The Spinning Indie 50 State Tour started a year ago, when I decided that it was time to more formally recognize interesting college radio stations in every corner of the United States. Stations in big cities and on the coasts tend to grab a lot of attention, so I really wanted to help make the point that student radio is thriving in places where some people would never expect it to thrive.
This virtual tour of radio stations has so far included stops in 10 states, including Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Kentucky and Minnesota.
Although my tour has been hobbling along at a relatively slow pace recently, with the beginning of a new school year I'm feeling re-energized about the project and hope to feature stations on a more regular schedule.
So, with that, we're off to Montana to check out University of Montana station KBGA. Today's actually a big day for KBGA, as they'll be hosting a big concert/fundraising event tonight in Missoula. "KBGA's 13th Annual Birthday Bash" will feature DJs, bands, and a silent auction to benefit the station.
As an article in Monday's Missoulian (take a look to see some video of the station too) points out, the 1000 watt FM station is devoted to indie music sounds:
"...new music - independent, often obscure, largely non-corporate - is at the heart of the station's mission. Punk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, grrl rawk, garage - all of it and then some finds a home on its airwaves."
The same article mentions that although the station is largely funded by student fees ($12 a year per student), the DJs come from both the school and the community.
Thanks so much to KBGA General Manager Ben Weiss for taking the time to answer some questions about college radio and KBGA. In our interview he talks about the history of the 13-year-old station, discusses its role in the local community, and talks about what it's like to be doing college radio in Montana, where they are 200 miles away from other indie music-oriented radio station. In a future post we'll dive into more details about the inner-workings of the station. For now, on to part one of our interview:
Spinning Indie: What motivated you to get involved with college radio?
Ben Weiss: On the first day of my freshman orientation at Grinnell College in Iowa, KDIC had a table at a campus organization fair where the staff was encouraging incoming students to get involved with radio.
Music is in my blood - my father played in bands before I was born, taught a "music as literature" class to high schoolers in the 70s, and now owns and operates Whaling City Sound, a jazz label, in Massachusetts; my late uncle was the chair of the RTV program at San Antonio Community College where he was the faculty advisor to KSYM, the student station there; my aunt ran away from home and went to England to follow the Who before they had even come to America; and my other uncle is a music teacher, folk singer, and busker; my brother is in about three bands, and writes music and lyrics for others - and college radio is the only place that I can listen to and play the type of music that I want to hear.
It is only on college radio, where musical breadth and depth are celebrated and revered, that you can hear the evolution of sounds, songs, and styles. College radio DJs are knowledgeable enough to play the artists that influenced the popular artists, and this is important from both a personal perspective and a musicological perspective.
I had a show all through college. When I moved to Montana to grow dental floss, I took two years off. It was not long before I had become friends with the GM and Program Director at that time, and I undertook the Saturday night/Sunday Morning 2 - 6 AM slot in September of 2004.
Spinning Indie: Is it true that KBGA has only been around since 1996? How did the station get started? Were there radio stations on campus prior to KBGA?
Ben Weiss: KBGA has only been around since 1996. B, G, and A all shared the dream of having a radio station on campus, and they worked tirelessly to gather signatures, lobby the student senate, purchase equipment, attain the frequency, and do all of the other jobs associated with getting a station off the ground.
The first song played on KBGA was "FM" by Steely Dan. As the station was brand new, interest had not been generated enough to have DJs around the clock, and the first couple of years involved prepackaged shows that were loaded onto a player, sort of like 8-tracks from what I can tell. We played a lot of "alternative" at the time which, being the mid 90s, meant loud, almost mainstream music, the precursors to emo and nu-metal, I guess what is called "modern rock" now. As soon as people realized what a resource the station was, more and more music geeks got involved, bringing with them their taste for more diverse, obscure and underground music.
Spinning Indie: Tell me about the station's relationship with the campus and off-campus community in Missoula. In particular, I'd like to know more your community forum show "Footbridge Forum."
Ben Weiss: Aside from KUFM, the NPR-affiliated station also located on the UMT campus, we are the only station in the area that is explicitly local. We have a news department that broadcasts news, weather and sports every weekday at 9 and 5. The news department also produces an hour-long talk show, and an hour-long sports show every week. The emphasis is on local, state, and regional news.
"Footbridge Forum" is a multi-part talk show run by the Journalism school that is named after the pedestrian bridge which links campus to the community to the north and was originally funded by an off campus grant. The program seeks to bring attention to a local issue, present multiple points of view about the issue, bring together experts and laypeople to try to solve the issue, and then present these possible solutions to campus administrators, city council members, and other relevant decision makers in the community.
The show takes place over the course of the fall semester and lasts for 3 to 5 episodes. For example, last fall's "Footbridge Forum" was about homelessness. Missoula has a large homeless population and has a history of being better to the homeless than other communities in Montana. In the first episode, citizen panelists, including students, and business owners discussed the homeless "problem."
In episode 2, these panelists were joined by police officers and a school counselor to further probe the issues associated with homelessness. In episode 3, all of the panelists came up with ideas on ways to better help the homeless while maintaining the safety and security of citizens and businesses. After the show, the producers wrote up a summary of the issues raised and the solutions presented, and then submitted their findings to deans of the university, the governor, our senators and congressman, and all shelter directors in the state.
"Footbridge Forum" is an interesting combination of journalism and activism, but it is not the only show on KBGA geared towards the community.
On Tuesday mornings one of our DJs hosts a show called "Pet Problems" on which he and a local veterinarian discuss pet issues and welcome callers to ask questions. The show has been on for close to 2 years.
One of our newest DJs is starting a Spanish educational segment of his morning show. He has a co-host who is a Spanish teacher and they will conduct conversations relevant to our listening audience and explain why they are saying what they are saying. It has yet to broadcast but will start by the end of this month.
[Since July we've] been broadcasting "Democracy Now" 5 days a week from 11 am to 12 pm.
Our News and Sports team produces two hour-long shows a week - one news and one sports - for which they have won regional and national awards in the past. They also have a news segment at 9 and 5 every weekday that lasts about 10 minutes or so and covers local, national, and international stories.
We are in the process of developing a local politics show that will be co-hosted by our favorite state senator and a rotating cast of his opposition in state and local government. We have had shows in the past dedicated to local politics, community events, and local gossip as well.
Spinning Indie: Similarly, what's your role in the Missoula music community? Do you guys host bands at the station? Co-present shows off-campus?
Ben Weiss: KBGA is the only station for almost 200 miles in any direction that plays "college" music and discusses "college" issues.
It is true that "college" music is not necessarily appreciated by all college students, and that you don't have to be in college to like new and bizarre music, but for the most part, we are it.
We have three major events each year that feature a variety of national touring acts. Our Birthday Bash, held every late September/early October, is our biggest celebration. Last year Monotonix played and nearly got us in trouble with the city. This year Birthday Bash features Talkdemonic and James Pants, plus 4 local bands.
Our annual fundraiser is called Radiothon and at week's end we throw another big concert. In the spring, around the beginning of April, we have a Fool's Night Out party. Some bands that the station has brought to town in the past couple of years include Blitzen Trapper, Vampire Weekend, Ghost, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, Monotonix, the Dodos, the Death Set, Ponytail, High Places, Vivian Girls, Titus Andronicus, Starfucker, Japanther, Blank Dogs, and many smaller national and regional bands. We also sponsor shows of tons of local bands and help sponsor Total Fest.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Ben Weiss of KBGA.