One-man FM band 

Tuning in Scott Johnston’s Radio Free Creston

Were it not for the neon “On Air” sign glowing from the front porch of Scott Johnston’s side-of-the-road farmhouse just off Hwy. 35 in Creston, you might drive right by Montana Radio Café. But if you happened to be tuned to 101.9 FM, KXZI, at the time, you’d probably notice that Steve Earle’s baritone was coming through your car speakers with significantly less static the closer you got to Johnston’s house—the one with the tire swing out front.

Even if they’ve never listened to Johnston’s one-man radio station, which recently celebrated its first birthday, Flathead radio listeners might recognize Johnston’s voice. The DJ got his start at KGEZ back in the mid-’80s, long before the station was purchased by controversial radio personality John Stokes. Since that time, Johnston has been a co-host of “Coffee Talk” on KOFI with Wendy Ostrom-Price and the morning guy on Polson’s KERR.

But the past, as the saying goes, is prologue. In 2002, bored with the limitations of playing the same songs ad nauseum on commercial radio, Johnston decided to take advantage of a little-publicized FCC program which allotted him a license to start up his own 100-watt, low-power FM station. (For perspective on just how “low” low-power is, Bee Broadcasting’s classic rock station in Kalispell, B98.5, broadcasts at 100,000 watts.) Due in part to lobbying by commercial broadcasters, the FCC determined that low-power stations would only be allowed to operate under non-profit status. Luckily for Johnston, his church, Kalispell’s The Dwelling Place, agreed to sponsor him. After constructing a radio tower on his property and rigging up five computers, Johnston was in operation. And like a kid in a candy store, Johnston now plays the music that he wants to play, which, it turns out, is mostly folk, blues, bluegrass and jazz—a strong antidote to the classic rock, contemporary hits, news and Christian talk that otherwise dominate Flathead airwaves.

Sitting in his front-porch DJ booth, surrounded by a collection of antique radios, old guns, guitars and some of his own watercolor paintings, Johnston’s eyes beam below his jazzy felt cap with the satisfaction of a man who loves his work. But just how does a one-man radio station function?

“You couldn’t have done this before computers,” Johnston says. Ironically, part of the inspiration for Johnston’s low-range slice of sonic heaven came from the bigger boys he used to work for.

“The truth is I lost a job once at a radio station here locally who shall remain nameless,” he says, before whispering the call letters.

“They got rid of live people and they used other people to record what they call ‘voice tracking’ to make it sound like somebody’s there.”

Johnston quickly realized that he could create his own station on the same model, so he did. The DJ says he always broadcasts live from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m., but the remainder of the Radio Café’s days and nights may or may not be live (“state secret,” he says), depending on the day—or if Johnston decides to duck into his kitchen 20 feet away to fix himself a sandwich. Though it has its conveniences, operating a one-man radio station has its pitfalls, too, not the least of which are listeners who call in at midnight to ask who performed the last song when Johnston has long since gone to sleep. Also, unlike his past DJ days, Johnston must not only choose his playlist, but also take care to satisfy the station’s 60 or so advertisers.

Officially, KXZI has a three-and-a-half-mile range, making for a decidedly small listenership in and around sparsely populated Creston (about 12 miles east of Kalispell). But Johnston says his signal can actually reach Whitefish (26 miles away) and as far as St. Ignatius (67 miles), and his listeners don’t mind a little static—it gives the station an old-time appeal.

“With the Montana Radio Café, they get real static,” Johnston jokes. “You just can’t get that kind of static on those high-power stations. It just doesn’t sound right.”

But even if he’s low-power locally, Johnston does have the satisfaction of knowing that he’s got listeners all over the world through the Internet. Recently, he’s confirmed listeners in the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, France, Brazil, Switzerland and Great Britain.

To remote audiences who tune in via his website, www.montanaradiocafe.com (the streaming broadcast is not available to Mac users), Johnston provides not just music, but morsels of Montana folklore as well.

“We’re telling little bits of stories of Montana in this valley with our sponsorships, and every once in a while we’ll throw in what the bears are doing in Glacier,” he says. “It’s a slice of Montana, and I like to communicate that.”

Johnston has no idea how many people listen to his station, and frankly, he doesn’t really care.

“It’s not about being number one,” he says. “It’s about being able to play [what I want],” which ranges from Earle to John Gorka to Miles Davis, and includes Montana locals like John Dunnigan and Broken Valley Roadshow.

In addition to managing the rotation of 12,000 songs (none of which are played more than once in a 30-day period), Johnston also acts as salesman, bookkeeper and techie, though he had help from an engineer to get the station up and running.

He’s also got several new projects in the works, including a come-to-the-rescue sponsorship of the Flathead’s most beloved live music concerts. Formerly known as the Mountain Aire Music Series—after the Kalispell independent record store that closed its doors last August—the series was left without a presenter until Johnston and another business, Kalispell’s Noice Studio and Gallery, stepped up. It will now be called—you guessed it—the Montana Radio Café Music Series. And as if owning and operating his own radio station and promoting a music series weren’t enough, Johnston is still more ambitious: he has plans for a Montana Radio Café company car, which he’ll be rebuilding himself on the frame of a rusty 1924 Dodge waiting patiently in the field behind his house.

Flanked by his family, Cricket the dog and some chickens in the backyard, Johnston’s Creston operation is about as unlikely a radio station as one may come across in the U.S. But it’s radio itself, not the trappings, that appeals to Johnston. “There’s something magical about it. Here’s this little box in your car or at home and, you know, the world comes out of it.”

Johnston couldn’t be more proud that his farmhouse broadcasts are now part of that world.

Sitting in his studio chair below a picture of himself (age 13) with Louis Armstrong, Johnston reflects on his intrepid venture with a broad grin.

“I’ve tried doing other things, but there’s nothing like radio. It’s not like a real job, you know? I’m quite content just sitting here on my front porch.”

The Montana Radio Café Music Series kicks off May 14 at the KM Building in Kalispell with a 7 PM performance by Lucy Kaplansky. Call the Montana Radio Café at 755-7575 for more details.

mike@missoulanews.com

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