“If this is true, what are we gonna do?”
That was Jim McGuinn, the programming director at Minneapolis’ The Current, speaking to his staff, rifling through internet rumors Prince had died shortly before noon on Thursday. He and some coworkers had already started feeding information to the on-air DJ, Jade, as the reports started trickling in.
If the rumors were true, they’d have to have a plan. Prince was, after all, Minnesota’s prodigal son and a good friend of the radio station. He used to sign off on Prince-themed programming blocks and send ideas and albums he liked to its brass.
Everyone would turn to them.
So, after the first “very unfounded rumor,” McGuinn dispatched a reporter to Prince’s Paisley Park complex.
“Then we waited,” he said. “And held our breath.”
The Current’s staff quickly assembled in a room and started programming a tribute. After David Bowie died, they started talking about emergencies just like this one—“people we’d treat as large as Bowie”—but they didn’t even think of Prince. “He was so active. We just never even considered it,” he said.
McGuinn decided the station would quickly put together a chronological recap of Prince’s career and run it for nine straight hours. They’d bring in local celebrities and people who played with him before. They’d plan for the worst and hope they had to scrap it.
Then they heard the news.
At 12:09 p.m., The Current played Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones,” and haven’t played a song by anybody else since.
And everyone did turn to them. It wasn’t just Minneapolis, either: it was anybody on the internet who wanted to listen to Prince right away.
Since Prince was notoriously protective of his music rights on the internet, if people wanted to memorialize Prince by playing “Purple Rain,” like old times, they had to turn on the radio.
He’s not on YouTube. He’s not on Spotify. The Current’s website became a de facto vigil for Prince fans anywhere on the web.
“It was so hard on one hand because we’re all fans, and almost everybody on our staff at some point had some amazing experience going to a show at Paisley Park,” said McGuinn. “But it’s our job to be there for our audience.”
It’s even harder for Current staffers, since Prince became a close friend of the station when he moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis less than a decade ago.
Last year, with Prince’s personal blessing, the station ran a marathon called “Prince A-to-Z,” which started the second an inch of snow fell in Prince’s hometown of Chanhassen. Prince then spent a good chunk of the marathon listening along and tweeting about it.
“For somebody that’s this very mysterious, enigmatic, global superstar, he had a great relationship with us, and he was so involved in our local music scene,” said McGuinn. “He fostered that relationship with us, and The Current really benefitted from it.”
Case in point: A few years ago, McGuinn was sending out invites for The Current’s fifth anniversary party to stars he “never even considered were going to show up.” He was hoping maybe Prince would send in one of those pre-recorded congratulations videos that celebrities sometimes do.
A day before, McGuinn got a phone call from Prince’s agent.
“He said, ‘I was talking to Prince today and we want to come to your party,’” he said. “So I called First Avenue [the concert venue hosting the event] and they said, ‘Great. We’ll put you on Purple Alert.’”
In other words: Prince was going to so many local shows they had a special name for it.
“And he said to me at the party, basically, ‘I’m here because of what you guys do in the community and I want to support that,’” said McGuinn. “And he meant that. He was a member of The Current, in that he donated money.”
That’s why McGuinn thinks Prince will be remembered as one-of-a-kind in Minneapolis. He ran the world. He changed R&B. Then he came home.
“In a state that can also claim Bob Dylan and [The Replacements’] Paul Westerberg as its favorite sons, Prince was the biggest icon to emerge from here musically and the biggest there will ever be,” he said. “We have a lot of pride—not only that Prince was from here, but that he came back in the last six, seven years to live in Minnesota.”
Now, for the next few days, the whole world gets to hear it. The Current is re-running the Prince marathon that he loved so much tomorrow on their website, too, just how he would’ve wanted it.