New directions for ‘Excursions’
- Published: April 9, 2021
Willie Nelson, Erykah Badu, LCD Soundsystem, Paul McCartney & Wings, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — all in less than an hour.
For Evan Miller, the new host of 91.3 WYSO’s daily afternoon program “Excursions,” this smattering of tunes only scratches the surface of the musical variety on his playlists.
“You never know which direction the show will go, what connections will be made,” Miller said in a recent interview with the News. “Some days I don’t even know.”
Miller, a lifetime neighbor to the Yellow Springs area from Enon, took over as full-time host of the three-hour weekday program “Excursions” at the beginning of February. He took on the show’s reins after longtime host and music director Niki Dakota resigned unexpectedly after 18 years with the station.
According to WYSO’s general manager, Luke Dennis, Dakota’s “surprising departure” will not affect the Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., timeslot of “Excursions,” nor is the show in jeopardy of going off-air. Just the opposite — Dennis spoke optimistically of future possibilities in store for the program.
“We now have the opportunity to remake [the show] into something new and fresh,” Dennis said. “The mandate for ‘Excursions’ is to push the boundaries of genre and what’s expected of us, and Evan’s helping us do just that as its current host.”
Dennis added that although Miller is the host of “Excursions” “for the foreseeable future,” WYSO may open up a nationwide search for a more permanent host, and that in this scenario, Miller would be “an extremely strong candidate” for the position.
“But for now, ‘Excursions’ is still in good hands,” Dennis said.
To regular listeners of “Excursions,” Miller’s voice won’t sound unfamiliar. Before this recent appointment, he had filled a part-time position at WYSO, occasionally standing in as a substitute host on “Excursions” in Dakota’s stead. Dennis said Miller hosted nearly a third of all “Excursions” shows throughout 2020, and a handful in 2019.
Additionally, Miller hosts a second program on Sunday nights, from 11 p.m.–1 a.m.: “The Outside,” which features experimental and contemporary music.
In essence, it was Miller’s frequency with which he already appeared on WYSO’s radio waves that made promoting him to the full-time host position the “easy and clear decision,” as Dennis put it.
According to Dennis, Niki Dakota’s “unexpected and unfortunate” resignation happened at the beginning of a “massive stationwide push to strengthen the music programming at WYSO.”
In their interviews with the News, Dennis and Miller said they were not at liberty to comment on the exact specifics of Dakota’s resignation, citing confidentiality agreements between her and the station. Multiple attempts to reach Dakota for comment were not successful before press time.
“Her position as host of ‘Excursions’ was never in question here at the station,” Dennis said. “She is a beloved figure in the community, and as a DJ, she really couldn’t be beat. Listeners think of her as family.”
“[Dakota] was invited to continue hosting ‘Excursions,’ but some of the restructuring and reorganization of the station made her feel that resignation was the better avenue for her,” Dennis said.
Dennis added that he regrets the circumstances under which Dakota resigned, and that there wasn’t a more public and community-oriented “goodbye” for the longtime “Excursions” host and music programming director. Dakota had been working in WYSO’s music department since 2002 and was a fixture of the station through times of controversy and change.
Dakota has been vocal about her resignation on her public Facebook page. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, she posted a public status update that said “[WYSO’s] need to discipline me has overtaken its need for me to show up for work today.” The following day, the Dayton Daily News quoted Dakota as saying she resigned “under extreme duress.”
Now, over a month following her sudden departure from the station, Dakota has launched a crowdfunding initiative on GoFundMe.com called “Niki Dakota’s Continuation Fund.” On the page, Dakota writes: “I plan to create a podcast, but meanwhile bills are piling up and legal fees have arisen in light of my departure.” The fundraising goal of the page is $30,000. By press time, the amount raised was just over $3,100.
Without Dakota on the team, it’s Dennis, Miller and Juliet Fromholt — the current heads of the music department at WYSO — who are leading the ongoing charge to broaden the station’s musical presence in the region.
“I’ve always wanted music to be at the top of the priority list here at WYSO, right alongside the growth of our news department and our community training division,” Dennis said. “Historically, our music efforts have gotten the short end of the stick. We have 14 music shows — which clearly shows we care about music — but as far as intentionally building an audience for music, I feel like we’ve always fallen behind.”
“Looking ahead to the coming year alone, I think we’re going to do better,” Dennis said.
Meeting the DJ
According to Dennis, WYSO only puts “music nerds” in charge of radio programs and Miller certainly fits the bill — his love for all things music has been a lifelong affair.
As a “band kid” at Greenon High School, he played marimba and vibraphone in a number of the school’s ensembles. When he later attended Wright State University, Miller majored in music performance with a specialization in percussion. During these college years, Miller made himself a mainstay in local music scenes — both on and off the stage. For several years, he performed with the glitzy indie-pop group Babbling April, and with the percussion-based improvisational duo Neutrals.
But it was in 2013, during Miller’s sophomore year in college, when he would stumble into his passion as a disc jockey. After talking to the right people, he began hosting a weekly show on 106.9 WWSU, Wright State’s independent and student-run radio station.
“That’s when things really started to turn around for me,” Miller said.
He called it “The Dig,” and the show’s premise started out simply enough: it was an indie-rock show that seemed to boast universal appeal.
“As my musical tastes started to go down the rabbit hole, so too did my show,” Miller said.
Miller’s ever-growing interest in eccentric musical stylings — specifically contemporary and arrhythmic percussion — spurred him to start playing more and more obscure and unorthodox music on “The Dig.”
“You know, noise and drone music, weird experimental stuff,” he said.
Miller held down this obscure musical niche on the university’s radio waves for five-and-a-half years. Toward the end of his time at Wright State, Miller had a chance encounter with Juliet Fromholt, WYSO’s current director of digital and programming strategy, and host of the “Alpha Rhythms” and “Kaleidoscope” programs. Over the course of two years, both of Miller’s bands had separate opportunities to play on each of Fromholt’s radio shows. At the second encounter, when Neutrals, Miller’s percussion duo, appeared on “Alpha Rhythms,” Miller finally asked Fromholt how he might get involved at WYSO.
“She told me, ‘You’re doing it right now’,” Miller said.
“I became an intern at WYSO literally days after graduating from Wright State,” Miller said. “I pitched my show to Juliet and explained to her, ‘I know the music’s weird,’ but, in the end that was my advantage.”
He was right. At the time, WYSO didn’t have much experimental musical programming. So, filling in that gap, Miller launched his weekly Sunday night show, “The Outside,” in 2018, and according to him, it picked up right where he left off with “The Dig.”
“Only it’s more polished,” Miller clarified.
WYSO’s website attests to this finesse. It describes “The Outside” as more than just a segment of obscure music, but rather a “survey of music on the fringes from past to present,” featuring “contemporary composition to free improvisers, underground noise cassettes to freak bands, and everything in between.”
Between hosting “The Outside” each week and interning around the station on a more daily basis, Miller quickly became a familiar face at WYSO by mid-2018. As he described it, his intern position at the station primarily had him doing “PA [personal assistant] work” for Niki Dakota on her show, “Excursions.”
“This usually included running down to the music library to get a CD or a tape for the program, uploading interviews from the day, making coffee or helping an in-studio band set up their equipment,” Miller said.
From 2018 through 2020, Miller’s role around the station became more and more prominent.
“I just kept asking around the station for things to do — seeing where I could help out. I felt like I was becoming a part of this organization that I began to care about deeply, “ he said. “Eventually, the amount of work I was doing as an unpaid intern began to pick up, and I was given a paid position as a part-time employee at the start of 2020.”
In other words: “I basically volunteered my way into a paid gig,” Miller said with a big laugh.
Three months in, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the job suddenly became much different. In the spirit of “keeping the wheels on the place,” as Miller put it, he began fortifying the station’s digital presence. He spearheaded WYSO’s recent move to making much of its programming available for on-demand streaming. And in addition to this work, Miller began to fill in for Dakota on “Excursions” as she took more time off.
“I was definitely nervous when I was first asked to fill in,” Miller said. “But there was a lot of support around me here at the station. I don’t think they would have asked me to step up if they didn’t trust me.”
For Miller, it was his background in music performance that steeled him for the job of stepping up to primetime disc-jockeying — even if it was just substituting at the time.
“Just being in the area and playing show after show really helped me feel comfortable being on the air,” Miller said. “I might not be hitting keys or drums, but I’m still performing a kind of role when I’m on air. So, the more confident I got with playing live music, the more confident I became with performing [as a DJ] on the radio.”
Now, not just as the fill-in but as the full-time de facto host of “Excursions,” Miller said he feels more confident than ever.
He’s not playing his “weird Sunday night stuff,” as he put it, but just the same, he said he still feels the liberty to “take risks” with his musical selections. For instance, on a recent “Excursions” playlist, Miller paired such classic acts as The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Little Richard with the more contemporary Ween, Phoebe Bridgers and Rhiannon Giddens.
“We live in such an encompassing and diverse world — and not just musically — and I would like to try and reflect that as much as I can through how I run ‘Excursions’ each day,” Miller said. “There’s just so much music out there, so why not try and play as wide of a range of it as I can every day?”
Moving forward at WYSO
Looking ahead, Dennis said WYSO strives to fill the regional radio hole left by the termination of 89.7 WNKU’s signal in 2017. Based out of northern Kentucky, but reaching much of southwest Ohio, WNKU gained a popular following for its diverse and eclectic programming of bluegrass, folk and rock music. With its absence, WYSO is still working to tap into that pool of listeners.
“We [at WYSO] see a growing emphasis on Dayton and Cincinnati becoming one large metropolitan region,” Dennis said. “We want to carry the mantle of independent music and music discovery in that region.”
For both Dennis and Miller, carrying that mantle means not just playing an active role in the community, but broadening what community means and reconsidering who’s a part of that community.
“You can’t just transmit radio waves into the world and hope people will find them,” Dennis said. “You have to go directly into the community and build relationships. We see Evan as being a big part of that initiative.”
For the time being, Miller sees his role in advancing these goals as simply playing the best and most representative music on “Excursions” as he can.
“I think a show like ‘Excursions,’ which pulls from a wide variety of music, ought to accurately reflect the cultural priorities of the people we serve,” Miller said. “Dayton and Cincinnati are multicultural regions, and as such, I want to play multicultural music.”