By Maria Wyllie

It’s a fashion statement: Hoodies, baseball hats, tees, mugs and bumper stickers all bear the four-letter call numbers of KGLT, Bozeman’s community radio station.

These are indications of personal taste, and of commitment to this mid-sized mountain town with its fierce local pride. The community-driven, listener-supported nonprofit was voted Bozeman’s best radio station for the past 12 years in polls by the Tributary and the Bozone.

Based on the Montana State University campus, the station has provided commercial free, unformatted radio for 45 years.

“You can’t just focus on one aspect of your community,” said KGLT Marketing Director Ron Craighead. “It needs to be inclusive enough for everyone to participate.”

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Ron Sanchez got his first taste of live radio in 1968, the same year KGLT spun its first records. Sanchez was 16, living in San Jose, California, and looking to share his love for music over the airwaves.

He began as an apprentice at local rocker KSJO, where he knew more about music than many of the DJ’s who worked there.

“Since age 3 or 4, I was interested in the idea of radio,” said Sanchez, now KGLT’s longest running DJ. He remembers turning the dials as a kid and hearing different sounds come out, almost like a magic box.

At KSJO, he soon learned what was wrong with radio. “I went in one day and half the records were gone, and they were saying ‘well, it’s a new format.’”

This new configuration was built around record sales. Rather than playing the music they wanted, DJs had to answer to a music director, who only let them play the top 40 best-selling tracks.

In a November 1967 Rolling Stone article titled “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up The Airwaves,” radio pioneer Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue explained how booming record sales triggered Top 40 radio in the mid-1950s, and rock n’ roll became an industry overnight. The format was nearly identical from city to city, with disc jockeys playing all the same records.

“Music should not be treated as a group of objects to be sorted out like eggs with each category kept rigidly apart from the others,” wrote Donohue, now part of the Rock Hall of Fame and known to many as the father of progressive radio.

Earlier that year – in response to his aggravation with AM radio – Donahue started playing album-oriented rock on the largely ignored FM band, at KMPX in San Francisco.

Donahue broke the Top 40 mold. Rather than mimic the jovial businessmen who’d taken over the AM dial, he spoke in a conversational style and played an eclectic mix of music that didn’t fit into a singular format.

“I’m here to clear up your face and mess up your mind,” Donahue said at the beginning of every show.

At odds with management, Donahue left the station for KSAN in 1968, and the rest of KMPX’s announcing and engineering staff followed. They tested the limits by broadcasting live music recordings, refusing to air certain commercials, offering political commentary and getting involved with community concerns. Through this “think audience” first mentality, Donahue gained a loyal listenership, and KSAN ultimately came to represent the underground radio movement.

Sanchez made his way to KSAN in 1975, and was once again allowed – and expected – to play what he chose. Still living by this philosophy, Sanchez, now 61, plays what he wants at KGLT.

“I don’t believe in limiting yourself to a genre,” he said. “Good music is timeless. I can play something from 1957 and something brand new, and you can see how they connect.”

His time at KSAN was short lived, but formative. Donahue died from a heart attack just a few months after Sanchez came on board, and the station fell to corporate control without his leadership, soon transitioning to a country-western format. What Frank Zappa once declared the “hippest station in the universe” was no more.

Fed up, Sanchez bailed.

“It was time to clear the boards and start fresh,” he recalls. After visiting his parents who had moved to Montana, he relocated to Bozeman in 1980 and opened a Mexican joint called Casa Sanchez. He was back on air a year later – this time at KGLT.

The station needed help and in 1990, Sanchez’s colleague from KSAN, Phil Charles, was hired as general manager. Under his guidance, KGLT acquired transmitters in Helena, Livingston and Gardiner, and in 2007 began web streaming on kglt.net.

Charles managed the station until summer 2010, when former DJ Ellen King-Rodgers took over.

“When everything around us was going automated, [Charles] kept the live DJs on air,” said King-Rodgers, crediting her predecessor with enabling KGLT to be what it is today – live, unformatted, commercial-free radio.

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Unlike commercial radio or public broadcasting, community stations aren’t supported by advertising or corporate underwriting; they’re owned and influenced by the communities they serve.

“They’re typically alive through the efforts of local civic groups that cobble funds from town budgets and volunteers,” said Michael C. Keith, adjunct associate professor of media and radio studies at Boston College, and the author of 21 books on the subject. “Their goal is mostly community service.”

These stations can have a large impact, especially in smaller towns.

Prior to the opening of Moab’s community station KZMU in 1992, the airwaves in this southern Utah town had been silent.

Moab’s recreation-driven economy was boom and bust, said the station’s founder and program director, Christy Williams, and it busted in the late 1980s. “There was a period of time in the late ‘80s when there was no radio at all,” she said.

Funded by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting’s sole service grant, KZMU was birthed in an abandoned National Park Service trailer in one of the isolated town’s industrial neighborhoods.

“It was old-school, wild, weird and open for everyone to come and play,” said Williams, who has lived in the area since 1981. Although the station has matured in its 21 years, she still feels “we are holding up the cultural stick, way out here in the middle of the desert.”

The only station in Utah with a volunteer-run DJ program, KZMU has 120 DJs ranging from age 4 to 82, and strong youth programming.

Children in preschool and kindergarten are trained young, and Williams says they start to get it at age 6. Parents engineer the Saturday morning show, called “Children’s Shine Time,” but the kids do all the talking – mostly about “things that are gross,” Williams says, “because that’s what interests them.”

As they grow older, the kids graduate into “Tween Time,” and then host their own Saturday night shows once in high school.

“It’s kind of astonishing, given how many moving parts there are… think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Amy Goodman honking at the steering wheel,” Williams said.

Since 2008, the station has operated completely on solar energy through a grant from Rocky Mountain Power, which paid for half of the solar remodeling.

“I think it makes really good sense to try and do things that are holistic in their thinking, and solar power and sustainable energy seems like a very circular thing,” Williams said.

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Pinpointing the exact number of community stations in operation today is difficult, as they don’t all belong to one organization; Professor Keith estimates there are a few hundred, but it’s hard to say.

What is known is that these stations operate as models for freedom, valuing human connections and offering a return to localism in an increasingly digitized world.

“The only way traditional radio will survive is to emphasize live personality with local relationships,” Professor Keith said. “It must distinguish itself from the rest of the digital audio universe.”

For Jackson, Wyoming, resident and KHOL listener Corey Talbott, 26, listening to community radio isn’t just about discovering new music – it’s about connecting with people who share similar musical tastes.

An ardent metal fan, Talbott listens to Oliver Tripp’s Monday night show, “Metal Massacre,” almost every week. When he first tuned in, he didn’t know Tripp personally, but through their shared interest in the genre, the two have become friends.

“You never know what you might hear,” Talbott said. “I’ve met a lot of friends based on what they play on the radio.”

On air since 2008, KHOL is quickly establishing itself as a defining member of the thriving Jackson community. Volunteer DJ and prominent architect Nona Yehia designed its new studio, located in the Center for the Arts, and a new antenna installed atop Snow King in March of 2013 provides clearer sound, signaling this community station is here to stay.

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While KHOL, KZMU and KGLT are all locally driven, they also have broad appeal.

For KGLT, this means a worldwide audience can listen through live online streaming, but also use social media sites like Facebook to interact with station personnel – something King-Rodgers said listeners love.

However, the station is careful not to lose sight of its dedication to the locals who support it.

“[Going forward], we still want to be this community-oriented station that trains apprentices three times a year and does a couple thousand [public service announcements] a year,” she said. “That is our integrity… we always want to be this live, music-of-choice radio station.”

Volunteer driven and listener supported, these three stations act as voices for their communities, offering an honest and distinctive service.

So, turn up the radio when you’re driving in your car. You can’t see whom that voice belongs to. You can’t press rewind or fast forward. This is the real thing.

This story was first published in the winter 2013/2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.