Interview: Nick Forster

On KGNU’s 46th birthday, Indra Raj chats with eTown’s Nick Forster about the history of KGNU and eTown. They listen to some early broadcasts, and Boulder mayor Aaron Brockett reads a proclamation declaring KGNU Radio Week (Interview date: 5/22/24) 

Nick Forster: Hi, Indra. So glad to be here. So glad to be a part of KGNU all these years. So funny hearing that first broadcast and thinking about Harvest House Cottage E cause that’s where we had our weekly radio show when KGNU went live.

So we were preloaded before KGNU actually got clearance to be on the air.

Indra Raj: I didn’t know that.

Nick Forster: I know. Hot Rize had a weekly show every Wednesday morning and we would tape them and stack them up in advance of KGNU going live.

Indra Raj: Oh, okay. So you were really prepared. We were even prepared back then in 1978.

Nick Forster: Let’s remember that the word prepared can be interpreted in so many ways. We had a great time and we learned a ton, we learned so much from our radio show on KGNU, just the idea that live radio can be so exciting, singing around one microphone, playing music that is going out in real time, the excitement and danger of that, also just being a part of something that was so grassroots, so ground up, so made up by people who just wanted this thing to be of the community, for the community.

It was a beautiful time. It was inspiring and we were lucky enough to travel around the country and see that blossoming in a lot of different cities and towns, but it meant so much to be in our hometown, and to be connected with KGNU.

Indra Raj: Absolutely. And we can’t wait to talk more about eTown today, this morning.

And all the great things that independent media can make happen and community stations and, I would argue that all the magic that was happening in 1978 is still happening now. It really is grassroots. It really is. I can tell you. It is very grassroots here at KGNU.

Tim Russo: It’s grassroots. It’s involvement. It’s that participation, right? It’s the participation that the folks who created KGNU and were a part of Hot Rize and now eTown strove for at that time and for us and for me. I think for a lot of our staff and volunteers that are here, it’s so amazing to see so many folks still involved that were involved even before we went on air, as you were mentioning Nick, including yourself and supporting the station and the community. Because at the end of the day, it’s about the impact that we have in the community and how we not only serve the community, but how we reflect the community and how the community has changed.

And I think that KGNU, as well as eTown and the many artists that have been involved over the years, we’ve evolved with that and continue to evolve and respond to how the communities that we are part of are beginning to change and have changed over this time. So it’s beautiful to see that, the longevity and the future of that and how it’s been built upon time and time again.

Nick Forster: I would even also say that in some ways, because technology has changed and because people get their news and their data and their music and different sources, that the organic nature of KGNU, the community nature of KGNU is even more important now than it was in 1978, because in that way, in some sense, that was a really obvious reflection of what was happening.

People were coming together in real time and making music and starting bands and sharing information. Now we’ve become isolated with technology and so to have something that is so local, so accessible, so diverse is an even more important asset to our community, a core asset to our community now than I think it was in 1978.

Indra Raj: I totally agree. And you can be a part of that. We’re celebrating KGNU. We’re celebrating radio. We’re celebrating real radio, real people, real time. We say that all the time and it is very rare to find these days.

So it is, I agree with you, Nick. It’s more important now than maybe ever.

Nick Forster: I know. So cool. So happy to be here.

Indra Raj: So happy for you to be here.

Nick Forster: Congrats to you guys for keeping the ship afloat, keeping everything going and happy to be part of it. What do you got cooked up today?

Indra Raj: What do we have cooked up today? We have a bunch of eTown highlights from over the years that we are gonna explore today and talk with you about the evolution of your involvement with radio. You know at KGNU we’ve already talked a little bit about that with Hot Rize, but also just eTown in general and all the incredible artists and stories that we’ve heard from eTown over the years. It’s really inspiring to me and I think a lot of our listeners.

Nick Forster: Thanks, Indra. It’s really it’s such a direct line between those early days at KGNU and then from there, with Hot Rize, we got to play on Prairie Home Companion a bunch of times and play on the Grand Ole Opry and we did a lot of media. There was something just always exciting about media, about, radio in front of an audience.

It was cool.

Indra Raj: Yeah.

Nick Forster: Yeah, so we’ve been so lucky. And I will say that in the very beginning, much like the origins of KGNU, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no clue. We thought that if we started, good things would happen. And it wasn’t easy. We had some false starts where we ran out of money and went off the air and we had to regroup and retool.

But throughout it all, we were able to attract unbelievably skilled, talented, soulful, human beings, musicians who came and joined us on stage at eTown. So from the very first season, we were lucky enough to have just incredible talent come be a part of this experiment.

Indra Raj: Yeah.

Nick Forster: Because ultimately that’s what independent media is, right?

Indra Raj: Yes.

Nick Forster: It’s an experiment.

Indra Raj: And it’s a good experiment. So the first thing I have lined up is a selection from 1991. Chuck Pyle singing “Keep It Simple”.

Nick Forster: Oh, wow. Okay.

Indra Raj: And do you have any recollections of this performance or should we just listen to it?

Nick Forster: The late Chuck Pyle, was a sort of Colorado stalwart, singer-songwriter.

The thing that was amazing about Chuck to me was that he had this very complete style of playing guitar. Like when he played guitar, what you’re hearing sounds like maybe more than one guitar, it’s cool stuff, but yeah, let’s listen and we can talk after.

Indra Raj: All right. We’ll listen to Chuck Pyle.

This is from eTown in 1991. So, going way back here on KGNU.

Nick Forster: Chuck Pyle. Yeah, Chuck Pyle. Indra, it’s so funny, I hadn’t heard that song literally in 30 years or more. Yeah. But all that stuff is flowing around. I just want to share that when we started, we recorded all our shows at the Boulder Theater. And so our booking usually involved finding somebody local, somebody less well known and then pairing that person with somebody who would normally play at the Boulder Theater.

So somebody who would be popular and well known and because we didn’t really have any other source of revenue other than ticket sales. So we were programming our radio show in a lot of ways based on the Boulder Theater’s capacity.

Indra Raj: Yeah.

Nick Forster: Luckily in our very first season, we were able to call in a lot of friends.

So we had Lyle Lovett and Nancy Griffith and Sean Colvin, and James Taylor and the Fairfield four, and Willis Allen Ramsey. A bunch of people came in 1991 for our very first Norman and Nancy Blake. Bunch of people came. And that trend continued.

Indra Raj: And do you think those people would have come through here without eTown?

Because I don’t think they would have.

Nick Forster: A lot of them wouldn’t, and it was an interesting time because a lot of them came because we were doing things that also touched on environmental issues. And they came because of why we were doing eTown. A lot of them came because they were my pals that we had met from being out on the road and playing festivals and stuff.

But it was also a different era. It was an era when record companies were more powerful and what we were doing, being a syndicated radio show, we launched on NPR with about 40 stations or something like that in ‘91. The record companies would routinely look for ways to promote records. So even the majors, Columbia, Warner, all those major labels would be in touch with us about new releases.

So we did get a lot of big names in our early going. And for me, I also was able to curate visits from people that I was so inspired by, like Pop Staples, the patriarch of the Staples singers.

I just called him up in Chicago and told him we have a radio show and we could fly him in and pay him and put him up at the Boulderado, and he came and it was just so amazing that so many of my musical heroes really benefited from the exposure.

Pops wasn’t really doing much at the time. And so he came a couple of times.

Indra Raj: Yeah.

Nick Forster: And we formed a really deep connection and which of course trickled down to be part of Mavis’s world as well. But just so many incredible musical opportunities and incredible interview guests that came on a regular basis.

And I’m not just talking about the Jimmy Carters and Jane Goodalls of the world, but really smart scientists, politicians, policymakers, authors. So it was a wacky combination, from programming radio. The balance between music and information is an interesting one and people want both.

Indra Raj: Yes. And we always say here at KGNU that we have a mixed format radio station. We have news and public affairs and music, and we want our listeners to be able to experience all of that throughout the day. And, eTown is really like that, too. You get this great music, these wonderful performances, these great interviews that you do.

And then also a really healthy dose of something important happening in the world that you need to know about.

Nick Forster: Thank you. Thanks so much. Let’s play a couple more songs. I know that early on John Prine was just such an inspiring songwriter to me when I was growing up. And he came in the early to mid nineties, early on in our career.

I think Willie Nelson came the same year. So maybe we could play a couple excerpts of their visits to eTown.

Indra Raj: Yeah, let’s listen to John Prime from 1996 and then maybe we’ll play Willie Nelson right after that and then we’ll chat a little bit more.

Nick Forster: Sounds good. Willie Nelson, John Prine, these are so many of the legends. I will say that the music we’ve played so far is just like three old Americana white guys playing guitar.

Indra Raj: But legends.

Nick Forster: Absolutely. Yeah, Chuck Pyle was a local legend, but the reality is I really worked hard to try to create some diversity in our programming and our early days. We had a lot of African music and Afro Cuban music and Hawaiian music, so we brought Ray Kane and George Kahumoku and we had Makina Loca and these bands from West Africa.

In fact, on the Willie Nelson show, the other act was Angélique Kidjo, who’s a great West African pop singer. And what was so cool about that show was they’d never heard of each other. And so the finales that are part of every eTown show are also a big part of our mission, which is just to break down those boundaries and borders of what people think their style of music that they like is.

Every bit of music is connected and there’s common ground there. So that was really sweet. Willie wanted to do On the Road Again as the finale. And I was like, yeah let’s meet a little more in Angelique’s territory. Yeah, they found a Jimmy Clifton that they both loved.

And it was cool.

Indra Raj: And you often play in those finales with everyone, right?

Nick Forster: I play in the house band. So yeah, in the early days, especially when artists would come to record companies, again, this is sort of like, music business nostalgia. There used to be something called a promo tour, where an artist would make a record, and then just as the record was coming out the artists would go out and do a bunch of radio interviews and play the single or play a couple tracks from the record that’s coming. Then they’d go back and get in the bus and go and do an actual tour and go play all the shows. So we were lucky enough to get a lot of people to come on their promo tour that was often supported by the label.

But it meant that someone like James Taylor or Sean Colvin might be coming solo. And our house band would be the ones that would learn the songs as they are on the record, so when they showed up, we would have them down, we would play them, and they would feel comfortable, not just having to play by themselves.

So yeah, I played on hundreds and hundreds of people’s sets to just learn, in serving the song, trying to figure out how to make them comfortable, make them feel like we’re, respectful of their original arrangements and intentions. A lot of times we monkeyed with things too and changed them up.

But yeah, I’ve played with most of the people who’ve been on eTown.

Indra Raj: I think only someone like you could make eTown happen because you have that musical talent, obviously, but then there’s also the interview aspect of it. And I have to say, I am so impressed with your interviews. You’re such an expert at it.

You said it was an experiment in 1991. Did you come into it with a lot of interview experience or were you like, I’m going to learn this thing and just go for it?

Nick Forster: I came into it with no interview experience. And NPR was very quick to point that out when I called them up. And I first thought, Hey, of course they’re going to think I’m cool. I’m Nick from Hot Rize! I got a radio show! And they were like, How much radio have you produced? I was like, zero!

What I learned, I had to learn on the fly. Indra, I think you’ve done a great job too, and I think we all get better with practice. When I started, I made the mistake of doing too much research and sometimes even pre-interviewing my guests before we got on stage.

And then I often found that we were just trying to remember the great conversation we had backstage when we were on stage, right? So I learned to do a lot of research, but also not to start the conversation till the tape was rolling. Let’s not have dinner together before the show.

Let’s not spend a whole afternoon together. Don’t come over to my house the day before. I want it to be fresh on stage. And so much about this too, which is just like playing music. With interviewing, the most important thing is listening. So it’s not about the playing or the technique or the tone.

It’s about listening and finding your role in the context of the song. Same thing with conversation.

Indra Raj: Absolutely. And let’s keep it going with some music here. We’re going to move to-

Nick Forster: -Some more old dead white guys?

Indra Raj: But again, pretty legendary. 1999. So moving ahead almost 10 years into eTown: Randy Newman.

We’ve got “The World Isn’t Fair”.

Nick Forster: What I remember is that NBC’s Today Show was excited about doing a special on Randy Newman. And so they came to eTown to film his performance and interview him for the Today Show. And we thought, Oh man, this is gonna be our big break.

It’s gonna be incredible. The Today Show is going to talk about eTown. It’s going to be wonderful. But of course, they just talked about Randy Newman. But it was really cool having him on the show. Another incredibly talented artist who was promoting a record and came to Boulder specifically to be on eTown.

Indra Raj: And just very quickly, a snapshot: this is 1999. You guys have been at it for eight plus years at this point. Do you recall how it felt at that point with eTown with the way the machine was working, all the booking, everything like that?

Nick Forster: Yeah. The first couple of years of eTown it was very touch and go.

And I think we were really struggling. I was still touring with Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz in the first version of the Oh Boy. So I was on the road. And we were taping our shows on Thursday nights in those days, early years. So we’d tape in eTown Thursday. I would fly out Friday, play the weekend, edit the show with a little DAT tape machine on the plane.

Go in the studio Monday, cut the show, prepare, do a show Thursday, fly out Friday. It was insane. And five years with no pay for me from eTown because we didn’t have any money. 1998 or 1999, eight years in, we had figured out how to get some underwriting and support from the natural products industry.

So we had a staff and we could rent the Boulder Theater, we had an office, we’d moved out of our house and into some offices and yeah, things were moving along in an almost sustainable way. It was a very different experience for us. It wasn’t long after, it was not long before that, that NPR dropped us.

So we were an NPR show and then they were like, eh, you’re a little bit too hippies from Boulder for us. So we were stunned by that, but we actually recalibrated and just did our own distribution and became even more independent.

Indra Raj: Wow. We love that.

Nick Forster: Thanks.

Indra Raj: I don’t even know what to picture how you edit a DAT recording on an airplane. It’s beyond me.

Nick Forster: I was just editing and handwriting notes on a pad thinking: cut this song, shorten this conversation, whatever.

Indra Raj: Yeah.

Nick Forster: But anyway.

Indra Raj: That’s how it happens. That’s how it happens.

Nick Forster: I remember that in our first year we spent 3,500 on a Hewlett Packard hard drive that was one gigabyte.

That was a big technological advance for us because then we could actually edit the show without having a little break in the middle because we didn’t have enough storage space.

Indra Raj: Oh wow. That’s amazing. When you think about how that was not that long ago when you think about all of human history, it’s pretty impressive, but anyway, I digress.

Nick Forster: Let’s listen to Randy Newman.

Indra Raj: Yeah, let’s listen to Randy Newman. This is from 1999. “The World Isn’t Fair”.

Nick Forster: Such a smart guy, funny and talented, amazing, consistent. I saw him play actually a little while ago and he had fond memories of being on eTown. One time he was on with Jane Goodall, not that visit, but another time. And he said, yeah, I was completely humbled by being on the same show with Jane Goodall.

But, these are human beings, right? These are all human beings who feel and want to express themselves and feel like they’re vulnerable because they’re being honest in their songwriting. Despite what Randy just said.

Indra Raj: Yeah. Jane Goodall. What was it like to talk to Jane Goodall?

Nick Forster: Oh man, she was on a couple times, maybe she did even another thing at eTown Hall, but she’s very easy to talk to, obviously, because she’s so practiced and she’s so skilled, she’s been doing interviews all her life. She’s had to speak out on behalf of women, on behalf of nature, the planet so she’s a very skilled public speaker, but also very real and human.

And we got to know each other off stage, which helped my conversations with her on stage. So I think she developed a real sensitivity to what eTown was about and why we existed in our particular process of letting the music bring people in and then stimulate some conversation around sustainability.

I found her to be a very easy interview because she was very open and had a lot to share. When Randy Newman, whom we think is amazing, is on stage with Jane Goodall, he’s blown away and humbled by her.

She’s humbled by him too. She’s like, how does he do that? How does he play that song? How does he make that music happen? And I see that a lot. And that’s one of the beautiful things about the collisions that happen on the stage at eTown. Because sometimes, Ben Harper was really inspired by this guy, Chad Begracke, who was cleaning up the Mississippi River, on a barge with a bunch of his buddies.

And the artists are humbled by the good works that other people are doing, and the people who are doing the good work are really amazed and thrilled that the artists dig what they’re doing. There’s this beautiful leveling of bringing everyone down to their humanity, and the egos get left at the door.

I think that’s a good thing. An unanticipated benefit of the eTown format.

Indra Raj: Absolutely. It makes so much sense too. I think you know, anyone who’s an artist, and I think we all are artists in our own rights, especially a musician at a high level, on some level, that type of person is connected to nature, the environment, and I think environmentalists too, they understand on a visceral level, I think, the importance of creativity, art, music, things like this.

So it just seems like a marriage made in heaven to me, really.

Nick Forster: Yeah, I learned from being on the road so many years with Hot Rize, I got to see so many places and experience those different communities and see different environments and the way people treat the land and treat each other. I think that’s true of every touring musician.

We are aware of our surroundings, even if we’re in a bus, we’re aware of the communities we participate in. I learned so much from being a touring guy. So thanks to my buddies. Thanks to Pete Wernick, Charles Suttell, Tim O’Brien for the original crew and Hot Rize for helping to create this amazing juggernaut that was a great touring band for a long time.

eTown would not have existed without that. Hot Rize probably was a miraculous coincidence also, but KGNU was part of that DNA too. I sent you an email of an artist who was recently- I just didn’t want to have all the music we play be guys older guys or older performances.

So this is a complete change in direction. But there’s a couple from New York who live in Hell’s Kitchen. They have a tiny little apartment and they make their music in their apartment. And we heard them play and just were thrilled with their sound and their performance.

And they use some technology, they use some tracks and they play over the top of that. And I just thought it might be nice to do something that’s a little more contemporary. Nice to have a female voice in there and some young people. ‘Cause like I said I’m really proud of the fact that eTown has featured a lot of diverse music over the years and we’ve really tried to show those connections across cultures and. Again, this is not not incredibly obscure. But it’s a band called mmeadows. And I don’t know if you can play it or not, but-

Indra Raj: Yeah, I think I’m going to bring it up here right now. We’ll see how it goes, but yeah, and mmeadows “Light Moves Around You” live on eTown.

Nick Forster: Yes. Let’s see if it works.

Indra Raj: All right. I will try and bring it up. Why don’t we listen to something else while I try and get that going. How about this last selection from some of the stuff that I have here? We’ve got Bob Weir.

Nick Forster: Oh man. Yeah. Bob Weir was an early adopter at eTown. We did a benefit for the Nature Conservancy in our second year, 1992.

And Bob came to be a part of that along with Ricky Lee Jones and Leo Kottke. And we raised some money for the Nature Conservancy and then he came back a couple times maybe since then. This one I believe is from eTown Hall. So this is fairly recent. Bob Weir’s been a friend of public radio and a friend of eTowns for a long time.

Here’s him playing a song from his latest record.

Indra Raj: “Only a River”, this is from 2017.

Nick on the slide guitar there.

Nick Forster: Yeah. And Helen singing harmony. I just want to mention that, through all the years hundreds and hundreds of artists have wanted a harmony singer. And it turned out that Helen was that person. She’s just such a great chameleon who can slide in and sing with all the people.

And she was singing there with Bob Weir. That was a kind of a gentle song to go out on, but it was a nice representative eTown moment, house band backing up a legend and making some music that didn’t happen that way ever before. Again, not before, not since, that was a one and done musical moment that happened on eTown stage.

Indra Raj: Absolutely, and we’ve heard a lot of Americana artists today, but we were just chatting off the air about how the upcoming stuff at eTown, really exciting, Sarah Drozd is coming, who is also Americana, but really fantastic stuff she’s doing, and I’m so excited for it. Feist will be on eTown soon. Indie folk legend.

Nick Forster: We really do try to mix it up despite the fact that we just had a fairly homogenous group of songs we just shared, but just like KGNU, we celebrate diversity whenever we can. We’re proud of our legend, and we’re proud of our history, and we’re proud of our connection to KGNU. And mine especially, because like I said, I go back to the Harvest House, Cottage E, in 1978, waiting for the FCC to give approval for KGNU to go on the air.

Those were exciting times.

Indra Raj: Very exciting. 46 years later to the day, and I don’t have a lot of institutions or organizations that I’ve been involved with in my life that I can have access to people who were there from the very beginning, who can tell those stories and really remind me that what was happening then is still happening now.

And we’re really keeping those things alive here at KGNU and with eTown and independent media. It’s so important to have that as a part of our cultural landscape here in Boulder.

Nick Forster: I also want to mention that the community that KGNU was birthed into, Boulder, this city is lucky also to have elected officials and representatives and people who are passionate about the spirit of our community, the creativity in our community, the diversity, the inclusiveness and the natural landscape and the beauty and the protection of our environment.

We have people who care a lot about those things that we share, eTown and KGNU share. And I’m talking very specifically right now about our mayor, Aaron Brockett, who shares all those values that we hold so dear.

Indra Raj: In the studio right now. Welcome, Mayor Aaron Brockett.

Aaron Brockett: Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here and to be here with two legends, with Nick Forster and also Indra here at KGNU.

So just delighted to be here and thank you for that, that lovely intro, Nick. I appreciate it. 

Indra Raj: Thank you, Nick, so much for being here. Welcome to the airwaves, Aaron. And we’re so thrilled that with KGNU Radio Week, we’ve had this proclamation by the City Council to make the annual week of May 22nd Radio Week.

You are going to read it here today and say a couple of words.

Aaron Brockett: Yes, absolutely. So we’re very excited about Radio Week. We have a proclamation from the City Council here. And Indra, thank you for your work on making that happen and thanks to Ken Flowe, I understand it was his brainchild in the very first place and did lots of work to make it happen, and station manager Tim Russo and others.

So great to be here. I really did mean a legend about KGNU almost 50 years, 46 years today. That’s an extraordinary track record. I remember moving here with my wife about 21 years ago and meeting people here locally. And one of the first things people mentioned is, Oh, you’ve got to try the local radio station.

And I remember turning it on and saying, Wow, I’ve never heard a station like this. We’re so fortunate to have such an extraordinary, unique, independent voice, the music, the words, it’s so good. So in honor of that here we have the honoring KGNU community radio, May 19th through 25th, 2024 proclamation.

So the Boulder Community Broadcast Association, commonly known as KGNU Community Radio, began providing local community radio using frequency 88. 5 on May 22, 1978. And during these 46 years, KGNU has worked diligently to fulfill its mission to inspire, educate, and entertain, and to amplify the voices and issues that are underrepresented, marginalized, or absent from commercial media.

KGNU Community Radio provides the Boulder community with access to critical public affairs and emergency management information, which would not be available without a local community radio station. KGNU broadcasts media that matters, and music that inspires, driven by volunteer power and a commitment to access to the airwaves.

Showing a commitment to the next generation of local community leaders, KGNU provides extensive internship and youth radio training opportunities to ensure that the Boulder community continues to have a strong local media presence. KGNU has been recognized as a crucial community asset for the contributions KGNU makes to diversity, arts, culture, community vitality, and civic engagement in Boulder and beyond. Therefore, we, the City Council of the City of Boulder, Colorado, declare the annual week of May 22nd as KGNU Radio Week in the City of Boulder, encouraging all residents to celebrate the importance of local independent community media and its vital role in the democratic process.

Indra Raj: Thanks so much for reading that. Thank you to City Council and you, Mayor Aaron Brockett, for making this a reality for us. These words are really powerful and mean a lot to us as a station and what we’ve been able to commit to the community for all of these years and what we hope to do for the next 50 plus years, hopefully.

Aaron Brockett: I’ll be tuning in for every minute. I’m still awake here in town. Yeah. No question about that.

Indra Raj: We love it. Thanks for joining us here at the birthday party here at the station. We’re still open. Our open house is going on for another hour. So any folks out there who want to come by, grab some coffee from Ozo.

We have some birthday cake. We have station tours. I’m really happy to say hi to everyone. We’re so glad to always be live here on the radio for you, to speak to you live in person. It’s important to us.

Aaron Brockett: Absolutely. Come on down and join the fun, everybody. 

Indra Raj: Great. Thank you so much for being here.

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