Etown in Aspen: Music and a message |

Etown in Aspen: Music and a message

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Jeremy CowartSinger-songwriter Brandi Carlile appears for a live taping of the radio program "eTown," Sunday, Jan. 17 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

ASPEN – ETown, the Boulder-based radio program, once received a communication from a listener who identified himself as a right-wing Republican from Texas. The gentleman wanted the eTown folks to know that the guests featured on the show – a parade of do-gooders including environmentalists, community organizers, activists and artists – “make my blood boil.”In closing, he also noted that he never misses a program.This isn’t a case of someone who relishes the pain of listening to socio-political views that contradict his own. No, this is a listener being drawn in by an irresistible attraction – unique, live music performances by the likes of Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Asleep at the Wheel (to name a few Texans) – and then, once tuned in, subjected to conversation that might (or might not) prove enlightening and mind-expanding.In other words, the Texas Republican who can’t stand eTown’s messages but can’t live without the music component is just what Nick and Helen Forster imagined when they founded the show 19 years ago. Give people a one-of-a-kind music experience, and you’ve captured the ears of people from Wasilla to Washington, D.C.”Music is the universal language. Music is the common thing everybody loves,” Helen Forster said by phone from eTown’s Boulder office. “That’s what we use, that hook to bring the listener in, and then when we have their attention, give them food for thought in a way that inspires them to become part of the solution.”ETown brings that formula to the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday, Jan. 17. The show features musical guests John Hiatt and Brandi Carlile. Both of the singer-songwriters are eTown veterans, but it is the first appearance in Aspen for the show, which makes a few road trips a year away from its home venue, the Boulder Theater. The Wheeler program is being presented by Carbondale’s KDNK, which in 1991 became the very first station to become an eTown affiliate. Also scheduled to appear is Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co. director of sustainability, who will be interviewed and honored with the E-chievement Award, given to individuals who work to make a positive difference in their communities. The live show is approximately two hours long; the taped radio show gets whittled down to one hour for broadcast.The idea for a program that mixed music and engaging stories of social activism hit Nick Forster as he was returning from a trip to Eastern Europe in spring 1990. Forster, a member of the highly regarded Colorado bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, had been on a musical tour sponsored by the State Department that included fellow pickers Sam Bush and John Cowan, who had been in New Grass Revival. Stops in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, both newly freed from Communist rule, were “a poignant reminder of the power of music in crossing boundaries and borders,” Forster said. “The wall had just come down; there were disgruntled former Communist leaders and emerging democratic leaders. If you ever doubted the power of music, that was an ideal example of how it works.”At the same time, Forster also witnessed what sort of society formed when people were disempowered, and all movement came from the top. He was struck in particular by the pollution, which seemed to be a symbol of other maladies in the former Soviet bloc. “I saw the other side – what happens when government and business are the same thing,” he said. “There was almost a palpable darkness, that things weren’t going well.”Forster, the son of a State Department worker, had no background as an activist or environmentalist. “I was thinking more as a dad and a concerned citizen,” said Forster, who was in his mid-30s at the time. “I thought there was a power in using music to gather an audience, especially a disparate audience, around these core values.”Back in Colorado, Forster – in a moment filled with hubris, he notes – cold-called National Public Radio, and pitched his idea for the program. “They told me to take a hike, basically,” he said. But peering over his shoulder was a concerned girlfriend. “Helen said, ‘I’m not sure what you’re doing, but it looks like you need some help.'”Nick and Helen had met a few years earlier in Telluride. Helen, an actress and singer who lived in Telluride, had just sold her ownership interest in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. She was on a mission to take in as much music as she could, to make up for the years when helping run the festival made listening impossible. Nick was in town to play the festival with Hot Rize, and the two met backstage. Soon enough, Helen abandoned her plans to pursue acting opportunities in Denver and instead joined Nick in Boulder to start a career in radio voice-over.In Telluride, Helen had been an on-air DJ, and she volunteered her radio experience to Nick’s new project. Unfazed by the brush-off from NPR, the two proceeded to tape and edit a show independently. The show premiered on Earth Day, 1991, and presented a format similar to today’s: multiple music acts (Colorado band the subdudes, David Wilcox, Maura O’Connell and Sonny Landreth; the format was soon cut down to two musical acts); an interview with someone from the Environmental Protection Agency; Nick as host and member of the backing band, the etones; a setting in the Boulder Theater. Pleased with that first tape, the Forsters called radio stations far and wide to sell them on the show, which they dubbed eTown. (The ‘e’ evoked ‘earth’ and ‘environment,’ but not ‘electronic’; e-mail was hardly known then.) Nick went through his Rolodex to ask friends to appear on the show. The ball rolled quickly: among the musical guests in the first season were James Taylor, Lyle Lovett and Michelle Shocked. A month after turning Forster down, NPR called back to say it had reconsidered. ETown became an NPR program in fall 1991.The music industry that eTown was born into was far different than it is now. Big radio stations were the dominant force in spotlighting new music. Still, eTown didn’t have much difficulty attracting talent to its left-of-center program. Among the artists to appear were David Crosby & Graham Nash, Bob Weir, T-Bone Burnett, Blues Traveler and the late Townes Van Zandt. But Nick thinks that eTown has become even more significant in recent years, as the influence of commercial radio has waned and listeners search for smaller niches to discover new music.”Artists look around and see it’s harder to get your music on the radio than ever,” he said, adding that eTown is heard on more than 300 stations. “So now eTown’s role is more important than ever – to play new songs, talk about the music, talk about new projects. It’s a unique opportunity in this environment.”The music, however, is not designed to dominate the show. Shortly after eTown was launched, the E-chievement Award was added, with listeners nominating people who were working toward positive ends. The award, says Helen, draws an enormous response and has become “a flagship part of the program.” Taking a tip from the late visionary Buckminster Fuller, who defined the environment as “everything outside one’s self,” eTown took a broad perspective on who was eligible for the E-chievement Award.”They all have one thing in common. They noticed something and were moved to so something about it,” Helen said. She added that recognizing such achievers was not only about bestowing an award, but inspiring others to emulate the behavior. “I believe firmly people are not apathetic due to laziness or being callous or uncaring. We become apathetic because we’re overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the problems around us. We had to offer people something that would inform them, make them feel connected again, make them feel that they could make a difference.”Helen shared the story of one E-chievement Award winner, a Los Angeles man, an alcoholic who lived on Skid Row. He cleaned himself up and decided to start over elsewhere. As he was leaving town, he saw among his belongings extra jars of peanut butter and jam. He and a friend made sandwiches and passed them out to the needy.”The response was so humbling, he said, ‘There’s a need here,'” Helen said. “And he stayed. He went from making these sandwiches in the kitchen to getting donations from grocery stores. It grew and grew to the point they were providing 400,000 meals a year to people in L.A.”The story, she added, “generates two things: hope, which people are craving. And it provides a creative dialogue, a way to help.”Since its beginning, eTown has had a major hope of its own – a home that would actually put eTown on the physical map. Early on, Nick set his sights on a church building in Boulder that dates back to 1922. As of mid-2009, the building has been owned by eTown, and after some major renovations, will open, possibly in the fall, as eTown Hall. Nick notes that Boulder, for all its status as a center of acoustic music, doesn’t have a great listening room. He expects his new venue to change that, as eTown Hall will be open to other users.”It will be a valuable asset to the Boulder community,” he said. “An active, well-utilized community center.”

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