him his program is an inroad to finding out more about other music from the same region.

"We're really glad to have Walt on board helping us do a better job of covering Twin Ports music for the Current," said Jim McGuinn, program director at the station. "It seems like, in the past few years, the music scene there has really exploded, so having someone in that community has helped us gain insight and context into which artists are having an impact and might be interesting to play for our listeners in the Twin Cities and all over the world."

Clearly, Dizzo's show isn't as big as the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 or something. But it's a way for him to spread his gospel. He's preaching the word of regional music. He's on a mission to bring it to people who would otherwise never hear it, most likely.

He's keeping alive the tradition of those old DJ's that inspired Tom Petty, the guys who cared about deep tracks and B-sides and unsung local bands that are as good as any national act, but haven't had the same lucky breaks. And in this era, where music is available online in a matter of moments on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube or iTunes, there's still something to be said for the lone voice of the DJ, sending his personal picks to an invisible audience through the air in the hopes that someone will receive his message and have their life changed on the spot through a great song.

Listen up

What: The Duluth Local Show, hosted by DJ Walt Dizzo

When: Noon Wednesdays, 11 p.m. Thursdays and 6 p.m. Saturdays

Where: thecurrent.org, also streaming on The Current's mobile app

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(c)2013 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

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