On a recent Friday morning, Lifehouse’s 2005 hit “You and Me” played on WCNR 106.1 The Corner. When the song wrapped up, new midday host Kendall Stewart took to the mic, a hint of wistfulness in her cheery voice: “I’m feeling nostalgic this morning, like I want to put on a prom dress and slow dance to that song.”
The song was just one of a handful of nostalgia bombs she’d drop throughout the show. She queued up Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song,” Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl” and some Spoon, and peppered in current radio staples from Kaleo and Foals, songs destined to inspire a new generation of listeners.
Stewart knows that music is a time-travel device. A song can transport you back to specific moments of your life, from tearing away rainbow-striped wrapping paper on your fifth birthday or turning the key in the ignition of your first car. It’s what makes radio one of the most personal forms of media, says Stewart.
When helping create The Corner playlist, she often chooses songs that hold meaning in her own life and she willingly shares those anecdotes with her listeners. During that same Friday show, she talked about a French friend who once played a note-for-note and emotionally on-point rendition of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and afterward confessed that he had no idea what the English lyrics meant.
“Radio is very genuine,” Stewart says. “When people are alone in their cars, they listen to the radio and you’re the jock who’s with that person in their car, talking to them.” When she’s on-air, she doesn’t perform. She opens up a conversation.
Stewart, 25, is one of two new DJs on The Corner. She came to town last November after longtime on-air personality Brad Savage left the station for 93.1 The Summit in Akron, Ohio. Morning host Pat Gallagher is the other newbie. Stewart grew up in the Boston suburb of Milton, Massachusetts, and from the backseat of her parents’ car, she listened to ’90s alternative rock and pop hits broadcast from some of Boston’s most popular radio stations. At some point, she says, she discovered Radio Disney and listened obsessively. So, when at 17 she landed her first radio gig reading PSAs for a kids’ station broadcast only on school buses, nobody was surprised. “You were always a radio kid,” her mom told her.
Stewart studied playwriting at Emerson College in Boston, and during her freshman year, she says she “checked out the radio station and never looked back.” Her first 88.9 WERS hosting gig was the Chagigah segment, playing Jewish and Israeli music. “I’m not Jewish; they needed a host and I needed to be on the radio,” Stewart says. She eventually became the station’s music director, creating the playlist and booking bands for in-studio performances.
Stewart went straight from WERS to Boston’s 92.9 The River, then to WUMB at UMass-Boston. She says she was ready to spend her entire career in Boston; no one—including herself—thought she’d leave her home city. “But if you want to work in radio you’re going to have to move,” she says. The Triple A (adult album alternative) radio community is a relatively small one, and full-time radio gigs can be hard to find. Stewart was determined to find one, so when the job at The Corner opened up, she jumped at the opportunity to apply.
When she talks about Boston—her four brothers, former roommate and her cat in particular—wistfulness returns to her voice. But she says she’s adjusting nicely to life in Charlottesville. She’s reconnecting with old radio friends, acting in a local theater company production and driving to concerts all over the state.
Longtime Corner DJ Jeff Sweatman says that “whether she’s playing a brand-new act [on Brighten the Corners] or longtime favorites, Kendall is able to present entertaining information on her show with a fresh perspective that The Corner hasn’t really had before.” In addition to keeping radio hits of yore in rotation, Stewart reads music blogs and reaches out to record labels and artists to gather 15 fresh tracks to play on her show each week. Some days she plays three tracks from three artists; other days, she plays three tunes from one newly released album.
While Stewart is hip to what’s hot and what’s good, she’s not a music snob by any means. Her musical taste is broad, and she’s quick to declare her love for Nelly, Butch Walker, early 2000s pop-punk and emo and boy bands (she grew up in the heyday of *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and O-Town, after all). Her authenticity is refreshing. “I tried for years to be the cool girl who is super hip or whatever,” says Stewart. “But no, that’s not me—I’m goofy. I go on air, I open the mic, and I say what I would say anyway.”
At the end of the day, Stewart says, the coolest part of her job isn’t meeting bands or getting sneak previews of albums. It’s talking to her listeners, wherever they may be, and helping them find their new favorite song.
Kendall Stewart’s dream is to host a show of music from the 2000s. Here are her favorite albums from that decade—a taste of what her show would sound like:
1. Jack’s Mannequin, “Everything In Transit” (2005)
2. Butch Walker, “Letters” (2004)
3. Brand New, “Your Favorite Weapon” (2001)
4. Taking Back Sunday, “Tell All Your Friends” (2002)
5. New Found Glory, “Coming Home” (2006)