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Missoula Community Radio moves into library, gets stronger signal

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Jesse Blumenthal KFGM Radio

Jesse Blumenthal, executive director of nonprofit radio station KFGM, sits in the station's new studio booth at the Missoula Public Library. The station is switching to a new bandwidth, 101.5 FM, and increasing their power to 3,600 watts.

Missoula Community Radio has moved into a new home and is expanding its geographic reach.

KFGM, a nearly five-year-old low-powered nonprofit station, last Friday switched from 105.5 FM to a new bandwidth, 101.5 FM, and settled into a space in the Missoula Public Library.

An upgrade like this “was not a plan, it was more of a dream,” said Jon Van Dyke, a co-founder who’s now volunteer station manager and president of its board. Originally, he said their priority was to “develop good programming with local voices,” with revenue streams to buy new equipment further down the road.

While it’s a coincidence, both changes have happened at the same time.

In March, Townsquare Media announced that it had purchased Cherry Creek Broadcasting. According to a news release, Townsquare had to divest from six radio stations in Missoula due to ownership limitations set by Federal Communications Commission.

One of KFGM’s co-founders, Ann Szalda-Petree, knew someone at Townsquare through their kids’ lacrosse team. He reached out to her about assuming the frequency formerly taken by Alt 101.5 FM, the alternative rock station. They came to a “generous” agreement that covers utilities, basic engineering and the use of the transmitter and tower, said Jesse Blumenthal, KFGM’s executive director.

The shift should be obvious to people flipping through the stations.

“Noncommercial radio has its own special, sound and feeling,” Blumenthal said. “And I think that what we offer from other stations in general, is that we're providing a truly community perspective.”

KFGM's programs and events are open to “every aspect or walk of life,” he said. “I can't think of another instance where I would interact with such a diverse amount like this cross section of this community."

KFGM began broadcasting from a low-power transmitter on the roof of the Union Hall in 2017. It’s a grassroots effort to provide an outlet for local programs, ranging from music to current events and niche interests.

As a community station, part of their new digs grew out of small-town connections. Last winter, Blumenthal bought a saxophone off someone on Craigslist. The seller wanted to meet at the library, and noticed his KFGM shirt. She’s a fan of radio, and introduced him to Honore Bray, then the MPL’s director. They met with the library board and Missoula Community Access Television and its director Joel Baird, who supported the idea of making space for them under its studio lease.

Now, they’re located in offices in MCAT’s area on the library’s main floor. They’ll beam out a signal from a transmitter dish on the roof to the top of Mount Dean Stone, where it will be converted to FM.

The increase in wattage means their signal will be clearer in the valleys and down to Hamilton.

Boosting their signal had long been a dream of theirs, but the capacity in their old location was limiting.

“We were using a lot of old equipment, and it was difficult to troubleshoot exactly where we had to start over,” Blumenthal said.

Their signal will increase from 100 watts to 3,600. Van Dyke said their prior frequency was clear downtown; scratchy 3 miles farther; and by 5 miles it was listenable “maybe if you’re in a sweet spot where it’s bouncing off the clouds.”

He recalls the low wattage was somewhat demoralizing in their early days, and the news of the move and the power increase has “rejuvenated” their longtime volunteers and brought in new interest from the public.

While KFGM had a streaming option since early on, van Dyke said that “if we’re going to reflect Missoula culturally and demographically” that can come via radio or computer now. “If we’ve got the full power, it’s our chance to ask people to check us out again.”

Volunteer DJs needed

KFGM is looking for local residents interested in DJing.

“The pandemic hit us pretty hard in terms of live presenters,” Bluementhal said. While more people have returned, slots remain available.

If you’re interested, go to the new site, 1015kfgm.org, or head to MCAT space at the Missoula Public Library.

First, you’ll record a half-hour demo in the podcasting studio and submit. If it’s approved, you’ll submit the demo and then do a shadow session with a live presenter. Once the basic techniques are solid, new DJs can start filling in and then take an open time slot.

As a freeform station, the options are “anything and everything as long as you’re passionate about it,” Bluementhal said. The station does focus more on “local music and local issues.”

“Our programming is hyperlocal, and focused on how Missoula feels today, how the Bitterroot feels today as well, now that we're expanding down to the Bitterroot,” he said.

The current offerings run the gamut. Two popular programs he cited are “Voice of the People: Radio By and For the 99%” which covers current events, or “Radio Disorder” with Floppy, which includes snippets of news-related clips between rock ‘n’ roll cuts, sometimes on the heavier side. Another program, “Cosmic Radio Garden,” is hosted by Nancy Walton, who has a background in professional radio with production experience.

The new studio booth is equipped so you can bring in your laptop or tablet, use their turntables, CD players with digital DJ’ing capabilities like beat-matching, cassette players and recorders, and a time delay so they can take live callers and prevent any bleeped words from getting on-air. (Previously they’d discouraged call-ins for this reason.)

The station is also starting up its summer spotlights for local bands at the Zootown Arts Community Center Show Room and looking to offer DIY workshops of all types and post the audio.

“We've got personality,” he said. "We can really speak to what's going on in the community much more directly and offer community members and different businesses in town an opportunity to be involved with that by underwriting us."

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