The Death and Rebirth of Community Radio

Tim Allwein

timstories@yahoo.com

12 December 2017

The Death and Rebirth of Community Radio

Every Sunday, two minutes before 1:00 pm, I jump into the driver’s seat. I plug in my computer and open the music player, quickly sliding on my headphones and adjusting the microphone. I queue up my first song, feel a rush of adrenaline, and hit the buttons on the control board.

“You are listening to Coast Community Radio, KMUN 91.9 FM, Astoria, Oregon. The number to call with your request is 503-325-0010. This is Reverend Tim and it’s time for Classic Rock & Roll!” The music starts and I’m off and running. A strobe light flashes as the phone lines light up, and Debby, a long-time volunteer and my sidekick, takes the calls. For two solid hours, she methodically handles call after call while I scramble to find the songs people want to hear and mix it all up with the rambunctious music I love. Sometimes exasperating, sometimes prone to mishaps and errors, the show is a marathon. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It’s the same for the other one hundred volunteers for Coast Community Radio. This little station gets in your blood. A lonely woman tells Debby we are her only friend and traveling companion on the road into town. No request, just a thank you from a devoted listener. What would they do without us?

Yet there is a real threat to community radio stations all over our country due to a possible loss of federal funding from a conservative congress. If that funding is removed, will stations like KMUN be able to make up the difference with more fundraisers, or are local supporters tapped out? Joanne Rideout, former station manager at Coast Community Radio writes, “CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) monies make up about a third of our revenue. Last year we received about $116,000 in federal support. If that federal money goes, we’ll have to look to you, our listeners, to replace that support, and help us keep going. In a rural, low-income community like ours, we know that’s asking a lot.” (Guest column: Unspoken collateral damage of Trump cuts). I spoke to Joanne extensively about the challenges of keeping our community radio station financially solvent. She told me, “The costs go up every year. The money rises a little bit with it. Finally, after seven years, KMUN is just about breaking even. When I first came here, I would do the bills and it was, do we buy eggs or milk? We can’t do both.”

Astoria was once a bustling port with commercial fishing supplying the many canneries, while a thriving logging industry provided many working-class jobs. Today, many of those jobs are gone. Tourists are the bread and butter of these coastal communities. Service industry jobs are more easily found than any other. Many residents struggle to pay the rising rents while working two or sometimes three part-time jobs. Full-time work with benefits is a disappearing commodity. How much more can the locals spend to support a station that may be losing its relevance?

Maybe there are too many other options for getting our news and entertainment today. It might be possible to stream all of our favorite music and movies on our electronic devices, but when the power is out and those devices go dead, we find ourselves once again in need of the basics. In an emergency such as we have seen with severe weather events, flooding, and forest fires, information provided by community radio can be essential, potentially saving lives.

The Columbia River is peaceful today, the surface glassy, a placid silvery blue. Seven great cargo ships are anchored in the channel, awaiting orders to move upriver to the ports in Longview, Washington, or more likely Portland, Oregon. I can see them from the station windows.  Pilot boats guide them across the treacherous Columbia River bar, where more than 2,000 ships have been lost with perhaps as many as 1,000 lives since the year 1800. (Wilma, “Historylink.org”). I have witnessed when the river turns, seen its vicious, brutal face as it tosses ships about like toy boats in a child’s bath. Coast Community Radio sits on the hill of the peninsula that is Astoria, Oregon. The broadcast area reaches from beyond Tillamook, Oregon to Copalis Beach, Washington, over 160 miles of coastline. Inland, the signal reaches a distance of fifty miles to Longview Wa. In our beautiful but isolated area, prone to earthquakes and in a tsunami zone, community radio is still an essential part of our lives.

In 2007, when a devastating gale hit the Pacific Northwest, Coast Community Radio was the only source of information still accessible to everyone. I remember huddling in my apartment with the wind screaming like a banshee, the windows closed tightly but rattling against the pressure, while the drapes puffed out into the room. The building shook and an explosive sound like a bomb threw me out of my seat and into action. I threw on a coat and ventured downstairs. Struggling to open the apartment building’s outside door against the hurricane winds, I managed to push my way out and onto the sidewalk. It took everything just to walk against that one hundred miles per hour wind. I reached the corner, a half a block away after what seemed like fifteen minutes. Down the street, a flagpole had been torn off of a building, jetted like a missile through the air, and shot into the Radio Shack that was downstairs in my building. The window was smashed. Electronics on display were being drenched in the rain. Climbing through the broken display window, I moved the goods further back into the room to prevent more damage. Stepping back out into the storm, I encountered a lone man walking toward me, making slow progress. He was bloodied from a wound on his head. I offered to give him shelter. He declined and said he was fine. I hope he was.

It seemed there was an eye to the storm, just like a hurricane. We had a respite where the weather calmed down for a few hours. As it turned out, there were actually three storms that converged on us. Some of the local restaurants were feeding people free of charge. The food was likely to spoil anyway. For five days, phones were out, roads were closed, and we were without electricity in Astoria. I was one of the lucky ones; I had gas heat. I could stay warm and take a hot shower. Deborah Starr kept downstairs in her two-story house in Gearhart, holding her five-year-old daughter in the dark and listening to the howling wind and driving rain. With a mind-shattering, ripping sound, the roof to the house tore off, disappearing into the darkness. The first-floor ceiling became their shelter from the raging storm. Susan Peterson, current development director at KMUN, was renting her home to her parents to help pay her way while going back to school. Their living room moved across the street to the neighbor’s driveway.  

During this devastation, Coast Community Radio stayed on the air, even after a tree fell on the roof. Emergency generators kept it on the air and anyone with a battery-operated radio could tune in. As Joanne Rideout told me in an interview, “The mayor came in, the city manager, and the police chief, and they were talking about what was going on in the community. We turned into a funnel for the emergency operations center for the county to get information out to the public. That is free access to lifesaving information. When your phone ran out of juice and everything else was down, there was no cell service, no internet, no landlines, just regular old radio. That’s what community radio stations specialize in. We’re a community service organization that happens to be a radio station. It’s a big priority for us to have the backup to keep ourselves going. We live in the highest risk area for tsunami and earthquake than any place in the United States, certainly the continental United States. We regularly get hurricane-force winds out here and nobody ever calls it a hurricane. It’s just winter.”

There is also the good neighbor aspect of the station. Local artists and musicians are interviewed and local events are discussed. Music programmers bring their personal, quirky touches to shows as diverse as folk, gospel, jazz, reggae, and rock, to Scandinavian, Hispanic and classical music. Someone loses a pet, we get the word out on the air. A traffic accident closes one of our three routes into town, we announce the problem. Coastradio.org is KMUN’s website. Podcasts of many locally produced shows, live streaming, and an archive of previous shows are all available for public access.

I asked Joanne about maintaining programming that is relevant to the community. She replied, “We have a program format that has been the same for a long time. It’s a good program format, but it’s a program format that I like, and I’m turning 65 in December. I’m not saying we should rip it apart and change it all; I’m just saying it’s so great that Graham is going to be in charge. He has more of his finger on the pulse of what people are listening to and what they want to hear. And that’s going to evolve with input from a lot of people. So I think it’s remaining relevant to people, drawing younger listeners to us, making ourselves as available on demand as we possibly can. Most people in their twenties or thirties don’t want to listen to a show. They want to listen to whatever they please because they’re used to Pandora or Spotify. When they want to listen to your show, they want to listen to it whenever they please. Podcasting is huge now. A lot of people don’t listen to anything when it’s actually on.”

I decided I wanted more input, a bigger, more diverse group of opinion. I sent out an email to KMUNies, a group made up of volunteers, staff members, listeners, and supporters of the station. I set up a casual meeting at a local pub. I wanted to hear what others had to say and thought, “What better place to get people to open up than a brewpub with some strong craft beers?” On a Sunday afternoon, we met and talked about the joy of community radio. Sitting around a big table in the noisy pub, we were a group of gray-haired volunteers getting a chance to relax and just get to know each other better. Sure, there was some bitching and moaning, but our love for KMUN was obvious. We had a fun evening and I found a few pearls of wisdom.

“Bedtime Stories” is a locally produced program with a passionate group of supporters that worry its future is in doubt. Around 1983, a group of local librarians and a bookstore owner realized there were no broadcasts of children’s literature. Jane and Jim Hill were volunteers, programmers, and supporters of Coast Community Radio since the beginning, in the early 1980s. Jim passed away in January 2015. Although Jane’s participation has slowed down since that time, she is still a fervent spokesperson for the station. She told me, “One of the standards for KMUN  was you could only put programs on the air that were not readily available in our area.” Gather families around the radio for bedtime in a half-hour show. A great idea, possibly even more timely now when family members each spend their time on their own personal devices. Having been a half hour staple for five nights a week since its inception, it has been proposed that the show will be broadcast live on Sunday nights only, with podcasts replacing the weeknight offerings. Jane believes podcasting shouldn’t replace that live radio niche. “I’m so hung up on community radio not being homogenized into just another form of public radio.”

Debbie Twombly has been one of the major keepers of the flame for years at Coast Radio. She hosts Skinnamarink, an hour of songs, stories and children’s issues on Saturday mornings. Every fourth Saturday of the month it’s replaced with “Troll Radio Review,” which features live music and fun for kids, all done in front of a live audience. She sincerely feels the need to keep children’s programming live with local voices to keep it meaningful. Debbie says, “Without the live broadcast, I think it takes away the community radio aspect. If you look at how many podcasts of stories are already there, there are thousands.”

Jane Hill adds, “But they’re not our voices. Part of the original concept, because the kids were hearing their school librarians reading over the air, these were familiar voices, like Debbie’s voice. This is truly community radio with a community focus for an intended community audience.”

Susie McLerie gave me more insight into the power of community radio. She has a strong personality and a commanding way about her. “When Gorbachev was in, we had a show called “Calling Moscow,” and anybody in the world, because of satellite, could call Moscow. This was revolutionary, and we aired it every week. All of a sudden all subjects were open. That had never happened before in Russia. It opened people’s minds.” Susie has been with the station for 35 years, since before the first broadcast. She says, “The community store used to be run by its founders, and it was for us, for the people. Then all of a sudden, the boss came in and changed it to be for profit, when we were nonprofit before. The same with NPR. They forced our hand to be more for profit than we ever were, so we sound commercial even though we’re not commercial at all. We’re tied to the money. Now, the staff has more responsibility. We used to be so creative, we’d get all of those awards for stuff we thought up. There’s no airspace for that; it just got filled up.”

What Susie says makes sense. This year’s current operating budget is $441,000. (Bengel, “Trump’s proposed budget would hit Coast Community Radio hard”). Much of that goes to pay for programs by NPR. When Coast Community Radio went on the air, the first voice we heard was Liam Dunne’s. Liam, one of the great eccentric characters at the station, is still programming cutting-edge music. Everything that was broadcast in those early days was produced right at the station. Many of the awards Susie speaks of were from those early years. If the Trump administration manages to accomplish what George W. Bush and others before him were unable to do, and funding for public broadcasting comes to an end, why can’t community radio survive? As Jane Hill says, “Community radio, not attached to public radio, is vital to protect.”

Having been station manager at KMUN in Astoria for the past seven years, Joanne Rideout stepped down from her position in November, a little tired and ready to hand over the responsibility to a new generation of talent. But unlike Elvis, she hasn’t left the building. She is now the News Director and is already creating special broadcasts and handling the morning news. She just created a special program entitled “Looking Back at the Great Coastal Gale of 2007,” an audio version which is available here: http://coastradio.org/looking-back-great-coastal-gale-2007/ .

Unburdened by the day-to-day business of running the station, it seems Joanne’s creative juices are flowing. I can hear her smiling through the telephone as she informs me how great it feels to be creating her own programming for the news department.

Graham Nystrom, former operations manager and a previous employee at OPB in Portland, OR, has moved into Joanne’s former position. Graham is an innovator. Part of a younger generation of staff members, he made some great improvements to equipment as operations manager, doing it very economically. He is already looking for ways to save money and take us into the future. In an email sent to the KMUNies group, Graham writes, “The station is in the red, and we need to figure out how to lower operating costs.  Looking at programming costs on KCPB, we are considering replacing the BBC with more in-house, local programming, finding different (less expensive) news sources, and airing some rebroadcasts of our local shows. I believe OPB rebroadcasts their noon news magazine “Think Out Loud” at 8 pm. We could do similar by rebroadcasting our KMUN public affairs shows on KCPB at a later time. Other candidates for rebroadcast include KMUN’s Morning Classics, Sunday Opera, Sunday Bach, and Nachtmusik. Beyond that, we are looking at free news programs that are available to us such as Reveal and Left, Right and Center.

“Cutting BBC will save the station about $12,000/year.  I know people like the BBC. We all do. We will redouble fundraising efforts for KCPB, including membership and underwriting, but at this point in time, we have to take immediate steps to come closer to running in the black.”

Hard choices, to be sure. Choices like cutting “Bedtime Stories,” which will be unpopular with many, may be necessary to keep the ship afloat. As Program Director, Elizabeth Menetrey has had a long history with KMUN. She deals with the day-to-day issues of the many programmers, their personalities, and attitudes. She writes in The Current, the station’s quarterly publication, “Would podcasts serve our young listeners better than the 8 pm live broadcast we now offer? A podcast allows a child to listen to their favorite story anytime they want and as many times as they want.” (Menetrey, 11). The best decisions that were made thirty years ago understandably may not be the best decisions now. The world has changed since FM radio ruled the airwaves and cable television was an infant.

Brian Bovenizer, the station’s new operations manager, and a music programmer has no shortage of positive energy. “To continue to grow an audience, I believe that we need to further develop our YouTube and Podcast/On Demand offerings so that we can harness early listeners and show them about live radio. There will and always should be live radio, but we need to embrace the ways that people consume content these days. We also need to continue to improve the quality of our live radio so that our current live radio audience is happy and thriving.”

There’s no doubt that the old guard needs to relinquish its grip and let the younger people take control. But it’s hard to see your baby all grown up and ready to go its own way. Egos get bruised. Creative people tend to be sensitive. As Carol Newman, an essential part of local programming for many years wrote to me, “Speaking of relevance, how is that judged? Is Opera relevant? How big is its audience? If small, do we chuck it? I hope not. Yet folks can access it in many places (along with country music, classic rock). Bedtime Stories not so many, we’re special! And all of it together is what makes us Relevant! The future is here! I believe it’s important for KMUN/CCR to retain its unique character, perhaps the most eclectic station in the country? It’s wonderful to have a highly skilled new staff to add flexibility and more. Don’t throw away what we’ve developed over the years.”

Bernie Burger has been a volunteer since the station went on the air. I feel a kinship with him. We are both worshippers of the music from the sixties. Bernie agrees that the radio landscape has to evolve. “The new changing of the guard with Graham as station manager and Brian as engineer is a shot in the arm for the station as an infusion of younger blood into the day-to-day mix. Much welcome. It is my hope that with them will come more like-minded younger individuals that will bring their own brand of programming. It needs to happen…a younger crew and new programmers to keep the station current and sustainable.”

Change comes slowly, sometimes painfully. People who have been with Coast Community Radio since the beginning feel a little left behind. But if change is inevitable, can everyone embrace it? Do we become so ensconced in our old ways that we can’t adjust to a new form of radio? Some programmers still play vinyl. Others use CDs but refuse to embrace newer digital formats. That doesn’t make them wrong. It just means there’s more than one way that works. Elizabeth has decided to add more programming by and for high schoolers, encouraging them to come aboard and go to the station’s radio school. New ideas are vital. Young people have to be encouraged to participate in radio. Antiquated or not, it’s a lot of fun.

Some squabbling will continue among programmers, staff, and volunteers. It’s inevitable. Fundraising will continue to be a major challenge and the largest issue for Coast Community Radio. But the many listeners are loyal. They continue to dig deeper into their pockets when the station needs a new generator or a quick influx of emergency cash. The younger generation is coming on board. Radio still has an allure. Plus, winter is coming. The storms will return, and the need for information during critical situations still exists. On the coast here in the Pacific Northwest, people still want their local radio friends. They’re not ready to do without us.

It’s Friday night, closing in on midnight. I sit alone in Tillicum House, broadcasting the last twenty minutes of my Late Night Radio show. I see someone walk by the studio window and get up to say hello. But I am all alone in the house, an old Queen Anne Victorian that was once a bordello. Another time I heard footsteps upstairs. I had witnesses to that event, and I courageously went upstairs to confront our midnight visitor. As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, I felt a cold draft drift through me. No one was there. Of course, it’s a very old house, prone to drafts. But I can’t help wondering if I have some unseen phantom company some lonely nights. So many have come and gone under the roof of this house. I just hope they like the music.

 

Work Cited

Bengel, Erick. “Trump’s proposed budget would hit Coast Community Radio hard.” The Daily Astorian, 21 Mar. 2017, www.dailyastorian.com/Local_News/20170321/trumps-proposed-budget-would-hit-coast-community-radio-hard.

“Guest column: Unspoken collateral damage of Trump cuts.” The Daily Astorian, 26 Apr. 2017, http://www.dailyastorian.com/columns/20170427/guest-column-unspoken-collateral-damage-of-trump-cuts. Accessed 22 Sept. 2017.

“Looking Back at the Great Coastal Gale of 2007.” Coast Community Radio, 30 Nov. 2017, coastradio.org/looking-back-great-coastal-gale-2007/.

Menetrey, Elizabeth. “From the Programming Director.” The Current, 2017, pp. 11.
Wilma, David. “HistoryLink.org.” Graveyard of the Pacific: Shipwrecks on the Washington Coast – HistoryLink.Org, 12 Sept. 2006, http://www.historylink.org/File/7936.