30 years of community and music

eTown celebrates three decades of broadcasting with an induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame

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eTown Hall
Tim Reese

As this issue was going to print, we learned that eTown’s House Manager Suzanne Fountain was among the 10 people fatally shot at the King Soopers in South Boulder on Monday afternoon, March 22. Nick Forster and the eTown team posted a memorial on Facebook and have put her picture up on eTown Hall’s front doors with a display in her memory.

“We’re all going through a lot of different stages of grief right now,” Nick, eTown founder, says in a Wednesday morning phone call. “We’re super sad, but we’re also angry and dumbfounded that this kind of behavior is so prevalent and accepted.”

Fountain had worked with eTown for around 17 years, according to Nick, and was a valued and cherished member of the team. Starting as a volunteer in the earlier years, she was eventually hired as the house manager when eTown Hall was founded in 2011. Fountain also worked as a Medicare agent, helping seniors find supplemental insurance coverage, having spent the previous 15 years as a financial counselor at Boulder Community Health. She was also well known in the local theater world as an award-winning actress and supporter of the arts. Fountain leaves behind a son and life partner.

While nothing is planned yet, Nick hints that future eTown shows will feature tributes to Fountain, and could also include discussions about gun control.

“There are 10 families that are heartbroken today,” Nick says. “We’re just one of the circles in her life: she had her family, her professional circle, her theater circle and her eTown circle, and we’re all feeling the same thing. Disbelief. Loss. She was really special; a smart, service-oriented, problem-solving fierce and feisty redhead with a huge heart.”

EARTH DAY IS SPECIAL FOR NICK AND HELEN FORSTER.

On April 22, 1991, an idea was born in their Boulder backyard: create a radio experience that combined a live music broadcast with conversations about environmentalism and sustainability. 

Now, 30 years later, eTown is one of the largest internationally syndicated broadcasting shows in the country, featuring radio content, podcasts, and multimedia and events production. 

Decades of exceptional live music, concentrated content on climate change and social issues, and community outreach has made eTown a staple in Boulder, and earned it a place in the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (CMHOF), into which it is being inducted, fittingly, on Earth Day this year. 

“eTown’s success has been amazing,” says Chuck Morris, founder of the CMHOF. “This organization is such a great representative of the music community in Colorado and has put Boulder on the map in a lot of ways. It wasn’t easy for them to grow into what they are today. They take risks with their content, and in doing so have created something very few people could accomplish. Nick and Helen put this show together on a wing and a prayer, and now it’s been one of the crown jewels of the music scene for decades.”

Nick, a veteran of the ’70’s genre-defining rock/bluegrass band Hot Rize, had a vision of what this radio show could become from the very beginning. Fueled by the naïve swagger of a determined man with a dream, Nick preemptively called NPR in the early spring of 1991 pitching a hot new radio show, one that was different from anything anyone had ever heard, one that combined live music with important conversations about the changing world, the environment — an example of how humanity can come together over good music to promote and implement positive change. NPR politely declined. 

This prompted his then-fiancé (now wife) Helen, co-founder of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and a musician and performer in her own right, to encourage a demo recording of the first episode of the show put on at Boulder Theater. It was this demo, taken by Nick down to New Orleans for the Public Radio Conference later that spring, that ultimately got NPR’s attention. 

“I went down to that conference by myself, set up a tent, and acted like I knew what I was talking about,” recalls Nick, laughing. “I was completely uninformed. I had printed up T-shirts, was handing out cassettes, made flyers that read ‘COMING SOON TO PUBLIC RADIO: Great Live Music, Environmental Information, and More!’ And people were coming up to me asking about the show, asking questions I didn’t know the answer to, but answered anyways under a ‘fake it until you make it’ guise.”

It only took a few weeks for NPR to call back and give Nick an enthusiastic thumbs up. eTown was picked up and thrown onto a circuit of 40 radio stations — the first to commit, as Nick recalls, was KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado. 

It started with 13 shows. Nick called in favors from all the people he had met on the road touring with Hot Rize, and in eTown’s first season it featured performances by Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, James Taylor, Sam Bush, and many others. eTown continued to put on shows at the Boulder Theater in those early days, lodging visiting artists at the Boulderado and connecting with local radio stations like KBCO to broadcast. But after a lightning round 13-week run, eTown ran out of money and went off the air. 

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Nick admits. “We were trying to sustain ourselves on ticket sales, we had no sponsors or advertisers, and we just didn’t know how to raise money at all. It took us a few years to figure out how to make a show. Those early years were awkward but precious; we were apologetic and unsure as we tried to find that balance between music and environmental content.”

But they kept the ball rolling, learning from self-proclaimed naïveté, and eventually found the right track. eTown’s weekly show came to consistently feature two artists (instead of the initial four) during an hour-long time slot, offering a chance to dig deeper with each guest: usually one well-known artist and one yet to break onto the scene. After four years with NPR, eTown became completely independent with no network, no distributor, no title sponsors — an incredibly rare find among syndicated radio shows. Nick wrote all the scripts while Helen did pre-production. The crew was small but the vision was growing, coming into itself. 

Helen established the eChievement Award program at the very beginning in 1991, highlighting organizations and individuals whose work fell into categories like “Feeding the Hungry,” “Protecting the Planet,” “Supporting Children” and “Social and Environmental Impact.” Winners were (and still are) invited to come on the show as guests and talk about their work, a way of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things — and a major step forward in eTown’s community outreach work.

Other work through the years includes eTown’s HandMade Songs program, which gives young songwriters in Colorado the opportunity to submit recordings of their original songs, with five chosen every year to pair with producers and record in the eTown studio. Recently, the organization spearheaded a project offering instruments and instruction to young people experiencing homelessness, with an opportunity for studio time. In 2020, when the pandemic upended income opportunities for artists of all stripes, Nick co-founded Create Boulder to help local artists secure more funding.

But in those early days, the strain of trying to sustain the organization and rent the Boulder Theater pointed to a need for a dedicated facility. In 2012, eTown moved into 1535 Spruce St., the site of an old stone church. The City originally told Nick he could buy the building but not use it, since it was only zoned for use as a church; Nick, determined to move eTown into the space he had been after since 1991, went online and became an ordained minister so the City couldn’t reasonably refuse him. The church was lovingly renovated (all with repurposed materials) to make its own solar power and generate energy-efficient heating and cooling, and now eTown Hall not only serves as the organiztion’s office headquarters but also as a live-music venue and recording studio all-in-one. For the first time, everyone was together under the same roof during pre-production, broadcasting and post-production. 

Its labyrinthine halls lead from recording studios to editing suites, from office rooms to voice-over booths. Bits of the church’s original stone walls and foundations peek out in unexpected places, a testament to the repurposed nature of the building and a nod to its past. The hall also boasts a dimly lit “Amendment 69” room (with its own ventilation system), where visiting artists can take a smoke break and doodle on the wall-mounted chalkboard. Artist signatures crawl up several walls in the building, taking up the space between portraits of past performing artists, many of them friends of Nick. Every part of the structure is sustainable — the original wooden gym floor now lies on the floor of the recording studio. The old church pews make up the seating area in the live music theater. Counters are crafted from the rejected materials of a company that turns recycled paper into “paperstone.” The cabinets are made from Beetlekill pine, and on and on. The whole building is a testament to how eTown practices what it preaches. 

“eTown is built on the premise of music being a community builder,” Nick says. “My experience as a musician was predicated on the same thing. Music brings people together across boundaries and borders. We live in a divisive time, so we’re looking for ways to break down those barriers and bring people together. We want to infuse people with a spirit of discovery, and broaden people’s sense of what kind of music they like. The fabric of eTown is using music to build community and raise awareness around issues that are critical. When we moved into eTown Hall, we suddenly had the opportunity to do that in a tangible way for our community here in Colorado.”

But even before eTown had permanent digs, Nick and Helen’s vision was strong: pair bigger artists with lesser-knowns, mainstream with niche. People came to hear the big names and left talking about artists they’d never heard of before. 

In 2006, eTown broadcast a Christmas show from The Town Hall in New York City, featuring Canadian balladeer Sarah McLachlan and gospel icons The Blind Boys of Alabama. The first time Willie Nelson appeared as a guest on the show in 1996, eTown paired him with West-African singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo; neither had heard of the other. Some of these pairings went on to record songs or even whole albums together. The first time Ben Harper was on the show, Nick says Harper was so inspired by the eChievement Award winner he was paired with that he stayed in touch with him, sending him a boombox so he could listen to music while working with his nonprofit Living Lands and Waters on the Mississippi River, and inviting him to shows when he played locally. 

“It’s this kind of cross-pollination between artists and interview guests and award-winners that we’re seeking to foster,” Nick says.

The presence and influence eTown has in Colorado — and the country, for that matter — has never gone unnoticed by the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Paul Epstein, current co-chair of CMHOF, explains that since the organization’s inception 10 years ago (like eTown, the Hall of Fame is also celebrating an anniversary this year), eTown has been on its radar. 

“We were always going to induct eTown,” says Epstein, owner of Twist and Shout in Denver. 

“eTown is about trying to create something magical, inspiring, intangible,” Nick says. “It’s hard to measure the impact we’ve been able to make, but I know that there have been inspiring moments during every show that we’ve shared with millions of people. I think the main thing is, every time we tape a show, over 30 people go to work, from the house band to the recording engineers, lighting designers, the house managers, not to mention the volunteers and donors… it’s a big crew and team of people that work together on behalf of this bigger idea. We’re not just trying to be in the music business, we’re trying to be in the change-the-world business with music as our currency.”  

ON THE BILL: eTown will broadcast its 30th anniversary show on April 22, featuring its induction ceremony into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, performances by Lyle Lovett, Los Lobos, new artist Raquel Garcia, and many more, with plenty of retrospective archival material to celebrate three decades of bringing music and environmental content to the community and beyond.