In the KGNU lobby Thursday afternoon, volunteer Arleigh (who preferred to not use her last name) was touching up a life-sized wall mosaic that is artfully packed with stones, tiles, mementos, Scrabble-style letters and even pieces of coffee mugs that all surround slabs of stone fashioned into Flatirons. Each memento represents someone.
Over the past 40 years, volunteers and donors have contributed countless hours and dollars to keep Boulder's community radio on the air. This mosaic is like KGNU's art yearbook.
"I'm trying to make the Flatirons stand out more," she said. "See that grout? I want it to be more blue, like the sky."
Arleigh said she was drawn to volunteer at KGNU to meet "people like me."
"We have so many interesting people who contribute to the station, even in their own special way," said KGNU's community development director Sarah Shirazi. "It's been interesting to retrace KGNU's history and learn the efforts countless people have made and the sincere value of what it means to us today."
Like the property's lawn at 4700 Walnut Street that's cut by a volunteer every week. Or the surrounding blooming garden that's meticulously weeded by another. Or the beautiful yard art sitting on the edge of the Boulder Creek Path that was carved and created by volunteers.
KGNU 40th anniversary events
Dining on Air — On-air birthday program that features Front Range supporters hosting house-party fundraisers; 6-7 p.m. cocktail hour, 7-8 p.m. dinner hour, 8-9 p.m. dessert and dancing. Sound Lab program will accept song requests 6-9 p.m.,Saturday, May 19, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-442-4242.
30th Annual Charles Sawtelle Memorial Mountain Jam — Concert with Hot Rize, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers and The Lyons Bluegrass Collective; 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 22, Gold Hill Inn, 401 Main St., Boulder; $35; afterfm.com
Epic Young Lions Reggae Revival Concert — KGNU celebrates 40 years of Reggae Bloodlines, featuring Protoje & The Indiggnation and Kabaka Pyramid; 9 p.m.Thursday, June 28th at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, 2637 Welton St., Denver; $20-$30; cervantesmasterpiece.com
Making Waves: Celebrating 40 Years — Party, featuring keynote speakers Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now!" and Jim Hightower of "The Hightower Lowdown," includes an awards ceremony honoring community members who have supported KGNU, silent auction and an outdoor reception with a DJ spinning Local Gold, 5-11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, Millennium Harvest House, 1345 28th St., Boulder; kgnu.org
"We have thousands of dollars that are donated, literally, through services," said Shirazi. "Any office park would have to pay for a lawn service, those costs add up. It's really amazing the level of support we have from our community. It's truly a labor of love."
Community is the heart of KGNU. The nonprofit station that runs a variety radio format is commercial-free. Most of the DJs are volunteers, and there's a small skeleton staff of nine. The station also airs some syndicated public programs, but the volunteers are the crux that's held up the station's operations for four decades.
In the seeming demise of various forms of journalism, KGNU has not only sustained in delivering independent news and music 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 40 years (May 22 is its birthday) — but it since thrived and has plans for expansion. KGNU landed in Fort Collins last year, has a sister station in Denver and operates frequencies in Nederland. With Boulder passing the Capital Improvement Tax in 2017, KGNU will be granted $1.2 million of a $2.5 million expansion that will modernize KGNU's headquarters at 4700 Walnut Street, making it an effective permanent media training grounds for its volunteer DJs, and it will feature a Community Media Center. The project is slated for completion in 2019-2020.
Boulder on the air
Wednesday night, longtime volunteer E.C. Erb was conducting an on-air interview on "Musica Mundi" with James Marienthal, the founder of the Grammy-winning record label Silver Wave Records, who discussed his latest music project. Erb, KGNU's former music director, has been consistently volunteering with the Boulder radio station since 1984. Marienthal said he was an on-air volunteer for 20 years.
Thursday afternoon in the Red Studio, Boulder's Dave Blackwood was wrapping up "The Afternoon Sound Alternative." Blackwood has volunteered for nearly a decade, dedicating one day a week for the freeform show that features an expansive selection of music — from hip hop to free jazz — with "a rotating cast of characters," Blackwood said.
"I wish I could do this every day, but I have to make some scratch, too," said Blackwood. The show runs mornings and afternoons, five days a week. "A lot of volunteers step up to help and they love doing it. We all bring our own voices. It's a lot of fun."
Shirazi said volunteers don't have to be a member to be on air. There's simply a class, a small fee and a couple Sleepless Nights shifts (midnight-3 a.m.). Create a demo and with dedication, anyone's voice is ready for air time.
"It's really as much as you want to contribute — once a week, once a month, once a quarter — it's up to you," said Shirazi, who has been with KGNU since 2016. "We know life happens and people have full-time jobs, but there's always a space for everyone."
Volunteer DJs can dive into everything from gardening to world music in the Red, Blue and Green studios (coordinated with wall color).
1973: A Boulder Free School class created "A Desperate (or Last Ditch) Attempt to Start a Radio Station," KGNU's very first spark.
1975: Members of the Boulder Free School class applied to the Federal Communications Commission for an educational broadcast license.
May 22, 1978: KGNU goes live in Boulder at 88.5 FM operating out a small office off of 28th and Arapahoe.
Spring 1981: The station's plug was pulled for a lack of community and financial support, but three weeks later was relaunched by "Friends of KGNU."
Summer 1981: KGNU moved to an office at 2049 Broadway, Boulder.
1983: Studios expanded and new staff was introduced.
1985: Neodata donated its building at 1225 Portland Place, Boulder to the Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder — thus gifting KGNU 10 percent of the endowment's revenues annually until 2015.
1986: Paid staff reached five people, qualifying KGNU for CPB and NPR membership.
1987: Expansion added 1,000 square feet, allowing KGNU to function like a proper station; the program "Harmonic Convergence" was picked up by 30 U.S. stations
2000-2001: KGNU purchases its current headquarters, its building at 4700 Walnut Street, Boulder.
2004: KGNU raised $1.2 million to acquire a frequency in Denver, going live at 1390 AM
2007: Denver production and broadcast studio launched in the Santa Fe Arts District.
2008: KGNU airs for the first time live from Lyons' RockyGrass
2009-2010: KGNU improves its FM signal and increases its power and reach
2015: KGNU partners with the Boulder Bookstore for its Radio Bookclub
2017: KGNU expands its reach to Fort Collins, going live at 98.7 FM
2019-2020: Estimate of expansion, remodel at 4700 Walnut Street.
"They do a really good job at getting us prepared. They bring in a lot of new music, they give us a rundown of the new music," Blackwood said, "I take them home, research it on YouTube and find out what I like and want to bring on the air. It's pretty DIY-type stuff and they don't have any restrictions on programming, which is truly amazing."
Other than no cussing, of course, to comply with the Federal Communications Commission, he said.
"It's all listener supported and it's quite amazing how it sustains," Blackwood said. "The community is literally keeping it alive and we don't have to answer to anybody."
Music director Indra Raj makes life easy for the DJs, Blackwood said.
"She's tirelessly entering new music into the catalogue, previewing it and making sure it's good," Blackwood said.
Raj joined the team in 2017 after working with nonprofits on the East Coast and in Cape Town, South Africa. She grew up in Boulder, with her career work focused on largely on bringing music and arts education to underserved communities.
"I was really excited about being in radio, but the more I've gotten involved in and learned more about community radio — and what that means versus public radio and commercial radio — I've realized how awesome KGNU is," Raj said. "This is a place where community members have control over what they put on the air. We do encourage noncommercial music, but the agency is in the hands of the people who put the programming together. I think that's really powerful. It empowers our community and it's a real asset to the community."
Raj said she's always leaned toward innovative indie bands, but since being at KGNU, "my tastes and my knowledge has blossomed to an amazing extent." Plus, she likes that she can help the community be creative.
"It's really important to have a space where people can express themselves through an artistic medium," Raj said. "Putting a DJ set together, it's a very artistic process."
The music library — and vinyl collection — is quite expansive within genres. Albums range from ragtime and jazz, to bluegrass, folk and country, hip hop and R&B and a big selection of world music, including a wide array of reggae.
"We're not a typical station, we're the eclectic station," Shirazi said, noting her parents are Iranian, so she'll be on-air next week playing Persian music.
Man on a mission
KGNU's station manager Tim Russo has a long history in journalism, photography and radio. He was hand-picked in 2015 to help expand KGNU after his 20-year stint launching 20 community radio stations run by indigenous people in Honduras, Guatemala and parts of South America — one, the first feminist radio station in Honduras.
Russo and fellow students utilized KGNU in his college days at the University of Colorado (where he was key in establishing the Department of Ethnic Studies).
"When I was a youngster involved on campus with activism I saw KGNU as an opportunity and a tool to get the information out," Russo said. "It offered a community space where we could amplify what we were doing."
Russo's robust resume boasts freelancing for Getty, board member and former reporter for the grassroots Free Speech Radio, he has early days of reporting for the Colorado Daily and he covered Latin American News on KGNU's "La Lucha Sigue" where he dove into a wealth of news that focused on anti-globalization, documenting underreported injustices and human rights violations.
Back at KGNU, he's here to help modernize and expand the community offerings. The current Community Room is loaned out to various Boulder nonprofits for meetings, lunch gatherings and art shows.
"It's that dedication and a mission to find marginalized and underrepresented voices," said Russo. "We're really challenging the norms, not only for public media that surrounds us here, but we're not the run-of-the-mill sort of programming. People can hear a lot of distinct issues and perspectives that are otherwise confined in traditional media outlets."
He said there's still work ahead, as he envisions a space where everyone has access to the public airwaves and space is a bit tight currently.
"I was invited here to lead a sort of transformative change and I think we've made some small steps forward," Russo said. "But oftentimes, reaching the end goals is the sum game of a lot of small bits and pieces. I was trying to look at some of those small things we can take on and build it into a larger strategy to continue to offer the sort of representation that we're looking for in Boulder."
Especially with the recent turmoil in print media, he said.
"There's tremendous dedication and support for the station," said Russo. "With the non-commercial community aspect of KGNU, really folks have been — for 40 years — tremendously dedicated to the mission of the radio and providing a space for culture, music, issues, voices that you really don't find in an every day basis in a lot of the media surrounds us."
He noted it was the passion of state legislative radio reporter Bente Birkeland, with KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio (which was spearheaded by KGNU and a coalition of 14 stations, including KGNU), who broke the news about the sexual harassment case taking place in the statehouse.
Space for the people
Russo said KGNU doesn't only transmit voices through the airwaves, but it's a space for the community. With the expansion plan, he said he wants to offer a space for younger folks to be involved in media with trainings and state-of-the-art technology to be able to amplify their voices, culture, music and perspectives on a frequency that belongs to them.
KGNU's news director Maeve Conran has been with KGNU since 2007, but was a volunteer for years before.
"It's such a community center, it's not just a radio station," said Conran. "It's a center for the community and so much of the magic happens off the air. Different communities, who would not otherwise have access to media, come in and train."
George Figgs, digital content manager and producer of the live performance program, Kabaret, where local musicians and bands play live, also works with people on the autism spectrum every summer, helping them learn the ropes of radio media. Figgs has been on staff for four years but has been volunteering with KGNU for nearly two decades, he said. ("I'm still here," he said, laughing.)
Conran said every summer staff helps adults with learning disabilities create content for podcasts.
"I think of it as a virtual kitchen table," Conran said. "We hash out the stories of the day and invite the community to participate, whether it's a call-in show whether it's contacting us off air, whether it's coming in to create the media, but really getting to grips with some of the issues that impact us. There's a whole spectrum of public media, but when you work for a media corporation that doesn't have a mission to serve the community, that's a recipe for disaster. It's an evisceration of the journalism spectrum."
"Community" is what all media should be focusing on, said Conran.
"We fully embody community," said Conran. "We actively invite the community to come in and create the content. We're on a community mission and that's why I'm proud to be here."