The avant-garde of Greensboro

by Eric Ginsburg

Even with a small crowd for the first portion of the show, there were already two mohawks, nine beards, five people wearing bulky glasses, three of mustaches and an abundance of corduroy. Under green and white paper streamers, the crowd swelled to celebrate Avant Greensboro’s anniversary with a Saturday night concert and almond-flavored cupcakes topped with green frosting.

It’s difficult to believe it’s already been a year since a group of friends and co-workers assembled to launch Avant Greensboro — even some of them can’t believe it — but looking at the body of work they’ve produced, it’s striking how far they’ve come. The dedicated crew behind the project, which started off with a website, a weekly radio show and is now on the cusp of launching a concert series, likely couldn’t put the brakes on it now even if they wanted to — it’s out of their hands and has generated too much enthusiasm.

The energy was palpable in the WUAG studio as five co-hosts crowded around two microphones shared with the week’s guests. Sometimes cutting each other off and bickering playfully, they appeared less like a pack of journalists crowded around a celebrity and more like a group of friends who can’t wait to blurt out ideas or brag on their guests.

And that’s exactly what they are. The radio show, an unexpected outgrowth that happened partway through Avant Greensboro’s first year, is like a semistructured brainstorming session, fusing interviews with musicians and other local figures with historical observations, political revelations and humor. It’s impossible to tell where the conversation will go and co-hosts trade off attempts at wrangling the banter back to the loose schedule or the guests.

In a lot of ways the organic nature of the radio show and the abundance of contributing voices on it — at least 17 of them — is representative of Avant Greensboro overall. Since the green and white blog was launched a year ago, the site has featured interviews with bands, news updates, fiction and — most popularly — food reviews and the calendar.

“I like to think of it as a cultural news blog,” Editor Rae Alton said.

Alton and several other core Avanters work at Linkfish, a search engine optimization company that improves internet visibility and traffic for businesses. The second floor office on South Elm Street is a relatively laid back work environment, where rock music plays, snacks are usually on hand and an Avant Greensboro editing calendar graces the wall by Alton’s desk.

The tech-savvy employees and owners Jay Young and Julie Joyce talked regularly about much of the content that would one day grace Avant’s site, and felt there was a need to put cultural aspects of the city under a magnifying glass to showcase Greensboro’s talent.

“Almost everyone there has a knack for writing and interest in the scene,” said Katei Cranford, an Avanter who used to work at Linkfish. “It’s what I really enjoy doing. There’s nothing better for me than transmitting what’s awesome around here, so it’s something that I’d kind of gravitate towards anyway. There’s a lot that’s going on that gets missed [by larger outlets] out of practicality and I think Avant Greensboro helps promote what’s going on at the lower levels by the people that are doing it.”

Joyce and Young provided the initial seed money to get the site rolling, welcoming it as an opportunity for some staffers to build a website from the ground up as a change of pace and as an opportunity to build their skill sets.

“Avant naturally raises visibility,” Joyce said. “For our clients it’s a lot more intentional. This is more organic.”

Most of the work happened during their free time, though Joyce said they occasionally compensate people for stories and said part of the reason they hired Avalon Kenny to help with Avant. After a few months of discussion the site was up.

Keith Warther, who works next to Alton at Linkfish, had worked at a daily news paper for six years and helped start an alt weekly in Clemson, SC as a designer and occasional music writer. He wasn’t planning on drawing up the website, but at the last minute he cranked it out and has continued to fill several roles for Avant.

“For something I did quickly I think it looks pretty damn good,” Warther said.

“The reason we decided to start this is because so many of us are involved in such a young scene in Greensboro and there’s plenty of stuff that’s been covered but there are things that don’t get talked about, like house shows and people that have their own food truck and restaurants off of High Point Road, these small little gems that don’t get talked about.”

The benefit of a project like this, Warther and others said, is that it’s entirely driven by people who are engaged in and care deeply about the things they’re writing about. A spread of contributing writers makes the site dynamic, and they’re often writing firsthand accounts and providing ground level coverage of the things that most invigorate them about the city.

For Kenny, it’s music. Her mother was a DJ and she’s been playing guitar since primary school, getting away with performing at the FlatIron’s open-mic nights until they realized she was underage.

Kenny’s first interview was with local band the Old One-Two, whose mustachioed members and laid-back guitarist were on last week’s segment of “Avant On Air.” Despite recently turning 18, she has been a DJ on WUAG for years beginning the summer before her sophomore year of high school, and was behind Avant’s move to the airwaves.

After holding the 7-9 p.m. slot on Thursdays when “Avant On Air” currently broadcasts, WUAG’s new Promotions Director Magena Morris asked Kenny if she’d want to host an Avant Greensboro radio show. Kenny immediately said yes, reflecting later that she should have asked other Avant participants first, but the idea was a hit.

Looking back on the past year, the birth of what Cranford dubbed “Avant On Air” has been one of the most significant — and welcomed — developments to come out of Avant Greensboro. It’s easy to see why. The show is a smattering of anything from astute observations on local news to tangential discussions of old horror movies but focused primarily on local musical acts.

Before the Old One-Two joined the hosts in the studio last week with an impromptu a capella version of their song “Bad Blood,” two members of the Raving Knaves shared a few tracks and —after a break for calendar updates — a discussion with and performance by Molly McGinn.

Nobody could have anticipated exactly how the show would go, despite a schedule posted on a huge piece of paper near the DJ console, with listed times considered more of a suggestion and hosts regularly chiming in with questions and thoughts.

Open-ended questions and statements from show co-host Matty Sheets elicited longer responses, like his observation of McGinn’s style.

“You write songs journalistically,” he said, and after strongly agreeing with him, McGinn offered more insight on her process.

Sheets’ enthusiasm for what he is doing is likely apparent to listeners, but it’s even more obvious in the studio, as he high-fived McGinn or bobbed his head along excitedly as the Raving Knaves played, dancing from his seat. More than anything, Avant Greensboro members like Sheets are like embedded journalists in the music scene, musicians themselves or offering a well-versed history of the local music scene for listeners.

“It’s kind of like transmitting [our] experiences,” Cranford said during the show.

Between plugs for the one-year anniversary show at the Flat Iron over the weekend and music sets, Sheets interviewed Alton about the first year of Avant Greensboro and invited Cranford to make an announcement.

Ever since the noise ordinance debate earlier in the year, Cranford has toyed with the idea of running for city council, and at the beginning of the show last week, she made it official. Within a week Cranford hopes to have a website up and begin campaigning almost a year ahead of the election for District 3, where she’s lived her entire life and will face incumbent Zack Matheny.

“I think I have a half-shot in the dark, which is going to be fun,” Cranford said later. “There’s a definite population in Greensboro that gets entirely underrepresented to the point I think that we’re actively dismissed. We’re kind of a city in flux and I really think that we need a direction that accurately represents all areas of town or all areas of a district, and I think I can do that.”

Avant Greensboro doesn’t just break news or stories that it’s members create — though articles like “A dispatch from the dish pit” by former YES! Weekly intern Joe Murphy about his experiences is evocative and strong — there’s loads of content that would otherwise go unreported or be relegated to barroom gossip, from house shows or a mural at New York Pizza to an art installation in Fisher Park or Vandalism Studios.

“We cover stuff that maybe could be missed,” Sheets said, discussing Avant Greensboro at last week’s radio show.

Alton agreed, pointing to their success with 1,000 new viewers a month. The site and radio show have grown in popularity largely by word of mouth and interpersonal connections — there’s no marketing budget and no profit, which contributors recognize as a simultaneous strength and weakness. Propelled by their vision of improving Greensboro’s cultural scene and awareness, part of the core group’s motivation is combating the idea that there’s nothing to do here.

“I feel like a lot of people give Greensboro a really bad rap,” said Alton, who was born here and moved away briefly before returning at age 12. “We have so much more culture here than people realize or are willing to give it credit for.”

Exposing people to the things they love about the city is the best way they know to reverse the idea of “Greensboring,” which Kenny said people resort to without knowing better.

“To come to Greensboro it’s just been such a great thing for me to grow and to be part of a tight-knit community. I was totally stoked to be a part of the blog in that way,” Warther said. “I just wanted to talk about things that I enjoyed. It’s tough to do it if I don’t support it. We just do it because we love this town and we love the community here.”

During last week’s radio show, the handful of Avant core members talked about what the future might hold, joking about a TV show. Asked individually, contributors offered different ideas for improvement. Warther would like to see more profiles of local businesses. Avanters agreed that the cost of a more regular print publication would be prohibitive, but Kenny said she likes the idea of a biannual ‘zine.

Even before the weekend’s anniversary bash, dubbed the “first anniversary local explosion,” they talked excitedly about the plan to turn the “local explosion” into a concert series, likely once a month at rotating venues, and preferably not just for 21+ crowds, noted Kenny, who wasn’t allowed to attend the anniversary party. Cranford said she hopes the Avant Greensboro stamp of approval on the series, similar to YES! Weekly or WUAG, would provide legitimacy for events in the future.

Alton has tracked the site’s successes carefully, noting that many of their top articles are about food and that at times the calendar has received more hits than the home page. There are so many more story ideas Alton said she can’t wait to flesh out, and while she said they should be careful not to spread themselves too thin, she’d like to see more news writing to complement the cultural focus.

“I was shocked to see just how well it did,” Alton said. “We’re pretty fortunate to have come this far in just a year. I have to catch my breath sometimes.”