Port Charlotte may be one of the the most unlikely places to find a hub of progressive country music.
A little town about halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, two Southwest Florida cities known the world over for their white sand beaches, Port Charlotte sits slightly inland, drawing its lifeblood not from the Gulf of Mexico itself but from Charlotte Harbor and the Peace and Myakka Rivers. The scenery that stretches out from this place is more swampland than tropics, the landscape covered in palmetto brush and oft-burned pine tree forests.
There is a beach here, but most around town will tell you that it isn’t a very good one—not unless you enjoy swimming with the gators, that is.
Though only a few minutes by car or boat, Port Charlotte is a red meat, working class town located not far from the heart of Margaritaville. It is, by all accounts, a place that feels worlds away from the spring break vibe that pulses at the heart of its Gulf Coast sisters. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect to hear a rare Charlie Daniels or Hank Jr. track blaring from your FM radio, certainly not the latest from the ultra-liberal James McMurtry or Americana icon Chris Knight.
Enter Larry Timko, the Clark Kent of roots music. A mild-mannered, Clear Channel-employed country radio DJ, Timko mans the midday shift on Port Charlotte’s flagship radio station, WIKX “Kix Country” FM-92.9. At first glance, Larry T (as he’s known to his listeners), seems like any other small-town radio guy in America—he spends his days recording voiceovers for the station’s sponsors, going out on remotes to plug car dealerships and spinning the latest country hits from the likes of Jessica Simpson and Rascal Flatts.
That last one hurts.
“I can’t stand Jessica Simpson,” he says. “It drives me nuts when I have to play that. I hate it. But I’ve been known to sneak in Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” every now and then.”
You could say that Timko isn’t exactly a fan of mainstream country music. And every Sunday evening he undergoes a transformation, turning into one of the Americana music scene’s greatest warriors–a rare ally for the commercially-stifled format fighting from within the belly of the corporate beast.
Sunday evening is when, armed with 100,000 watts of signal strength, Timko takes over the Charlotte County airwaves to broadcast Down Home Cookin’, his five-hour Americana, Bluegrass, and Roots-music show. It’s the only program of its kind currently airing on a commercial FM radio station anywhere in the United States. “If they play it on mainstream,” he proudly proclaims, “I won’t touch it.”
On a recent Sunday I visited with Larry in the Kix Country studio, a room smaller than an average sized kitchen which is tucked into a steel pole building that looks like a warehouse. It’s a fitting enclave for a station based in Port Charlotte as the building, like the town, is plain and unembellished.
When I arrive, Knight’s “Homesick Gypsy” (from his 2008 album Heart of Stone), is being sent out over the air to all of southwest Florida, the song’s gritty demeanor a stark contrast to the photo of Garth Brooks that adorns one of the studio’s inner walls.
Larry T is the only person in the building at this time of night. And he’s not getting paid. Down Home Cookin’–which he produces himself–is a labor of love, a volunteer endeavor made possible in this most unlikely of places in the wake of one of the area’s most devastating tragedies.
It was August, 2004, and Hurricane Charley charged up Florida’s southwest coast, taking a sudden turn into Charlotte Harbor and devastating Port Charlotte and its neighboring town, Punta Gorda. Charley’s winds, which reached as high as 150 MPH and which caused nearly $5.5 billion in damages across the state, swept the town’s buildings to the ground. Many of the structures left standing lost their roofs, including Kix Country’s.
Charley’s aftermath found many in the community momentarily paralyzed. Assessing the damage was daunting enough, and rebuilding seemed, at the time, incomprehensible.
The dedication of Kix Country’s small staff helped the community rise from the rubble and begin the process of recovery as the station served as a central point for the dissemination of information–though for a period they had neither a roof nor a working telephone line.
At the forefront of this was Larry T, who, like his colleagues, endured the unpleasant circumstances for the good of the community. After time had passed and the town was back on its feet, he was rewarded for his dedication–when his Clear Channel bosses asked him what they could do for him to show their gratitude, he responded by requesting permission to air an Americana show.
That moment wasn’t a revelation. It was, in a way, the reason Timko came to Charlotte County in the first place.
Larry T’s first job out of college was at AM-1170 in Atlanta, a now-defunct frequency that was, at that point in time, a tiny but fully-dedicated Americana station. “I didn’t know what Americana music was at the time,” Timko says. “I didn’t know who any of these artists were. But I fell in love with it. I got hooked.”
As is often the case in radio, however, AM-1170 was sold and converted to another format. And Larry T had a choice to make.
“When the station sold out, I had the choice to either come work for Kix Country, or stay in Atlanta and work for [Pop/Mainstream station] Star 94. I said to myself, ‘well, I really love Americana…what are my chances of getting an Americana show on Star 94?’”
Slim to none, he concluded. So in 2001, he made the move Kix Country…and almost immediately started pitching his idea. But his bosses weren’t biting.
“Nobody really had any clue what I was trying to do.”
After Clear Channel re-built following Charley, Timko was finally granted his show. Although Down Home Cookin’ first aired not on Kix Country, but on sister station The Beach 98.9. With all of The Beach’s 6,000 watts of power behind it. To make matters worse, the show was buried on Sunday morning.
Somehow it gained a following anyway. “It just blew up there in the mornings,” Timko explains.
Now, four years later, Larry T is a power player in the Americana scene.
Down Home Cookin’ regularly features interviews and in-studio performances by some of roots music’s most influential names and brightest newcomers. “I’m on a mission,” the DJ says, “to open up people’s ears to new music. They don’t realize what’s out there. They think, ‘George Strait and Garth Brooks, this is it’. Nowadays it’s Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler.”
Timko believes that Americana is less popular than mainstream country primarily because of the format’s lack of accessibility. Because radio doesn’t embrace the format, listeners don’t know the format exists. His goal is to help change that, and he thinks the ratings of Down Home Cookin’, which are exceptional, are a first step in the right direction.
“Americana is under promoted. Everybody loves George Strait. But nobody knows who Bruce Robison is. People love “Wrapped.” Well, Bruce wrote that song. It was #1 on the Billboard charts for like 30 weeks. He writes all of these #1 songs but nobody knows who he is. People love this when they know about it. When I do my Monday through Friday thing, my listeners are local. When I do Down Home Cookin’, they’re all over the place. Sebring, Clearwater, Naples, way outside of our usual radius. It blows my mind how I’ve got these listeners listening from all over.”
What’s more, Timko isn’t satisfied just bringing this new music to Charlotte County. “I’ve had Louis Kaplan, the head of our programming for this area, down in this office. I’ve had him here for an hour and I made him read through the Americana Seminar material on how to sell Americana and about why this would work. I showed him the research stats and tried to convince him that this is a great format, that he should take one of his low rated stations and flip it to Americana—just for a year to see what happens. I guaranteed results. He looked at me like I was on crack or something. He just didn’t buy it.”
That was prior to January 20, the day Clear Channel laid off 1,850 employees–7% of its workforce. Including Kaplan. In the wake of those cutbacks, Timko has been actively working with the Americana Music Association to try and convince struggling stations to flip formats. “We’re on the ground floor,” he says.
But aside from the show’s strong ratings and Timko’s dream of expanding Americana’s reach, Down Home Cookin’ is truly the product of a man’s obsession with, and passion for, music. At one point during our conversation, Timko’s eyes light up as he tells me about his favorite in-studio performance. It’s a track from guitarist Tony Furtado.
“He played guitar like I’ve never seen a person play guitar before,” Timko says. “He plays with finger picks—basically he’s playing a guitar like a banjo. I was blown away.”
And we sit there in that tiny room, while the rest of the station’s staff is at home with their families, and we listen for three minutes–just listen, the way true music lovers listen. Until the studio’s phone rings.
“Excuse me,” he says. “This is probably somebody calling to request Taylor Swift.”
Clearly, there is still some work to be done.
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