KGNU turns 32

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David Accomazzo

A perfect example of the invaluable contributions community radio stations make came on the radio as I drove to work last week.

It was a feature interviewing the mothers enrolled in the teen pregnancy program at Fairview High School, and it was one of the most honest, revealing and jarring looks at teenage mothers that I ever heard. And the reporters putting together the program were eighth grade students enrolled in a journalism class at Casey Middle School, a school that gets slapped around in the media from time to time for perennially underachieving on standardized test scores.

“Where else are you going to empower and train eighth grade girls to be journalists and talk to their peers about this issue?” asks KGNU’s executive director Sam Fuqua. “It was revealing. … That’s what adults need to be hearing as we consider how we deal with teens getting pregnant.”

It’s just one example of the delightfully schizophrenic mix of programming you can hear at any given time on KGNU, 88.5 FM here in Boulder. You can hear anything from indie rock to meditation chants to
rip-roaring blues, and nary a focus group-tested playlist in sight.
Community radio might be one of the few radio formats left where the
DJs actually choose what music they play. And if you have to suffer
through the occasional bout of dead air that inevitably happens with a
staff of volunteer DJs, so be it. It’s a small price to pay to hear
good, commercial-free music on the radio.

As
the station celebrates its 32nd birthday with a small fundraising event
on Saturday, May 22 (featuring live music, pancakes and a plant sale),
bigger and better things are coming up on the horizon. Namely,
antennas. KGNU is moving forward with a plan to increase its
broadcasting range. The radio station has received FCC approval to construct a new 4,000-watt antenna, more than
triple the power of the current 1,300-watt one. If all goes well, KGNU should begin testing on Monday. Fuqua cautions that
nothing is yet permanent, but he tentatively expects the new antenna to
reach several hundred thousand new listeners. It’s still a far cry from
the five- to six-digit wattage of the Clear Channel stations, but it’s
a proud step for the little guy, finally growing after three decades of
broadcasting.

The
new growth is even more surprising given the economic hardships of the
past few years, which have proven especially difficult for
donation dependent nonprofits such as KGNU. But there are signs that
things are looking up.

“We
had a really tough pledge drive last fall, where we came up only 60
percent of where we needed to be, so we had to go back on the air. And
we did eventually make it, thanks to people stepping up, but it was
really tough,” Fuqua says. “This spring, we ended more normally for us.
… But it seems we have to work a little harder just to stay even.”

Going
into the new decade, KGNU faces new challenges and increased
competition from the Internet and from satellite radio. The station’s
listener base has remained steady for a couple years now, and Fuqua
says one of the hardest upcoming tasks is going to be marketing the
station to new listeners.

“KGNU is a difficult station to market since [the programming] is so eclectic,” Fuqua says. “We have to be smarter about
our marketing and really reach out to specific groups of people and
talk to them about specific shows, rather than just promote the station
as a whole. We need to improve our targeted marketing.”

But
still, KGNU offers something the Internet cannot: local voices. You can
turn on the radio and hear your neighbor interview a local musician, or
you can hear the president of your book club speaking with a touring
author making a stop to promote a book in Boulder.

“To
be live and local is what will keep KGNU going for another 32 years and
beyond. And that’s different from the fragmented view people can get on
the Internet,” Fuqua says. “There’s something about the communal
experience, I think, that still draws people to local radio. We’re all
alive on this planet at this moment, and we’re all listening to this
radio station.”

One
of those local voices is retired dentist Jack Rummel, who has hosted a
ragtime show nearly every week for 30 years after fatefully sitting
next to KGNU’s then-station manager at Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart
for lunch on Pearl Street three decades ago.

“From
a strictly selfish point of view, where else are you going to hear an
hour of ragtime a week?” Rummel asks. “This is the only show that
features ragtime that you’ll find between the Mississippi River and the
west coast. [KGNU] gives niche music an opportunity to be heard,
whereas on other radio stations, it’s pretty much a format that’s
dictated by the management.

“KGNU is one of a vanishing breed, nationwide.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

On the Bill:

Community radio station KGNU celebrates its 32nd birthday on Saturday, May 22. Festivities run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 4700 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-449-4885.