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Making Waves: eTown Celebrates Its Thirtieth Anniversary

Nick and Helen Forster launched eTown thirty years ago.EXPAND
Nick and Helen Forster launched eTown thirty years ago.
Tim Reese
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During his stint as bassist and singer with progressive bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, Nick Forster played on radio and TV shows like Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits and Prairie Home Companion. As the band was breaking up in 1990, he spent three weeks touring Europe with bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush. While on the road, Nick thought about all the concerts he’d played over the previous decade and wondered if it would be possible to have his own nationally syndicated radio program spotlighting great music and sparking conversations about sustainability, climate change, community and stewardship.

Less than a year later, that idea became reality when the first episode of eTown was broadcast on Earth Day, 1991 — just about a month before Nick and his fiancée, Helen Suback, were married.

Looking back, Helen says that 1991 was the right time to launch eTown.

“[There] was a lot of feeling of ‘What can I do about anything?’” she says. “We just wanted people to connect over music. So I thought Nick's idea was brilliant: to feature great live music that drew in all kinds of people from every end of the spectrum — politically, economically, socially — and then while you have their attention and their hearts are open with the music, to introduce some of this information to them that really wasn't popular at the time, to be talking about the environment and sustainability and so forth.”

This year, not only will eTown celebrate its thirtieth anniversary on April 22, but the nonprofit will also be inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

On Earth Day, eTown’s 30th b’Earthday Celebration will be livestreamed; the party will include performances from the Black Pumas, Nathaniel Rateliff, Sarah Jarosz, Los Lobos, the War and Treaty, Lyle Lovett, Bob Weir, Sam Bush, City and Colour, Raquel Garcia and more. Former Colorado senator and environmental advocate Tim Wirth and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse will be part of a conversation during the event.

When Nick and Helen launched eTown three decades ago, the show — a mix of live music and social and environmental programming — was unique.

“Frankly, we got a lot of pushback from radio stations in the early days,” Nick Forster says. “[People would say], ‘Hey guys, would you make up your mind? Are you a talk show or a music show? What the hell are you doing?’”

While pairing veteran headliners with up-and-coming musicians was one part of the show, it also incorporated an eChievement Award into each episode, an honor that went to everyday people who saw a problem and took a stance to better their communities.

“To hear from them in their own voices, about how it grew and how many people they've helped or how many miles of river they've cleaned up — that's been so uplifting and inspiring for all of us that produced the show, but also for our listeners,” says Helen.

Nick and Helen Forster in 1991, the year they started eTown.EXPAND
Nick and Helen Forster in 1991, the year they started eTown.
Laura Lyon

In the program's first year, National Public Radio picked up eTown and broadcast it to about forty stations around the country.

“In my mind, once NPR signed us, they would they give us a big check, and we would staff up and make the whole thing happen, but it was really just basically a distribution deal," says Nick. "We did our first season of thirteen episodes and then ran out of money, and we went off the air. And so we were just building up an audience in different cities around the country when we had to say, ‘Oops, sorry, guys. We'll get back to you later.’”

Some eTown boardmembers encouraged the Forsters to look at the natural-products industry. Even though the show was off the air at the time, they taped a show at the Natural Products Expo West in California in 1992, and returned to Boulder with new sponsors for eTown.

“That became a relationship that lasted literally until today,” Nick says.

They went back to NPR with news of the funding. While they were under contract to deliver a minimum of 36 shows a year, eTown’s small crew, which was made up of the Forsters and a few others, delivered 52 shows in 1993. Nick was doing most of the talent booking, while Helen edited the episodes. They were both picking up guests at the airport and putting up posters on the Pearl Street Mall.

“It was really like a tiny little operation with a big footprint,” Nick remembers.

That tiny operation was also garnering big-name talent. Early on, many of the guests were peers whom Nick had met on the festival circuit — artists like Lyle Lovett, who used to open for Hot Rize, and James Taylor, whom Nick and Helen had met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which Helen had previously co-owned and co-produced.

“The first season or two was Nick and his Rolodex — back when we still used those — calling his friends, saying, ‘Hey, I have this idea, come play with us,’" Helen recalls. "It really helped the show take off in a way that I think both stations and listeners took seriously because of his connection with his colleagues that he could then invite on the show — and that led to more and more.”

In the early days of eTown, Nick says, the music industry was more suited to what they were doing. Since radio was critically important to a record company’s marketing strategy, publicists were jockeying to get their artists on the air. And because KBCO and eTown were each based in Boulder, there was an opportunity for artists to visit both.

“This was an opportunity to do a pretty important double dip, where you can come into Boulder, do a KBCO session and take that eTown show and catch all the stations that we were on," explains Nick. "It actually became a really kind of easy pitch.”

Over the past three decades, eTown has hosted around 900 headliners, including Joan Baez, Keb’ Mo’, Pops Staples, Steve Earle, Randy Newman, Dr. John and Marty Stuart. Nick remembers listening to a young Townes Van Zandt play “Pancho and Lefty” on the show. The singer-songwriter, who lived in Boulder for a short time and attended the University of Colorado for a year, talked about how glad he was to be back in the city.

Helen Forster (left), Pops Staples, Joan Baez and Nick Forster at the Boulder Theater in 1994.
Helen Forster (left), Pops Staples, Joan Baez and Nick Forster at the Boulder Theater in 1994.
Steve Stone

Since eTown's musical guests spanned genres, the house band, the eTones, had to be versatile.

The labels who sent artists to promote their work "had their budgets for that,” Nick says. “Our house band was really created in a way to dovetail with that, so that artists could travel solo and didn't have to wait till they were on tour with buses and trucks and full production and crew. They would come in and play five or six songs with a band that would learn their stuff before they got there.”

Bassist Chris Engleman has been part of the eTones since the beginning of the show, and drummer Christian Teele and keyboardist Ron Jolly have been with the program for more than 25 years.

While eTown has expanded over the years, that growth came with some hiccups. About four years after launching eTown, NPR dropped the program — not long after the appearance of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, a legislative agenda pushed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 under Gingrich's leadership. Among other things, Helen says, Gingrich wanted to cut government funding for public radio, and in the process, more diverse cultural programs were scrapped.

“I'm sure it wasn't the smartest thing, but we had to then pick ourselves up and recognize that NPR was giving us primarily satellite distribution, which we figured out we could contract ourselves and rent time on the satellite, which was what happened back in those days,” remembers Nick.

The Forsters had to raise extra money every year for their own satellite distribution, but because they weren’t exclusively an NPR program, eTown could be on commercial stations like KBCO in addition to public stations around the country — which, Helen points out, helped fulfill the organization’s “mission of reaching as many people as possible with this message of 'Get informed, get inspired, get involved.' We ended up increasing our number of stations significantly.”

Boulder Theater had long been the home of eTown, and some shows were broadcast from Boulder High School, where the program welcomed such guests as former president Jimmy Carter, poet Allen Ginsberg, and musical artists Rosanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby and Los Lobos.

But Nick was determined to find eTown its own home. He was interested in a building that dated back to 1922 and had formerly been a church, but the City of Boulder planning department told him that the existing zoning was restrictive, only allowing for another church on that tract of land. So Nick became ordained online in the Universal Life Church and went back to the city, explaining that he was a minister, that eTown was a nonprofit — just like a church — and that they did a lot of singing there and celebrated good works in the community. The city bit.

The ordination paid off in other ways for eTown. The nonprofit bought the church in 2008, the same year a friend asked Nick if he knew anyone licensed to oversee a wedding for two friends. That couple turned out to be Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, who were wed in a small backyard ceremony with Nick officiating. Reed’s vows were taken from his song “The Power of the Heart.”

After a complete renovation "from the ground up," eTown Hall opened in 2012. The multi-purpose venue was a game-changer for the nonprofit, allowing it to expand into other areas such as podcasts and videos. Its YouTube channel now receives over a million views per month, and video has brought new audiences into the eTown circle.

James Taylor (left), Nick Forster, David Crosby, Helen Forster and Graham Nash at the 2008 DNC eTown concert.EXPAND
James Taylor (left), Nick Forster, David Crosby, Helen Forster and Graham Nash at the 2008 DNC eTown concert.
Tim Reese

“It also allowed us to serve our community in ways we couldn't before, because we could have all kinds of events at eTown Hall," says Nick. "We've just tried to be better every year at making hour-long radio programs. We're still improving. We're still finding our voice. We're still finding ways to make it compelling on the air.

“But I think also, with a staff and with their own facility, we're able to make stuff a little more on our own terms without having to rent a facility and work around other people's schedules," he adds. "It's really been incredible to have that much autonomy and to be our own distributors, our own producers, our own creators, and to have our own facility. It's pretty rare in our industry.”

During the pandemic, the Forsters had to rethink the show and what they could do with it. Nick released a series of video interviews called Teach Me One Thing. In one episode, he talked to Phish’s Mike Gordon about his approach to playing bass; in others, he learned about sourdough starter from singer-songwriter Jarosz and card shuffling from comedian and banjo ace Steve Martin. In February, Helen debuted the podcast Looking Back, Looking Forward: The eChievement Award, which highlights previous award winners.

Although eTown managed to navigate the pandemic with some success, the nonprofit was shaken after learning that Suzanne Fountain, who had been part of the eTown family for seventeen years, first as a volunteer and more recently as the lead house manager, was one of the ten people killed in the March 22 shooting at the south Boulder King Soopers.

Nick recalls Steve Koppe, eTown's front-of-house engineer, reflecting on Fountain's contributions: “Basically anytime I saw Suzanne's name on the schedule: Touchdown. We know it’s going be a good event, it's going to run smoothly, and if the shit hits the fan, she'll handle it.”

While grieving its considerable loss, the organization will carry on its work, beginning with a series of thirty shows from the past thirty years, highlighting the bright spots of each season, starting with 1991.

And in the near future, eTown plans to focus more on the local community.

“We’ll try to make sure that there's more opportunities for eTown Hall to host events and use technology and use our staff in our capabilities to just fill that place full of energy and music,” Nick says. “I think we may do a little more about aiming at a video direction; we're not sure. You know, one of the beautiful things about COVID is that it hit the pause button for everybody. And so we're not sure exactly what the next phases will be, but we've benefited from having this opportunity to step back a little bit and look, see what the future holds.”

Find out more about the nonprofit and sign up for the April 22 celebration at the eTown website.

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