Despite the ever-evolving nature of how we as a society absorb modern media, there will always be a place for radio. At least good radio.
As someone not terribly in tune with the world of radio broadcasting, it was a pleasure to join the team at Acme Radio Live last Wednesday to sit in on a show they dub, Hammel Hears A Who. They brought in local freewheelin’ country songstress Lilly Hiatt, who would perform a handful of her songs, including a few off of her upcoming album, Walking Proof. Hiatt also handpicked several songs she’d been digging lately to be streamed on the airwaves. The show was off and running, while I observed in the corner of the room in my itchy green thrift store blazer.
The ringleader of the station is Justin Hammel, who’s more appropriate title is Program Director, and has been engrained in the Nashville radio scene since the illustrious G. W. Bush days. Hammel has DJed on Lightning 100 for fifteen years, captained Radio Bonnaroo for the last ten, and has helped pilot Acme Radio Live since its inception nearly four years ago to this very day.
Between Justin, Lilly, and the radio crew, the vibe was nothing shy of casual and authentic. It was clear being in that room for even just a brief period and talking to Hammel, that Acme Radio Live is not about promoting what much of the rest of Broadway is promoting. They very much so tap into the local and indie scene, and aren’t trying to appease labels and companies atop the ivory towers along Music Row. They harness a very organic and original approach to the content they meticulously piece together.
We had the opportunity to sit and chat with Hammel after the show about his history in radio, the direction of Acme Radio, and what sets it apart from other beloved Nashville radio stations.
Music Mecca: So you’ve been part of the local radio scene for a number years within multiple different stations. What do you love most about radio as an entertainment medium, and who or what made you want to pursue a career in it?
Justin Hammel: I’ve always just been fascinated by radio. When I was a kid, I was dubbing tapes and waiting for songs to play just to catch it and record it. At the end of the day, selfishly, I always felt like I listened to a lot of bands that were coming up, and just wanted to try to find the best way to promote them. I heard radio stations playing artists that were good, but I was like, “Okay, you keep playing that same artist and it gets old…why don’t you introduce people to other artists that are in that vein?” Like, how you’d think radio would work. (laughs) So that was what intrigued me: being able to turn people on to new stuff, because that’s what I wanted as a kid.
MM: What was the beginning of Acme Radio Live like, and what’s been the mission?
JH: We first had Mayor Megan Barry, Dave Cobb, and J. D. Souther on. It was a nice little hang, just talking about Nashville. We’ve since been able to engage a community that wasn’t really getting a lot of love in this town. I think at the end of the day, that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about this, is being able to engage those communities in Nashville that I love. It’s a blessing and curse, but there’s so many good things we’re doing down here.
MM: What makes Acme Radio special compared to other Nashville radio stations?
JH: At the end of the day, there’s no red tape. You can talk about radio-free Nashville, our view or whatever. The thing I love about [Acme Radio] is the passionate people, talking about their stuff. I think for us, we’re able to curate it a little bit more and I’ve got people I trust around me. So I’m 37 now, and I used to be at shows every night. Now I have a 16-month-old and I can’t do it. And I’ve got four other people under me that can be my army, and I make it out when I can. (laughs.) And I trust them to death! They’re not coming at it from a label perspective, or from any personal interest other than “I just really love this, I think it’s fucking cool.” And, to me, that’s something you won’t find anywhere else in town. At all.
MM: If some new, relatively unknown local artist wants Acme Radio to play their songs, what’s your protocol when deciding who gets played? Like is it simply if you like the song or not?
JH: Yeah! It’s literally like we play the song, we sit there and listen to it, and if we dig it, we throw it in. If we don’t, we don’t. That’s it. A lot of times we’ll respond and say, “Hey this song wasn’t really hitting for us, or the production wasn’t quite there, but please send another one,” because I never want to discourage someone from sending [their music] in. At the end of the day, again, there’s no way of telling us what to play. I got tired of, “Oh well this song needs to play every time just to get a number one.” People have Spotify! Why are we beating them over the head with this same song? Give them choices, give them new stuff to check out so when they’re not on Spotify or something else, give them something they’re missing out on.
MM: What’s the process like for coming up with show/radio block ideas?
JH: When we started, we had a lot of shows that we had ideas for and hosts for, and over the four years, we’ve tried a lot of different things. I’ve always done terrestrial radio, not streaming, so it was a new frontier for sure. So what I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to have the biggest name to be breaking out and getting people’s attention. I think you just have to do something pure and original, and let them figure it out.
That’s what we want to do, is carve that niche and get people excited about it. It’s taken a long time. So with the shows now, I try to focus more music-wise. Some of the lifestyle stuff – it works for podcasts, but I want it to be music-centric. I want it to be music-heavy. I just offered my friend, Emily Young, a new show that started just last night. It’s called Acid Reflux. It’s just all psych-rock/garage stuff that she loves, and it was a match made in heaven! And she’s going to go out there and promote the hell out of it because she cares. She’s young, and has friends in town, so that’s the niche we’re trying to carve out.
MM: What’s the most popular Acme Radio show would you say? Like does the time of day dictate the most listened to segments necessarily?
JH: With terrestrial radio, that was something I had to learn because you’ve got your drive-time hours. What I’ve seemed to notice is, really, our highest times are work hours, nine to five. It’s while people are sitting at their desks, working at the computer. We have a small team and we’re all really passionate, but we also wear a lot of hats. We were trying to do shows that we wanted to do and stuff we liked. And we thought, “Ok this is our heart, that needs to be right in the middle of this block,” so we made it in the mix.
Mondays it’s Guy, Tuesdays it’s Rachel, Wednesdays it’s Preston, Thursdays it’s me, then Fridays we do our new music show [New Music Friday]. We put all of our core shows right there so that people can get to know us a bit better with our personalities, because with us being such a small team we can’t move like a normal team; it’s all hands on deck for us. So middle of the day seems to be our peak time. But since we’re streaming, I’m trying to gain the middle of the night [listeners], because in Europe it’s the middle of the day. So we’re trying to play dancey-er stuff, like funk and soul. Just keeping it more upbeat I think would be more appropriate for the European audience.
MM: Reflecting back on your many years of radio, which moment or moments jumps to the front of your memory as maybe pinnacle milestones?
JH: Um…man! (ponders for a moment.) Well…There’s plenty of artists. I’d say Frightened Rabbit was a pretty good one. I don’t think I’ve had a pinnacle, because, then what am I going for? (laughs.) There have been moments that have been amazing, like the first time I got on the main stage at Bonnaroo and Al Green was handing out roses. And I was just out there, looking over the crowd. I was right there [in the audience], just two years ago! (Ponders for a moment.) I can’t look back though. I have to move forward. There’s too much stuff to do.
MM: With all the guests you’ve likely talked to, who or what situation has been the absolute worst, however you want to interpret that?
JH: (hesitates) I’m not going to say (laughs). Look, an interview is a give and take deal. And most artists understand that, most DJs understand that, and whether they’re on the same page or not can be tough. You’re literally put in a room with a stranger and you’re told, “Hey become best friends for like 15 minutes” or whatever it is, and I had a really hard time with that for awhile. So I can’t blame an artist, because I think a lot of my horrible interviews were because of me. I didn’t ask the right questions, and I didn’t make them feel comfortable. You have to go in there and do your best to make your artist feel comfortable and just talk to them like they’re a person. The harder ones are the younger ones. Yeah I’ve had some terrible, terrible interviews, and I know it was their first radio interview but at the end of the day, they’re going to learn just like I did. So I don’t want to fault them for it.
MM: What’s the next step or goal for Acme Radio going into 2020?
JH: We’re really trying to – again – carve out this niche within the local community. On Broadway, we’ve got bars that have country stars’ names and some of them aren’t even playing country music…it’s insane. When I think about downtown, I think about two places; I think about Robert’s [Western World], and that’s when I think about real country music, and then I think about Acme. And I think about real people, just in general. We’re also the only one–I don’t know about other places–that pays our artists. We always have, we always will. This place is doing something special, and my goal for this year is to really showcase what Acme is doing for the local community, down here on Broadway.
We’re getting people in front of tourists and locals alike that aren’t going to venture out to DRKMTTR or the East Room. So we’re getting them over here on our local alum nights, and we’ve been trying to get out and DJ more. We’ve been doing a monthly thing at Vinyl Tap, we’ve been doing stuff with Dive Motel, and we get everyone to come talk with us, meet us. This year we’re doing two stages for Record Store Day at The Groove in East Nashville, and then we’re doing this neighborhood series that we’re going to kick off leading up to Dancin’ in the District, which we kicked off last year.
So we get a chance to go into these different neighborhoods, whether it’s a park or these bar areas, and just engage them in free music. [Acme Radio is] just trying to push the fact that there’s more to Broadway than what people and the news are talking about.
MM: Now this is probably the most pertinent question I have for you. What Nashville food establishment can Justin Hammel not live without?
JH: Can I say Acme Feed & Seed, or? (laughs.) I would say, I would be really, really bummed if…which, it has closed downtown, but there is one in Cool Springs: Sportsman’s. I love Sportsman’s Grille. There’s also a couple pizza joints, like Joey’s [House of Pizza] which is off Hermitage or something, or Manny’s [House of Pizza] in the Arcade. It’s like New York style-pie. Oh and Slim & Huskies is dope too.