Radio Free Bonedale
April 10, 2003
People affiliated with Carbondale public radio station KDNK like to say it is “almost legal” now that it’s turning 20. Thankfully, they can’t say it’s getting old.
KDNK continues to mix a heavy dose of quirkiness, a healthy batch of irreverence and varying amounts of informality to remain as fresh as it was when it was founded in April 1983.
Stumble into the station’s office and studio at the old Carbondale town hall – and you will stumble amid all the clutter – and you can’t help liking the place. Posters are plastered on every wall. A concert shot of a young Carlos Santana might grab your attention, or perhaps a shot of an obscure musician will stump you.
Signs with cute sayings or political messages are mixed in. “Caution: Adults at Play” says one in the studio.
The only wall spaces not covered with posters are home to countless racks and shelves of compact discs that comprise the music library. The station is bursting at the seams with music, from gospel to hard rock.
A diverse stew
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Music director Skip Naft gazed almost forlornly one day at the stack of new promotional CDs that accumulated on his desk in just one week. It’s his job to give the CDs sent by record companies a quick listen and decide whether to recommend them to the army of volunteer disc jockeys who staff the booth.
Unlike commercial stations, the music director doesn’t make the DJs play anything or avoid anything. Well, almost anything – the station still must guard its license from the ever-vigilant Federal Communications Commission.
Naft didn’t miss a beat when asked to define the station’s musical tastes. “KDNK’s sound is like everything,” he said.
If you don’t like what you hear, the saying goes among the KDNK family, wait a couple of hours and a different volunteer DJ will be at the microphone.
“Cowboy Randy” Schutt spins classic country songs from 8 to 10 a.m. every Friday. He’s had his “Quack ‘n Country” show for 13 years and has volunteered as a DJ for a total of 19.
Roy Rickus, the Carbondale man famous for wearing a turban, treats Sunday night listeners to classic jazz. He’s done so the entire 20-year history of the station.
Joan Schultz, better known as “Sister Kate,” is celebrating 13 years of playing classic rock ‘n’ roll this spring, “viciously guarding” her time slot from 10 a.m. to noon on Thursdays.
“Phathead” spreads the joys of punk music on Saturdays.
Last Saturday evening, some DJ actually had the guts to play “Disco Duck.” On that day, KDNK probably had the distinction – dubious in most eyes – of being the only station on the planet to play “Disco Duck” (For reasons that boggle the mind, the station followed that song with a disco medley and then music from “Fiddler on the Roof”).
But the good seems to outweigh the bad. Cowboy Randy is considered the quintessential DJ by station manager Mary Suma, and he is one of the most popular.
“I hear people say, `I don’t even like country music, but I like Cowboy Randy,'” Suma said.
Cowboy Randy addresses his listeners as “buckaroos and buckarettes” and is known for opening his show with a friendly reminder about how many shopping days remain before Christmas.
During one recent show he told a guest he usually comes armed with two 20-ounce coffee mugs topped with a nip of Jack Daniels. On this particular day he is going without, but he says it has nothing to do with a recently posted sign in the studio that prohibits alcohol.
“Mine is just coffee sweetener,” he says.
But Cowboy Randy doesn’t try to get too cute. He strives to be “professional but easy on the ear.” He taps into his personal supply of hundreds of CDs but said he doesn’t do much planning before his show.
Sister Kate is just as dedicated to classic rock as Cowboy Randy is to classic country. Any group featuring Eric Clapton is her favorite, but she keeps cultivating classic rock songs for her show rather than playing the same 100 over and over.
“I have learned so much about the music I thought I knew so much about,” she said.
When asked what it takes to be a good disc jockey, she thinly disguises her disdain for other spinners’ styles.
“Personally what I think it takes is to shut up and play music,” she said. Others – she won’t name names – tend to voice support for their cause du jour six times during their two-hour shift.
All told, there are 75 DJs, including substitutes, who play a delightful mix. Their musical preferences make for an incredibly diverse mix on KDNK, not unlike a potluck dinner at the United Nations.
Listeners don’t always like what they hear, but at least they’re exposed to music they might not normally seek out.
“Sometimes I think we’re too far out for some people,” said Naft. “It makes them change the channel.”
Or does it? KDNK is sort of like an eccentric aunt. Her behavior might embarrass you at times, but you love her just the same and you’ll always give her the time of day.
Listeners clearly give KDNK the chance to capture them. Suma proudly shared results of an independent listenership survey that showed KDNK had a 14 percent share, tops in the Roaring Fork Valley. The next most popular station has 8 percent of the market.
KDNK has been able to build that strong audience while staying true to its strange beginning. Bruce Stolbach, one of the founders, doesn’t do much with the station anymore but said he still likes what he hears. He believes KDNK and the Mountain Fair are the institutions that genuinely define Carbondale.
It comes as no surprise to him that the station is still going strong after 20 years. He and other founders felt the difficult chore would be raising the cash to start the channel; maintaining it would be easier.
Stolbach’s interest in starting a community radio station in Carbondale came after a hiking trip went awry in southwestern Colorado. He was climbing Wilson Peak, one of the mountains that tops 14,000 feet, when lousy weather forced him and his mates to stop.
They pulled into Telluride and lucked into the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which has now grown to legendary proportions. While bar-hopping, they somehow got hooked up with DJs at Telluride’s public radio station, KOTO. The details, Stolbach said, have become a little foggy.
Anyway, he and a friend ended up playing rock ‘n’ roll with a DJ during the 1 to 3 a.m. shift and loved it so much they joined forces back home in Bonedale with other residents who wanted to start a station.
If KDNK helps define Carbondale, then the reverse is also true. People come and go, but the station survives because of the dedicated hordes of Carbondale-area residents who chip in to make it work. The station has only two full-time staffers and three part-timers. Suma said there are roughly 175 people who help out, including the DJs.
“I’ve had people say `This is what keeps me in this town,’ and they mean it,” said Suma.
One morning last week, Dana and Brecca Wilson rolled out of bed in their condo across from the KDNK studio to answer phones and color posters during the station’s spring fund-raiser. Dana hopes to earn a slot as a DJ someday, but for now he’s content helping the station anyway he can.
Like many midvalley listeners, they said they’ve been thankful to receive what they feel is a more accurate portrayal of the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign policy issues from the wide range of news shows on KDNK.
Music has always been a big part of KDNK, but National Public Radio news draws the biggest block of listeners, Suma said. A syndicated news show called “Democracy Now” – which is relentlessly critical of the Bush administration – has been cited by some listeners recently for presenting a refreshing view of the war.
The station has also earned accolades for offering news and music aimed at the valley’s Latino population.
Dollars and cents
The station is fortunate that it was founded before the explosive growth of public radio. KDNK has subscribed to NPR for so long that it is grandfathered at a fee of $17,000. Now it would cost between $80,000 and $90,000 to tap into the syndicated show, said Suma.
KDNK has an annual budget of $280,000. Revenues are divided evenly between memberships, underwriting by local businesses and grants from organizations like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The station is trying to raise $30,000 through new and renewed memberships this spring. More importantly, it’s trying to make new listeners aware of what it has to offer, said Amy Kimberly, director of memberships and fund-raising.
KDNK is hosting a 20th birthday party Saturday, April 12, from 8 to 11 p.m. at Dos Gringos in Carbondale to thank its members and the community.
The station has about 800 members. But with the population of the Roaring Fork Valley at about 48,000 people, Kimberly sees much untapped potential.
Suma said she “doesn’t sit and wring her hands over the competition.” On the other hand, she said KDNK certainly cannot assume people will listen just because it’s a public radio station.
“There are a hell of a lot of bad public radio stations out there,” she said. “Fortunately, I think KDNK is one of the best.”
The station waged its biggest battle in recent years with a competitor that hasn’t even taken to the airwaves yet. Colorado Public Radio planned a grand entrance to the valley that would have taken 75 percent of KDNK’s listeners, Suma said. Aspen public radio station KAJX was also threatened.
The local station fought to limit Colorado Public Radio’s presence and negotiated a settlement. CPR will offer only classical music when it comes to the valley, possibly as early as next summer.
KDNK, which broadcasts on multiple frequencies to cover the entire valley, will surrender those frequencies to the other station but in exchange will get one powerful signal to broadcast valleywide.
“Our fight is pretty much over. Our signal is protected,” said Suma.
But the battle to gain listeners and improve the station is never won or lost; it just evolves. Fortunately, after Suma and her staff burn out, other Bonedalians will be there to keep KDNK alive.
“Station’s like ours – it’s not all just fun and games,” Suma said.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.