Many Voices, One Heart
By Brad Weismann
KGNU is the definition of a humble institution. Boulder’s funky, handcrafted, independent noncommercial community FM radio station has served up an innovative, eclectic menu of music and alternative information for nearly four decades. And in doing so, it’s become a signature voice of Boulder.
“It’s a local, trusted community asset,” says station manager Tim Russo.
KGNU, 88.5-FM, hatched at 10 a.m. on May 22, 1978, operating out of a shack behind what is now the Millennium Harvest House Hotel. In 1981, the station, studio and archives crammed into a tiny set of offices above the late lamented Aristocrat Steakhouse, then a greasy-spoon joint at 2049 Broadway. In 1989, KGNU migrated to three suites at 1900 Folsom St., above Mike’s Camera. As of 2002, it resides in a cozy station-owned building in the shadow of the Foothills overpass at 4700 Walnut St.
The station is powered by a handful of staff, its 400,000 weekly listeners, 4,500 donating members and 400-plus volunteers, 200 to 250 of whom will cycle through the offices on a monthly basis. The station’s eclectic mix of “alternative” fare includes jazz, blues, reggae, bluegrass, hip-hop, gospel, funk, folk, electronic, ragtime and much more. KGNU Presents has long been putting its “stamp of approval” on a staggering diversity of live-music and other performance events down the years in Boulder, Denver and elsewhere. A random sampling of recent offerings includes Nathaniel Rateliff, the sixth annual Colorado Brazil Fest’s Sambalegria, Rapidgrass, the National Poetry Festival, and the Punk Against Trump Inauguration Day Party.
Its news division produces reports with a local focus, and presents nearly four dozen programs monthly that serve marginalized communities in the area, or grapple with topics that are often ignored, such as the monthly “PoCo in BoCo,” treating issues faced by people of color in Boulder County, and “Pasa la Voz,” serving the Spanish-speaking community. Its award-winning coverage includes extensive remotes from such events as Planet Bluegrass’s Rockygrass festival in Lyons and CU’s annual Conference on World Affairs. KGNU carried days of live coverage during the region’s catastrophic floods of September 2013; that same year the station began its in-depth, ongoing “Connecting the Drops” statewide water-news project, in collaboration with two other stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.
There are more than 15,000 radio stations in America. Only 80 of them are independent. Many “public” radio stations are parts of hungry, hierarchical conglomerates that replicate formulas as familiar as those found in commercial radio. KGNU is almost alone nationally in the freedom and breadth of what it provides.
Now, on the eve of its 40th anniversary, it’s an analog oasis in a digital wasteland, an anachronism that’s still ahead of its time. Its mellow, friendly vibe is a perfect expression of the Boulder mindset, and its mission and ethos carry forward idealism and values that have their roots in ’60s radicalism, audible in locally produced shows such as “Outsources,” “Make Them Hear You!’ and the new “Co-op Power Hour.”
In-house historian and longtime volunteer David McIntosh says the station “grew out of the social activism of the 1970s. We saw what the mainstream was like, and we thought it was better doing our own thing.”
Board member and volunteer Roz Brown remembers, “The Boulder Free School had a class at Casey Middle School called ‘A Last-Ditch Attempt to Start a Radio Station,’ and it all started from there.” Brown started as a DJ at KGNU back in the beginning, then expanded into on-air journalism. After 20 years away in journalism and private-sector media relations, she’s back at KGNU and churning out more reportage than ever.
“It’s a lot more fun here,” Brown says. “There’s more time to present a story. I can find more viewpoints, and I can reach more people. Having that ‘other voice’ is pretty critical.”
‘Hearing Voices That Feel Like You’
That’s the appeal of KGNU—it’s almost as various as humanity itself, and there are no bars to entry into its world, for either listeners or volunteers. Anyone willing to attend the station’s monthly volunteer orientation can learn about working on air, and more importantly, about the full range of volunteer opportunities available. A casual interest can spark an involvement that turns into a commitment.
“I was drawn to the station before I was drawn to [serving on] the board,” says Jon Walton. “After I’d moved to Boulder in 2004 I was looking around for a good station—I’m a big reggae and jazz head. Some friends of mine had shows, then I started doing shows, then started to help with strategic planning, and one thing led to another!”
By maintaining focus on quality, KGNU conserved its resources and invested in depth and diversity of content, in contrast with other noncommercial stations in the region that have expanded geographically, taking over smaller stations and filling them with a dulling sameness. Eventually, it expanded its signal to Denver (1390-AM) in 2004, and now operates a studio there as well. Nederland has long had a translator link at 93.7-FM, Fort Collins just joined in at 98.7-FM, and of course the station streams worldwide. (It even has auxiliary online streams—AfterFM carries nothing but music, and news.kgnu.org is a cornucopia of info for newshounds.)
“We found a winning format that has done the station well. People can come and play with that framework, try to match their talent with the arc of the radio station, and if there’s a match they can blend in,” McIntosh says. “As such we’ve been able to strengthen and refine our programming and keep it fresh, and hopefully pass it on to the next generation, which is looming.”
“There is a need for younger talent to come in, on air and on the board and the committees,” Walton agrees. “We have community outreach and training, and we have to keep engaging the community. The impetus has to come from all of us to make it work. What better way could there be to integrate into a very beloved community and culture? It’s a space where people can grow and find themselves.”
Above all, KGNU celebrates the virtues of its medium. Community radio may seem old-fashioned in comparison to bot-designed playlists, but the irreplaceable human component is what makes listening to it a daily joy for fans. “There was intent and meaning and passion” in the station’s founding, says McIntosh, that still carry through loud and clear.
It’s what Tim Russo calls “hearing voices that feel like you,” and what McIntosh calls “that warm voice that comes out of the radio.” And it runs both ways.
“I was DJing in the middle of the night, playing something weird,” says Walton. “And you think there’s nobody listening, and the phone lights up, and somebody thanks you. That’s really impressive. That’s beautiful.”
Brad Weismann is an independent writer and editor who covers everything from grand opera to midget wrestling. He’s called the Front Range home for a little over a half century, but he’s still ambivalent about prairie dogs.