Radio Free Flathead 

Group plans community station on FM dial

The idea has been kicking around for years. It comes up at dinner parties and over beers. It pops into the minds of drivers trying to choose what they’re in the mood for most: a classic rock “two-fer” from Foreigner or the latest single by Céline Dion. At these moments in their radio-listening lives, many Flathead residents have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a community station?”

By community station, they mean something like they’ve found in other markets. In Seattle, there’s KEXP—a non-commercial, listener-supported rock, rap and alt-country channel that has won the ears of many, both in Seattle and worldwide over the Web. In Clinton, Tenn., there’s WDVX, a non-profit bluegrass and country station that broadcasts from a camper parked at the Fox Inn Campground. The camper is crowded with broadcasting gear, but still spacious enough to host live, in-studio performances by musicians passing through town.

No two listener-supported community stations are exactly alike, as each reflects the whims and tastes of specific communities. Even within these communities, radio fans fall into different camps: the up-all-night Dead-heads and the devotees of drums-and-bass electronica, the rockabilly chain-smokers and the collectors of rare jazz recordings.

Community radio stations build on this diversity, offering a variety of DJs and specialty shows. But before volunteer disc jockeys can summon the spirit of Venus Flytrap and share their Barry White collections with the world, there’s a lot of unsexy groundwork to be laid.

On a recent Monday night, a dozen Flathead radio listeners gathered around a table at the Whitefish Public Library and founded a new group dedicated to doing the heavy lifting required of all fledgling community stations. Naming themselves the Glacier Community Radio Project, the group batted around ideas about everything from programming choices to fundraising to whether or not the proposed new station should be a commercial endeavor, or a not-for-profit.

“The first thing we have to figure out is what’s possible,” says Kate O’Brien, one of the Glacier Community Radio Project’s core organizers. As the group tried to hammer out a mission statement at its first formal meeting on July 28, O’Brien told those gathered that, “It’s going to be a long road. There’s going to be a lot of tedious paperwork, some falling down, all of that stuff.”

The maze of regulations enforced by the Federal Communications Commission is notoriously difficult for start-up stations to navigate. But O’Brien has recruited an attorney and a stone mason into the all-volunteer effort. The attorney can navigate the legal chutes and ladders put up by the FCC. And Pat Linton, the stone mason, has thoroughly schooled himself in the fine print of radio broadcasting.

Ten years ago, Linton began exploring the idea of starting a community station in Whitefish, but was “overwhelmed by the cost and procedures.”

“What’s changed for me in the last 10 years is low power FM,” Linton says. “That avenue is the big opportunity that I see.”

According to the FCC Web site, the agency made hundreds of low power FM frequencies available in January of 2000 in order to “create opportunities for new voices to be heard on the radio.” The downside of low power FM is its limited broadcast reach of only three and a half miles.

Choosing which route to take—low or full power—is just one of the decisions the Glacier Community Radio Project must make. With low power, the station might find its way onto the air sooner, serving Whitefish listeners while aspiring to eventually make the jump to full power. By pursuing a full power license right off the bat, the group could approach Flathead Valley Community College and construct a partnership much like the one enjoyed by KGLT in Bozeman.

KGLT first crackled onto the airways in 1968. It was an AM station then, broadcasting from the basement of a dorm at Montana State University. In the late 1970s, KGLT made the leap to FM, while continuing its relationship with the university. This relationship “kicks open a lot of doors,” says KGLT Marketing Director Ron Craighead. The university affiliation makes the station eligible for certain grants, and by offering a course in radio production to MSU students, the station benefits from a steady flow of volunteer student labor.

For the general listener, KGLT’s eclectic music programming complements what’s offered by Yellowstone Public Radio, the AM talk shows and the boilerplate classic rock, modern country and oldies formats that populate nearly every radio dial in the country.

Whatever the Glacier Community Radio Project does, it shouldn’t replicate something that’s already on the air, says David Fern, a Whitefish School Board member and longtime fundraiser for KUFM public radio. For the last 10 years, Fern has helped the Missoula-based public radio station raise money in the Flathead. He’s now brought that experience to the Glacier Community Radio Project in an effort to create a “non-partisan, non-sectarian” station that complements the programming on KUFM and “offers something distinctive.”

Fern believes the Flathead will support both KUFM and a new, locally focused community station. “This is Whitefish,” says Fern. “We know there’s some money in this town.”

Paul Archie, owner of Howdyshell Productions, kicks off the fundraising effort Aug. 5 and 6 with two Bluegrass Bash benefit concerts at the Eagles Club ballroom in Kalispell. Archie says there’s clearly a demand in the Flathead for music alternatives on the stage and the radio dial. In addition, he sees the Glacier Community Radio Project as something that can act as “a catalyst for local social and political involvement” as it provides a new “avenue for public expression.”

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