Beginnings: A Narrative History of KGNU's First Decade
by David McIntosh (1987)
The early 1970s. Boulder, the town missing a radio station. Sure there were other stations, two had been providing radio service for decades. Another was standing by quietly, waiting to make a few people rich on its way to fame and rating points. But in the early 1970s it just seemed that something was missing. Where, for example, was the university radio station? Did any school this size not have some sort of college radio station? And if there was no university station, how about one of those emerging public radio stations?
It was these conditions which motivated a few visionary folks to take matters into their own hands and create the station we now know as KGNU. This is a humble volunteer's short history.
Roots, Rock, Reggae
Some of the underlying motivation for this endeavor can be found in the social ferment of the 1960s. Access to media was a big issue in those days and during the early '70s there was a proliferation of "alternative" print resources including magazines, catalogues, brochures, newspapers, and books. It also became obvious that the electronic media were powerful tools of communication and social transformation, yet the question was: how to seize this form of communication?
It was during this period across the United States that young social activists identified the "how" as non-commercial, listener-sponsored radio. On the federal level the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, and National Public Radio were developing a network of stations, a result of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television and pioneering work of the Ford Foundation. On another level, colleges and universities were shoring up existing on-campus radio and television stations as well investigating possible new broadcast outlets. It is in this context that the media activists of the counterculture jumped into the fray, inspired by several factors -- including their own experience of the past few years, mutual interests, the history of the Pacifica radio stations, and a book titled Sex and Broadcasting.
The expression of all this ferment for Boulder was a 1973 Free School class titled "A Desperate (or Last Ditch) Attempt to Start a Radio Station". It explored the necessary bureaucracy (legal and technical) to be tackled and the enormous finesse required for establishing a station. What came out of that class was a core group of dedicated people who became the Boulder Community Broadcast Association on June 2nd, 1975, filing with the State of Colorado on June 10th. In the years before the station was a tangible entity, the BCBA struggled marvelously to secure the necessary ingredients for a station: federal paperwork, local paperwork, pledges of community support, political groundwork, and even actual leftovers of transmitting and studio equipment.
Of those interested and actively working on this project, Glen Gerberg became the point man for the work of the BCBA. He found a tower site on Davidson Mesa, applied for a HEW grant for studio and transmitting equipment, and tracked the license application through the FCC.
Things were generally copacetic, encouraging, and promising for the BCBA to the point that the FCC granted the famous "CP" or "Construction Permit" for a station. The BCBA frequency search and resulting application showed the feasibility of taking a rather large shoehorn and squeezing in a frequency at 88.5 Megahertz (MHz) on the FM band. The need now was to generate the local wherewithal to put the station on the air.
I need to digress here for a moment to look at CU's radio karma which, in a word, is: lousy. At nearly the same time the Colorado Daily was being branded as a radical newspaper by the Board of Regents and in the process of being jettisoned from their control, the broadcast media types at CU were working to bring radio to the Boulder campus going so far as to obtain a CP.
But the Regents, in their infinite wisdom, were not going to let the CU radio station become "the Colorado Daily of the air!" Consequently, the CP was returned to the FCC; the HEW funding was cancelled; and the Faculty Senate was told to take the pledged money and put it somewhere else. Unbelievable but true.
CU students were still interested in having a radio station, and a group of students in the UCSU (the student government) formed an alliance with the BCBA, through Henry Tobin. Tobin and his colleagues at the UCSU put a referendum before the student body for an investment into student financed and operated radio. The referendum passed, providing the financial lynchpin for BCBA's application to the FCC. As part of the deal, students were granted one-third of the 21 seats on the BCBA Board of Directors. They agreed to buy $35,000 worth of student-owned studio equipment to help the station go on-the-air, and another $100,000 was earmarked for on-campus radio activities.
The UCSU created the Programming Board as the administrative body to oversee student involvement in these radio activities and to spend the money. The Programming Board hired Mike Deragisch as the Student Programming Coordinator, initially as an adjunct part of the KGNU staff to advocate student participation.
KGNU went on the air on May 22, 1978 at 10 am. With a reasonable amount of interest and curiosity, we were given the task of introducing a whole new form of radio to the Boulder community. The station went on the air with many volunteer broadcasters, anchored by national radio programs from NPR like "All things Considered." I must say that there were great programs from day one. The program schedule which encouraged such diversity was put into place by John Stark, the Program Director. In its skeletal form, that schedule survives to this day.
The idea of volunteer citizen producers supervised by a minimum of staff seemed new and, though not particularly different from other non-profits, exciting. The station was to be funded from a multiplicity of sources: listener memberships, business underwriting, program guide revenues, federal grants, program grants, and even the profits from a for-profit subsidiary. Whether or not these would prove to be the appropriate or actual support mechanisms was of course unknown. The attitude was "we'll just have to wait and see."
KCFR, the former free-form college station in Denver had changed its format by this time to a classical and NPR station. KGNU was therefore well positioned to offer an eclectic range of programs to fill the vacuum and attract listener support.
Now for the Bad News
There was an immediate technical problem when KGNU went live into the ether. The problem best can be described with the affectionate moniker, the "Channel 6 close channel interference problem." It was not really our fault but rather another snafu of the FCC for which all radio pays, to this day.
In the world of electromagnetic theory, tempered by FCC management expertise, the entire 100 available radio frequencies between 88 and 108 MHz are located between television channels 6 and 7. A few miscellaneous other frequencies tacked onto the 108 MHz end of the band prevent the high end radio stations from any possible interference with a nearby channel 7 TV station and vice versa. But not so at the other end of the band. The 88 to 89 MHz frequencies are right next to the frequencies used by any Channel 6 for its sound. Consequently when you have a Channel 6 in the same area as low frequency FM stations (88.1, 88.3, 88.5, 88.7 or even 88.9) you also have the potential for a "channel 6 close channel interference problem".
KGNU was faced, from the beginning, with such a problem, compounded by the fact that the Channel 6 in our area was a PBS station: KRMA. In a world where non-commercial broadcasters are supposed to be allies, this caused some unfortunate uneasiness. It limited our broadcast power to a relatively small 1300 watts and nipped in the bud, quite effectively, the potential for higher power without significant redesign of our antenna pattern or a delicate relocation of our antenna and transmitter.
What You Hear Is What You Get
Who were the first listeners and listener members of KGNU? Where did they live and why did they listen? We were eager for word of mouth and phone call feedback, we hungrily read letters and stories about us in the newspaper. During the first membership drive in the fall of '78, $10,000 was pledged to the station by a loyal group of listeners. Station Development Directors were pounding the pavement looking for other ways to support the station.
KGNU was living hand to mouth and some difficult adjustments were approaching. For example, there wasn't enough money to support the growing staff. And there was the slow growth of local support. And the personnel dynamics were evolving in a volatile way. Suffice it to say, good and even great chemistry developed between radioheads as a result of KGNU, but the flipside of this equation was that less good and even terrible chemistry developed, too.
KGNU remained perilously close to that hairy edge of survival. Was it a programming problem or just a marketing problem? An image problem or a funding problem? In retrospect, the issue was what kind of station was KGNU going to be -- a community station or a public station? Community radio implied a looser style and approach to the medium but would be harder to do right. Public radio on the other hand was the recognized model but carried with it a stuffy fine arts style.
Without really thinking this through but with the best of intentions the BCBA Board of Directors, holders of the KGNU license, determined in late '79 that the Station Manager had to go. It appeared that Gerberg's long shot strategy to secure the necessary financial stability involved transiting through a "short" period of being $20K in debt. He thought the local support was going to gel and the federal funds that would result would turn things around. A flag went up, a whistle was blown, and changes descended. It was a rude awakening to an unsettled time.
KGNU went through a lot of changes over the next three years including Board, Staff, and volunteer turnover. First Glen fired John, then the Board fired him; the Chair of the Board, Tom Cross, resigned and other Board members, seeing the writing on the wall, got off too. Bob Wilkinson, former manager and owner of KRNW, did a stint as station manager, as did an aspiring local broadcaster, David Grimm, now Communications Director with the City of Boulder. It was a turbulent time which also inspired good radio. The volunteer airshifters through their dedication to radio were, in fact, developing and defining the sound and character of KGNU as well as keeping it on the air. We spent a lot of community good will capital during this period trying to hang on to what appeared to be a fading dream of community radio.
The Night of the Living Betsy Dirnberger
We were slowly sliding off the edge: so CPB sent emissary Betsy Dirnberger to read us the riot act in a desperate attempt to make KGNU just a regular station. It was too little too late but she did identify some members of the audience who had extensive radio experience and were willing to be recruited to help KGNU get right. These volunteers were Earl Ewald and Montine Clapper, and they filled a vacuum on the Board and in the management of the station.
But on March 11, 1981 the Board voted 6-0-0 to shut down the station. There just wasn't enough community support to secure the matching federal money needed to keep the station going. Grimm and Ewald pulled the plug on March 12, 1981.
Three weeks later there was an "April Fools realignment." The station signed back on, without any federal support, managed by "the Friends of KGNU". We were starting over. The Board was reconstituted with myself, Howard Davison, Alex Esteve, and John Lauer. Being at least $20K in debt the obvious thing to do was immediately take to whining on the air. It started with a two-month fundraising effort, which for us defined the real meaning of a marathon. Somehow, over the many months which followed, we climbed out of debt. On top of the disarray of management, KGNU was faced with an expired lease and moving out of the Harvest House studios that August. Who, what, where, when, and how to revive KGNU, particularly with no place to go.
As far as the move goes, I remember looking at the basement of the Northwest corner of 9th and Pearl, a house behind Taco John's, and an expedition up to the building across from the People's Clinic. With nothing really shaping up, Dr. Bob McFarland came to the rescue, through Wise-McIntire, with the site at 2049 Broadway.
And in the midst of all this confusion and fancy footwork, Colorado Congressman Tim Wirth called, proposing a plan to solve the KRMA channel 6 interference problem. It involved a Blue Ribbon Panel and KRMA putting a VHF translator on top of Williams Village for broadcasting on channel 58.
Settling in at 2049
From the summer of '81 and for the next two years, Fergus was the paid staff at KGNU. The volunteers were (and continue to be) the life blood of the station. The weekly rotation of programmers doing their shows, with love and dedication, was beginning to be appreciated by the community. We claimed 750 real members after the fall membership drive. It was barely enough to survive but it enabled Fergus the opportunity to exercise his guiding hand in presenting listeners such programs as Generations, Field Trip, Breakdown, Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Bloomsday on Broadway, Homer's Odyssey, Ducks Breath Radio, and the first Blues Legacies.
This was also the period of Gary and Nadine's fist fight on the air! The rise of punk rock music generated a show by these two and in the music's crash and burn style, they cut short their broadcasting careers with an unrehearsed radio drama. Then there were Peter Tonk's transgressions on Over The Edge which got him fired. And there was the Board's attempt at corporate management; they hired a Music Director from out of town and not from within the station. It just didn't fit KGNU's emerging style. There was some bad press but the experience ultimately made the organization stronger. Despite these episodes, KGNU finally, after four or so years, appeared to be developing some stability. The support mechanisms of citizen producers, station volunteers, in-kind support, trade outs, food and merchant support, underwriting, a few grants and listener memberships were actually producing community radio. The KGNU which came out of radios along the Front Range was an eclectic blend of seasoned broadcaster, rank amateur, local public affairs, stories from international reporters, live music in the studio, and premiers of records. It was exhilarating and frustrating, exciting and infuriating. And it was, slowly but surely, growing.
Community Radio in the Reagan Era
Expanded studios at 2049 in the fall of 1983 included new staff as well. After a brief period as an office volunteer, Greg Fisher was swapped out for Fergus as Station Manager. The studio expansion doubled the size of the radio station. It permitted an actual office for Greg and separated the administrative from the program part of the station. This expansion was a tangible result of the community's growing confidence in the work of KGNU. Membership was pushing 1400 members and the systems were in place for a stable, if tenuous, radio station.
During Greg's watch there was a build-up of paid staff. It generally made things work more smoothly each time a new position was added and staffed. Judith Buchanan, Susan Pfretzchner, Shirley Davis, Paul Metters, and Erik Seville brought forward their talents for KGNU.
After nearly two years of quiet negotiations, in January of 1985, Board Member Bill Cohen announced that Neodata had donated its Boulder office building at 1225 Portland Place to AHAB; the Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder. The building was appraised at $2.8 million and Neodata got a nice tax deduction. Three groups -- the Boulder Philharmonic, KGNU, and the Colorado Music Festival -- were earmarked to receive 10 percent of the endowment's revenues annually until 2015. This was a fantastic event, which demonstrated the feasibility of locally based grant monies, through an endowment, in the model of CPB. The building eventually sold for $1.3 million to Kaiser Permanente.
Radio Like It Can Be
Things were starting to run on an autopilot course. Music Director Paul Metters was bringing in records galore from all over the country. The station had been on the air long enough to be moved by events such as when after seven years, a programmer like Bob Skutelsky retired from "In the Moment". Because of Channel 6 and some other unfinished FCC business, it was only then that all of the i's had been dotted and t's crossed in order for KGNU to have an honest-to-God license.
While Board Chairs had cycled through like a revolving door, John Lauer remained Treasurer since the April Fools event. Under his tough fiscal management the finances were put in relatively great shape: no debt, money in the bank, and a painful watch on how it was spent.
One of the unsung heroes of this financial stability was the AFT plan. AFTs or Automatic Fund Transfers were put into place with the no-cost assistance of John. KBDI TV-12 had tried this technique but was unable to make any money because of a high service charge. With John not extracting a service charge and at the same time taking care of the administrative hassles associated with the program, AFT income grew slowly from two or three hundred dollars a month to $500, $1,200, and finally to $1,500 per month. Each membership drive has added another layer of AFT support to the program. Initially set at $3 per month minimum, as of Spring '87 it was $5 per month.
The Return From Sailing the Seven Seas
In March of '86 Marty Durlin was reincarnated as the Public Affairs Coordinator. She had been Volunteer Coordinator back in 1979-1980. Her arrival brought the paid staff up to five and finally qualified KGNU for CPB and NPR membership once again, after five years. In a redeeming October event, we were visited by none other than the President of NPR, Doug Bennett.
This visit essentially closed the circle on the Dirnberger episode and validated KGNU's years of struggle to become a vibrant and uncompromising radio station. It was a great day and we were all dressed up.
Trying to Change Programming
In the fall of '86, a satellite dish was sandbagged on the roof, which you can see outside the windows of the studios. As a result of this but also because it was needed, the KGNU program schedule underwent a planned restructuring in May 1987.
Just as the changes were set, KGNU aired the Iran-Contra hearings live from the House and Senate Chambers of Congress in Washington, D.C., which pre-empted regular programs for more than three months.
Plugging Into Boulder
In June 1987, Greg moved onto the Board and subsequently became the Chair, with Rolf Kjolseth as Vice Chair, Ken Wilson as Secretary and John Herchenrider as Treasurer! Board turnover since the early days of the BCBA and KGNU (except for Herchy) was now 100%.
Marty moved into the Station Manager's job and David Barsamian signed up as the Public Affairs Director. The studios were expanded, adding another 1000 square feet. KGNU was functioning like a genuine radio station.
Starting in the summer of '87, there was considerable programming activity. On August 16, KGNU broadcast its first uplinked program: "Harmonic Convergence." It was taken by 30 stations across the US. As part of an increasing involvement with the program offerings of Pacifica, KGNU broadcast the Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Robert Bork soon after the Iran-Contra hearings. David's dedication to spoken word programming at KGNU added significant impetus to the diversity of thought provoking, if usually left-of-center, public affairs programs. This included in-person benefit lectures by Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky as well as numerous tapes by Daniel Sheehan, John Stockwell, Phillip Agee and Daniel Schorr. The benefit lectures along with benefit concerts by Bobby McFerrin and the Bobs, brought a new dimension to KGNU's involvement in the community. As a vote of affirmation for the station sound, the Fall Membership drive pushed the membership to 2100 members.
To look back and reflect upon all of this really amazes me. I have a great deal of pride and admiration for what KGNU has accomplished but also what it has endured. While most of the media is now in the hands of fewer and fewer large businesses, KGNU joins a small, yet strong, group of stations across the United States who pursue a style of broadcasting known as community radio. What KGNU has done is not unique, but it proves the notion that listener-supported radio is viable for Boulder County and beyond.
Community radio stations are creating a loose but powerful network, in which each station reflects its listeners' broad range of music and spoken work interests while encouraging their direct participation. I say Happy Birthday to KGNU for being on the air for ten years. This has been, and may it continue to be, an exciting and challenging endeavor. I know I'm better for it.