KGNU was born in Boulder forty years ago, an early experiment in community-driven radio with a radical vision: The station would offer quality programming, ad-free.
“We began to prove the idea of community radio,” says Fergus Stone, who’s been with KGNU since its early days, when the station was based in a creekside cottage. The idea was simple: The people running things “didn’t have to be people who had been to the Columbia School of Broadcasting, and it didn’t have ads from Pepsi and so on.”
The signal launched on May 22, 1978. Stone notes that many of the early volunteers were people of color — Native Americans, Latinos, Jamaicans and Caribbean Islanders — whose voices weren’t heard in mainstream commercial media at the time.
“We realized quickly that we were offering something different and that there was a crying need for it in the community,” adds Stone, former station manager and longtime host of the station’s Old Grass Gnu Grass bluegrass show. “People who had grown up listening to nothing but Top 40 radio didn’t know what they were missing, and as they heard what we offered, some just didn’t get it.”
Back then, disgruntled listeners wondered when they would hear the Beatles or Crosby, Stills and Nash; others appreciated all the new content. “Plenty of people — particularly the more thoughtful listeners, ones who were maybe less addicted to corporate culture — were able to realize that this medium had possibilities,” Stone recalls.
Forty years later, KGNU has more than 400 volunteers — half of whom are on the air — and 4,000 active members and contributors.
Station manager Tim Russo first came across KGNU when he was a student activist at the University of Colorado in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When he got involved, he used the station as a tool to bridge the gap between student activists and the broader community and to learn more about the issues that mattered outside of campus. Today, KGNU continues to be a source for alternative news programming.
It makes sense that Russo landed a full-time job at KGNU, as he’s devoted most of his life to the independent-media movement. After college, he spent two decades in Central America, launching a network of nearly twenty community radio stations run by indigenous people. Even from there, he was contributing to KGNU shows like La Lucha Sigue, a long-running program with a focus on Latin American news.
As KGNU celebrates its fortieth anniversary, Russo takes pride in the way that the station continues to pay attention to the evolving demographics of the Front Range and works to ensure that its programming remains relevant.
As part of that effort, KGNU is improving its Denver signal as well as its 1390 AM signal and digital delivery, expanding the physical footprint of the Boulder station, and piloting a bilingual program dubbed Media Gardens, which trains Latino youth in media literacy, music and broadcast and digital journalism.
“What we see in the future is really building on the training opportunities to create a more media-literate society, by getting folks — in particular, young folks — really engaged with learning how to become journalists and see where they want to take that moving forward,” Russo says.
KGNU’s DJs are volunteers. Anyone interested in becoming one must first attend a volunteer orientation meeting, which happens on the first Thursdays of odd-numbered months. The next step is a three-and-a-half-hour radio training class, which costs $50 and familiarizes participants with the production studio. Finally, would-be DJs must make and submit demo tapes.
“All of our DJs start in late-night rotation when they start on air,” music director Indra Raj says. “If you turn on KGNU in the middle of the night, you never know what you’re going to get. Oftentimes you’ll be hearing DJs who are newer to the airwaves, and they’re just practicing and getting things set and getting comfortable in the studio before they move into some of our daytime or evening programs.”
While anything on the music side can be archived or streamed on KGNU’s AfterFM.com platform, the site also hosts music that’s not aired on its terrestrial signal. The station is currently working on digitizing its massive collection of CDs, so that DJs at both the Boulder and Denver studios can play songs directly from the library.
There are few rules regarding what DJs can or can’t play. For the most part, they have license to play what they want — and the station relishes the chance to spotlight little-known music from underrepresented communities.
Raj, who was introduced to KGNU by her parents, says the station plays selections from nearly every genre. There are mainstay shows such as Honky Tonk Heroes, Old Grass GNU Grass, Grateful Dead Hour, Reggae Bloodlines, Blues Legacy, Seolta Gael (a Celtic program) and the hip-hop show Eclipse alongside programs dedicated to jazz, gospel, punk, noise, electronica and folk. A wide mix of genres can be heard during the free-form Morning Sound Alternative and Afternoon Sound Alternative shows, which run Monday through Friday.
“You get a little bit of everything during the shows, and there’s not a set genre for those days,” Russo says of Morning Sound Alternative and Afternoon Sound Alternative. “That really takes a talented DJ to come in, because you might go from a hip-hop tune to bluegrass. There’s some sort of logical connection in the DJ’s mind that took you from A to B to Z and back to C.”
In a world where users can select pretty much any song they want to hear on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, Raj defends the need for radio DJs to be critical curators. She notes that there’s a danger in algorithm-generated playlists on streaming services, where a listener can type in a song and receive a playlist of other songs just like it.
“I think that’s cool, because you can discover some other stuff that way,” Raj says, “but my way of seeing it is that you’re telling the computer to put you in a box. ... I think all of us hopefully strive to be bigger than that; we want to be open to more things. When we’re looking for new music, [we might find] something that we never thought about, that we didn’t even know existed before, instead of something that sounds like something else we like.”
Having DJs guide listeners through the world of non-commercial music keeps them engaged with the channel — even as the media landscape and media platforms evolve.
As Russo explains it, “Folks really begin to trust the DJs and trust that they’re going to be offered music that an individual would have to dig pretty hard for and take a lot of personal time to find through some digital things that are out there. And you can find some things that you’ll hear that you might just love and wouldn’t have heard if you weren’t listening to the DJ that you trust the most, that you’ve been listening to for last two, three, four or ten years on air.”
KGNU 40th anniversary events:
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KGNU's 40th Anniversary Epic Young Lions Reggae Revival Concert Celebrating 4 decades of Reggae Bloodlines on KGNU Community Radio, with Protoje & The Indiggnation and Kabaka Pyramid, Thursday Jun 28, 9 p.m., Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, $20-$30.
KGNU Movie Night Fundraiser: Pirate Radio: 7 p.m., Saturday, June 30, Alamo Drafthouse Sloan's Lake, $15.
30th Annual Charles Sawtelle Mountain Jam: with Hot Rize, Red Knuckles and Trailblazers and the Lyons Bluegrass Collective, Sunday, 12 p.m. July 22, Gold Hill Inn, Boulder, $30-$40.
Making Waves: Celebrating 40 Years of KGNU Community Radio, 5 p.m., Saturday, September 15, Millennium Harvest House, Boulder.