Walk into the KBGA radio studio on a Thursday from noon to 2 p.m., and you’ll find DJ Kevin Sherwood sporting a white V-neck with aviators hanging from the stretched collar and a white captain’s hat.
“My DJ name, it actually alternates,” he said. Today, it is Captain Kevtron. “That’s what the hat’s for.”
He likes rock ’n’ roll – has since birth. There’s even proof on the KBGA website, where there’s a picture of Sherwood as a baby, standing next to a speaker with a gruesomely ecstatic rock ’n’ roll grimace smeared across his little face.
In the “genre” slot of his profile it says simply, “Loud.”
Sherwood isn’t the only mold-breaking DJ who brings his unique character to the college radio station at the University of Montana.
The small, poster-plastered office on the second floor of the University Center relentlessly draws new and eclectic tastes. It’s the mothership of 150-some other DJs who share an intense love for music.
Sean Janzer, the promotions director, works in the station’s airless office where he punches away at his computer’s keyboard. He has dark shaggy hair, a nose ring, and wears a black shirt that reads “Conan.” Along with being a staff member at the station, he dabbles in DJing as well.
From 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Thursdays, Janzer does a themed show with Sherwood and another DJ named Saki Bomb. Every week they pick a new theme, most recently “songs John Malkovich would like.” Janzer said, “That worked out kind of well.” He paused and corrected, “Not very well.”
KBGA started in 1996 when Greg Bourriague, Todd Graetz and Craig Altmaier kicked off the station as “Revolution Radio.” It originally played a lot of underground-punk type music, but the various tastes of those who got involved over the next 16 years has made KBGA a melting pot for a little bit of everything.
As is tradition, the current staff members at the station are easily as eclectic as the DJs and their tunes.
DJ Avatar is known for his electronic and metal music, while Russel Roy strictly plays the blues. DJ Trashcan plays urban stuff, hip-hop and mash-ups, while DJ Raven prefers gothic, industrial tunes. There’s no theme for KBGA’s music. It’s unique in that it’s all over the place.
Sally McHugh, underwriting coordinator, is a quiet UM junior from Helena who’s a little embarrassed about her continued infatuation with pop-punk music.
Members of her generation can rarely believe that she still likes the middle school-conquering tunes of
Blink 182. Recently, while wearing a sundress and high leather boots as she sat at her desk, McHugh explained she loves what the station stands for.
“That it’s student run, it makes it a lot more accessible,” she said.
The Federal Communications Commission defines TV and radio stations as either commercial or noncommercial educational, called NCEs. It’s based on whether the stations accept advertising as a source of income, according to fcc.gov.
KBGA is an NCE because of its nonprofit use of the airwaves. Commercial stations typically rely on the sale of advertisements as support, but NCEs meet their operating expenses through contributions from listeners.
For-profit entities can even donate to the station for a short “mention” on the air, as long as it doesn’t call to action or promote the contributor, or interfere with the normal programming schedule. It’s more of a thank-you than an advertisement in cases like KBGA. In addition to contributions, KBGA gets funding from a $6 student fee, and promotional events they host like “Radiothon.”
Other NCEs can be found at other college stations, religious stations and community radio.
At KBGA, the freedom from advertising translates to a more “free-form” station, and a wildly creative mix of sound and characters.
“It’s the best job ever,” said KBGA news director Ruth Eddy, a petite Chicago native who represents her roots with a Michael Jordan poster plastered on the wall next to her desk. Referring to how open the station is to new concepts and characters, Eddy said from behind black-rimmed glasses: “I think that’s probably the coolest thing.
“It allows for a lot of new ideas.”
Type in “KBGA” online at YouTube, and one of the videos is of current general manager Chris Justice doing his personal take on fundraising for “Radiothon,” which is a weeklong event in February when KBGA asks its listeners for donations.
Justice’s approach last year was the “Tattoo Challenge,” in which listeners who donated could put an idea into a hat for a tattoo for Justice. The video shows Justice on the air before pulling out a random idea from a hat at the end of the event.
“Without further ado right?” he says before reaching into the hat.
Justice now has a tattoo of two luchador wrestlers in full colorful spandex on his right calf. One of the wrestlers sports KBGA tattoos on his chest with an arrow pointing toward him that says “me.”
The station’s quick staff turnover is “one of the best and worst things,” said Clark Grant, who was general manager the year before last. “It means new ideas are forced into the management.”
On the flip side is memory loss in the management, and inconsistencies in how the station is run. But the sacrifice is worth it, he said. Quickly cycled staffs help back up KBGA’s mission.
Grant recalled one DJ applicant he had to turn down for the job. A young woman brought him an application for a country show, playing primarily mainstream country artists. Grant couldn’t accept her application.
“It wasn’t because KBGA is about musical snobbery,” he said. “We feel we have a responsibility to play things not on other stations.”
It’s the variety and the freedom that makes KBGA what it is – and what it isn’t.
As his show rambled on in the background recently, Sherwood took time to admire the studio’s wall filled with thousands of CDs. He summed up the unique place that is KBGA this way: “I’d probably pay to do this,” he said. “It’s essentially free-form radio.”