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For almost two decades, Mike Rutz has been trying to “activate” the minds of radio listeners when it comes to Richmond’s music scene.
His WRIR 97.3 FM show Activate! has only ever featured music from local and touring artists performing in the River City the Week. It’s basically a curated audio concert calendar that you can tune into every week to hear what’s going on. It was ahead of its time considering the proliferation of calendar newsletters and blogs.
Go ahead and call Rutz an intrepid cheerleader for RVA, but that’s exactly the kind of unique, dedicated advocate that’s vital to any art scene. Unfortunately for us, the final episode of Activate airs this Thursday 2nd June at 5pm. But before he says goodbye, Rutz deserves kudos for keeping his show going for so long and inspiring too many local concert-goers to count.
“I have some other goals, so I had to offload some responsibilities from my plate and get some downtime,” Rutz says of his departure, noting he’s not leaving Richmond and will continue to go to shows. “It’s been a good run, now it’s time to open up a space for new blood.” He adds that no one has been willing to continue the show permanently until now.
“Activate!” arose out of his own enthusiasm for the city’s nightlife. He recalls being overwhelmed by the sheer number of musical options after moving here from Savannah, Georgia (he’s from Virginia) in the early 2000s. “Each night there were multiple options, but a lot of people either didn’t know about them or [didn’t] really care. They were jaded,” he recalls. “I was super excited about all of these options…that’s why I did the show. They need to know who’s playing and what they sound like.”
Full disclosure: Rutz was also a freelance writer for Style Weekly around the time, and says he began using calendar information from local outlets like Style and RVA Mag, as well as random blogs, to inform his show’s diverse playlist.
“Mike has long been of great service to music fans, not only letting them know what’s happening in the clubs, but also providing previews of the music and background information,” said Don Harrison, a longtime writer and host of Open Source RVA” on WIR. “He introduced me to unfamiliar music that I’ve come to love, and I know he’s done the same for others. His “concert calendar for the ears” approach is rare. Commercial radio stations don’t play local and indie artists, so “Activate” really could only happen on a station like WRIR. Also, navigating live performances and collecting material is a lot of hard work. Can you imagine how much music Mike has had to go through over the years?”
Rutz readily admits it’s a “hard format.” He would often spend six to eight hours before his weekly volunteer show gathering information about a band, show or song while weaving together a musical flow of diverse genres from bluegrass and pop to heavy metal, he says. As he counts down to his last show, he wants to give credit to those who helped make it happen, like JK, a former Strange Matter sound engineer who guest-hosted for three months while Rutz was away once. Also his friends Lewis and Chuck from I Live With Zombies who wrote and recorded an “Activate!” Song he sometimes played on the show.
Find performances in the studio and bandcamp
Rutz estimates he hosted over 50 gigs at the studio during his tenure, mostly from local bands. He notes that the Fund Drive shows have always been fun because more people than usual came to WRIR studios: “Really, just a big celebration, positive vibes and there’s usually a live band playing too.”
In particular, he fondly remembers performances by Screaming Females and Julie Karr, one of his favorite Richmond voices, as well as David J of the Bauhaus (a favorite) and Monotonix, a touring band from Tel Aviv who performed a rare acoustic set on “Activate!” Rutz says he even spotted one of his own favorite bands, Future Islands, on his own show.
Over the years he has witnessed many changes and trends in the local music scene – from the closure of important small venues like Strange Matter, to the increasing number of house shows and the diversification of concert bills, which he sees as a positive development. “Bandcamp was also a lifesaver,” he says. “Most of what I play actually comes from there. It’s easy to find and offers high-quality streaming.”
As touring dried up during the pandemic, Rutz went back to his archives to highlight specific eras of Richmond’s music, track down old flyers and showcase various venues and scenes from yesteryear. “I got a lot of feedback that gave people hope that live music would come back one day,” he says proudly.
Looking ahead, Rutz says he might consider launching his own written concert calendar on the station’s website at some point; “I still think someone will come and fill this upcoming void [that his show will leave],” he adds.
Not surprisingly, established Virginia concert promoters like Jessica Gordon, co-owner of Broadberry Entertainment Group, are also saddened to see his valuable showcase disappear. “Mike has been active throughout his tenure as presenter of ‘Activate!’ an incredible advocate for the live music scene,” she tells Style. “The local music community owes him a huge debt of gratitude and we will all miss him.”
We wholeheartedly agree: Thank you, Mike! you are a good egg We’ll catch you on the other side…that’s RVA slang for “most likely at a show”.