Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Dialing it up October 15, 2010 by Michael Becker • Published 10/15/10

Through decades of change, MSU's KGLT remains an audible treasure
It's a story often told, and if you believe the people who tell it, this sort of thing happens all the time. A traveler cruises down the interstate in the dead of night. His car radio scans the FM frequencies. The driver is after any radio station that will hold his attention and keep him awake as he passes through the Gallatin Valley. Suddenly, the radio seizes hold of 91.9 megahertz, and things start happening. Odd sounds leap out of the car speakers, music like a living thing, ready to pounce on the driver. Or perhaps the melodies slide out of the speakers and wrap around the driver like a warm blanket. Maybe the sounds clang, clash and tumble out of the speakers, making sounds no American would call music. All three scenarios and thousands more are possible because the driver has found one of Bozeman's treasures, a free-format, community-run, Montana State University-based radio station, KGLT, one of the last of a dying breed.

Anyone who has attended MSU or lived in the Gallatin Valley during the past 42 years probably knows of KGLT as a beloved, unorthodox radio station run out of MSU's Strand Union Building by a few paid staffers and an army of student and community disc jockeys.

What separates KGLT from most radio stations is that a majority of radio stations are programmed. That means they play preset types of music, such as "Top 40" or "oldies," and stick rigidly to that genre. But KGLT has no "format." Its disc jockeys play an eclectic mix of music, ranging from independent rock and modern jazz to international music and techno.

Programmed radio stations may provide consistency that some listeners like. But for others, like KGLT disc jockey Cara Paul, they are boring.
Paul is one of more than 80 volunteer DJs at KGLT. She's been on the air since 1983, when she was in her second year studying film and television at MSU. She eventually dropped out of college but stuck with KGLT.

Radio is the only thing about college that "took," she said.

"Most commercial radio is background noise," said Paul, her lip piercing catching a glint of sunlight in an MSU study lounge, not far from the KGLT studios. "I play the kind of music Tipper Gore warned you about."

Paul grew up in Great Falls in a family that listened to jazz and show tunes. That's probably why, as a teenager, she cuddled up next to a clock radio at night, listening to the powerful FM stations broadcasting out of Canada. They brought her shows like Dr. Demento and music the likes of which many in Great Falls would not hear for years.

It wasn't only the music that gripped her. The DJs were just as exciting as the music. They were true personalities, Paul said.

It's that DJ style that she tries to emulate on her heavy metal show Friday nights on KGLT, where she plays music from bands like Mastodon, Anthrax, Sons of Disaster and Pantera-- hard, often ugly music that she says "alleviates her road rage."

When she's not a DJ, Paul is a hairdresser and the proud mother of a 10-year-old boy--who's equally proud of having a mom with a radio show.
"They'll take me off the air when they pull the microphone off my cold dead arm," she said, showing off the microphone tattooed on her forearm. "I am dedicated to KGLT."

"The open format goes way back in FM radio," said Phil Charles, KGLT's longtime, general manager who is now retired and living in his native New Jersey. "It allowed the DJs to play everything and anything they wanted to play."
Charles learned open-format radio in the 1970s at KSAN, the legendary San Francisco station Frank Zappa declared to be "the hippest station in the universe."

Charles left KSAN when its owners tried to rein in the DJs and switched to a country-western format. Charles moved to Montana, intending to do some fishing, but it wasn't long before radio came calling again. KGLT needed a manager, and Charles stepped in to help.

When Charles arrived at KGLT in the 1980s, it had already been operating for two decades. It started on the AM dial in 1966, broadcasting as KMRA out of a studio in Langford Hall. The station later became KATS-AM, broadcasting country music, Top 40 hits and MSU sports.

Then, KGLT was formed as an alternative, 10-watt FM station broadcasting at 90.1. In 1975, KATS was dissolved and all its equipment went to KGLT. The station switched to its current frequency in 1978 and broadcast out of the Strand Union's basement until 1982, when it moved up to its current home on the third floor.

Charles applied much of what he'd learned at KSAN, making sure the DJs could choose their own music, but also subtly shifting different genres around the schedule to diversify the station's offerings.

"Tom Donahue beat it into our heads that it was all about the listeners and not about you," he said, referring to the legendary broadcaster who was his mentor at KSAN. "When you think that way, you start looking at what you can do for your audience. That's really the key to KGLT, people thinking about their audience."

Getting a bead on one of the station's key audiences, MSU students, has proven tricky. On top of being transitory, students also tend to have less time for radio, especially in a world of ever-expanding media options, such as MP3s and the Internet.

It also didn't help that, for years, KGLT had to broadcast from a transmitter far from Bozeman, meaning that most of MSU could not even tune into the station operating right in the heart of campus.

All of those factors came to a head in 2006. KGLT received a significant portion of its funding from the Associated Students of MSU, the student government. That year, the ASMSU budget committee, seeking ways to reduce spending, proposed slashing the station's annual funding from $45,000 to just $1.

In the early 1980s, Brad Diede helped save KGLT.
Diede was then a student at MSU, and the ASMSU Senate threatened to cut KGLT's funding and take the station off the air--a situation that almost mirrors the one KGLT faced in 2006.
Diede, now 52, said the senate at the time was made up mostly of younger students who didn't listen to KGLT or who didn't like the music it played.

But 500 students showed up at a senate meeting to support KGLT, Diede said. That support snowballed into a student political party, dubbed the Progressive Reform Party. Diede was one of the candidates it elected to the ASMSU senate in 1981.

A year later, Diede was elected president, and he and friends brainstormed ways to solidify KGLT. At the time, the station had no paid employees. Its volunteer work force did not lend to continuity of management, Diede said.

"It came to our minds that if there was a full-time general manager there, it would be more difficult to remove that position in the future," he said. "We lobbied that process and were able to get it through, and I became the guy who hired the first general manager at KGLT."

From his home in Auburn, Calif., where he is CEO of a trade contractors association, Diede said he still listens to KGLT thanks to its Internet stream, which he discovered a couple years ago.
"I was so excited to see that the station is still active and alive," he said.

And now for a word from the sponsors.

KGLT doesn't have ads. It can't. The station, which is typically the number-three radio station in the Bozeman market in the coveted 18- to 35-year-old market, is classified as educational and non-commercial, meaning that it cannot do anything that could be construed as advertising. That would mean KGLT was unfairly competing with commercial stations.

So instead of advertisers, KGLT has underwriters: people who pay to have their businesses or organizations mentioned on the air. Their on-air mention consists of a couple of sentences carefully written so as not to be a traditional advertisement.

The rules can make it challenging to entice potential underwriters, said KGLT marketing director Ron Craighead. That's not to say KGLT has trouble finding underwriters, but it does limit what the station can offer to businesses looking for commercial advertising, he said.

That underwriting support is essential, and Craighead noted that another critical source of funding comes from the community via its annual fund drive. KGLT's most recent fund drive broke all previous records, raising nearly $125,000, which amounts to about 40 percent of KGLT's yearly budget, Craighead said.

"The fund drive just blew away our expectations," he said. "People are being conscientious of where they put their money these days. When we have a fund drive like that, it's really reaffirming."
KGLT's interim general manager, Ellen King-Rodgers, said a record fundraiser during hard times is evidence that people value what KGLT provides.

"People who have to watch what they spend are valuing free entertainment, especially public radio and public television, and they want to support that," she said.

In 2006, Rune Vander Wey was both a DJ at KGLT and a reporter for the Exponent student newspaper at MSU. Both groups faced the same stern budget committee eager to slash spending.

"I was at the budget meetings and knew a lot of members of the ASMSU senate," he said. "It was scary because the students --it's weird to say it--they really didn't understand what they had."
Vander Wey is a second-generation KGLT DJ. His father, Al, has been a DJ for around 30 dedicated years, only allowing a substitute DJ once: the day Rune was born.

About eight years ago, the younger Vander Wey came to MSU as a political science major, but soon he, too, succumbed to radio's spell. For him, KGLT's appeal has always been the unique music selections that you don't hear on commercial radio, like the indie rock songs he plays on his show.

"KGLT is the only place you can hear 90 percent of the songs that are played on there in the state of Montana," Vander Wey said.

The distinction was only highlighted by the half-year he spent working as an engineer at a commercial station in Bozeman.

"I programmed the radio station," he explained. "You'd sit in there, and you'd have the log open and you'd have to program X number of commercial minutes per hour and fill the rest with either a talk program
or music.

"They have DJs in to change the computer. They don't have complete albums from artists," he said. "I mean, you don't realize what you have until you cross over to the other side. It's just night and day.

"(You) listen to people who grew up in Bozeman and are used to having the station and are happy to move back and have the station again," he said. "Without it, it would not be as great to live here."

Remember the story about a lonely interstate traveler happening upon the KGLT frequency? Timothy Tate is living proof that it's based on a true story.

"We were coming over the pass on a Friday afternoon, never been to Bozeman before, searching the dial for music, and came up on 91.9 FM and I was like, 'Huh, what is that?'" he said.
This was 1982, when Tate was first moving to Bozeman.

"That was one of the reasons we moved to Bozeman," he said. "The beauty of the valley and the rivers and KGLT."

Tate, an exceedingly tall psychologist with long, white hair and a mustache, said he became a DJ mostly to gain access to KGLT's huge music library. Over the years, though, the volunteer job has rewarded him in less tangible ways.
"It has given me great joy," he said. "What it has given my life is serial peak experiences."

"KGLT is about what it means to be human, rather than a cog in the wheel of profit," he said. "There's a sincerity and authenticity in live radio that's missing from any other format."

Like Tate--and every other volunteer disc jockey--Doug Smith and Kyle Helm enrolled in the apprentice class to become DJs at KGLT.

"I wish more students would get involved with the station," Smith said. "It's supposed to be all about the students, and it's important for the people higher up in KGLT's food chain to realize that."

Helm said he hears people complaining all the time about what's on the radio. "But, when there's a chance to go up there and affect what's going out, there's no reason not to do it," he said.

Another DJ who got her start as a student at KGLT was Chrysti Smith, better known to public radio listeners as "Chrysti the Wordsmith." She, along with Sarah Vowell, of "This American Life" fame, is one of KGLT's best-known alumni. Smith's show is now played on public radio stations across Montana, in Salt Lake City and on the Armed Forces Radio Network. She is also the author of two books about word and phrase origins.
Smith started at KGLT in 1989 when she was an anthropology student from Wolf Point.
Looking back on KGLT, Smith is grateful that the station gave her and other student novices a chance to make something of themselves.

"KGLT is a learning institution," she said. "Where else can anyone without experience get out there on the radio like that? I can't think of a scenario that would be more welcoming to an inexperienced student."

The ASMSU senate did not ultimately cut KGLT's funding to only $1 back in 2006, as it initially proposed. Instead, the final budget for that year restored all but about $5,000 of the station's funding. Still, KGLT management learned from the scare.

"We appreciate (ASMSU's) support," King-Rodgers said. "We like being a committee of ASMSU. Being a part of this campus is as important to us as being the herald to the community. But we all decided never to take it to that level again."

King-Rodgers, who has been interim station manager since Charles retired at the start of the summer, explained that KGLT still receives about $40,000 a year from ASMSU. But the station has also had several strong fund drives in a row, and in 2007, it received a $95,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was partly used to build a transmitter atop the SUB. That transmitter brought KGLT's signal back to MSU and the south side of Bozeman at 97.1 FM.

The CPB grant means more paperwork and it means some obligations, like playing public radio shows like "Stardate" and "This American Life."

But some things about KGLT will never change.

"This station represents a certain kind of creative and artistic freedom that people don't want to go away," said King-Rodgers, a DJ herself.

"Do we have the means to entice people on a commercial level? No. We can't be everything to everybody. What we are is a great creative resource, and we take our responsibility very seriously."