Building community through the airwaves

by Diane Wright, Seattle Times

It's 12:34 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and sitar music is playing on the radio. The sinuous strains of the sitar and patter of the drums as the raga gains speed makes the car go a little faster.

If you were to trace the music to its broadcast source, you would head to Everett. Soon, you'd be at 2623 Wetmore Ave., in a renovated two-story house with a satellite dish and an antenna pointing east to Soper Hill, near Lake Stevens.

Welcome to the studios of KSER radio, 90.7 on the FM dial.

It's small, it's funky, but it's community radio at its most grass roots, with an armada of 100 volunteers training to become on-air radio hosts, producers and board operators. And in a small control room is the raga player, spinning CDs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a show called "The Floating World." The world-music show offers everything from Spanish fado to Native American ceremonial chants.

"This is Karen, I'm here every fourth Sunday, and next up, I'll be playing you music of the Nordic countries," Karen Pauley tells her audience. "You are listening to KSER 90.7-FM, a Sound adventure."

Bruce Wirth, KSER's new general manager, came from KBCS in Bellevue, and what excited him about KSER is that "it's radio that's vital to its community and digs in. When I looked at KSER's schedule, and when I started listening online to the shows they have, I was really impressed.

"The League of Women Voters is here, the Amnesty International folks come in, the labor folks come in. Everybody comes in here to have a chance to participate in the civic dialog. That's the thing that I always come back to. As our world becomes overwhelmed with media, and media consolidates, what's left? There are very few organizations that invest in local news anymore."

And moving to Everett was critical to the station's mission, said Ed Bremer, general manager the past decade and now the full-time public-affairs and news director, recalling the move from the station's original home in Lynnwood. "You can't have a community radio station unless you have a community. And a strip mall along Highway 99 in Lynnwood is not a community.

"Everett is a community."

"We're definitely the neighborhood radio station, where people in town on the street that you see are on the radio," said Dave Ramstad, KSER's librarian. "You'll see them at the restaurants and at the library and at the church. They're all citizens."

In that sense, the radio station "is a citizen, not a corporation. It's an emotional, family trip for us here to be a part of this."

Local programming

While time more often may be measured by years and months and days, life in radio is measured by minutes and seconds.

And this small radio station has managed to pull in the world since 1991 — and send it out to listeners in the region.

BBC News comes in by satellite, as does the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the progressive public-affairs show "Democracy Now!" "Poets West" records poets from here to California. Two Marysville naturopathic physicians explore "Healthy Living."

Jim Hilman celebrates guitar on "Frettin' Fingers." David White of the Everett Public Library digs into his own collection of big-band music for "The Swing Shift." Chris Wartes plays everything from John Cage to Stravinsky in "The Classical Edge."

There's financial advice on "Getting Your Dough to Rise," storytelling with "Global Griot," student and professional musicians in "Jazz in the Schools." David MacFarlane just picked up traditional and rock CDs from a trip to Scotland for his "Celtic Harvest" show.

Dan Duncan cleans all the scratches, pocks and other noise out of 78 RPM records to play vintage music in his Friday night show, "Let the '20s Roar."

"On these specialty shows, often people are bringing in much of their own music, because they love it," Ramstad said. "Because with 9,200 CDs here, and having been around here 15 years, some of the hosts have played most of this. We want to keep stimulating the listener with new things, and they'll go, 'Wow! What is that? I gotta write that down!' Which is what I do when I listen."

24 /7

There's a surprising range: The signal can be heard north to Sedro-Woolley, west to Port Townsend, southeast into Bellevue, and even at the higher points of King County, from Queen Anne Hill to SeaTac.

Typically, a commercial FM station can go up to 100,000 watts of power; KSER has 5,800.

The station runs continuously, with the BBC News overnight and Bremer taking "The Morning Program" during part of the drive time. From 8 a.m. to afternoon Monday through Friday is "The Sunlit Room," a music program with different hosts. Specialty shows air at night, after 6:30 p.m., and on weekends.

"This is sort of like a Grand Central Station," Ramstad said. "Just by being here, you meet all the people, all the show hosts that come through."

Programs often happen in real time. There are candidates' forums in the fall, and the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County is involved at the station.

Most of the hosts were trained by Bremer.

"Ed has the patience of Job," said Michelle Valentine, who produces the League's show, "Magazine on the Air." "I think that we make baby steps moving forward, but he is diplomatic, and the next time [he'll say,] 'Let's try it this way.' For volunteers, that's the necessary style."

"The really fervent listeners are here, volunteering," said Ramstad, who came in to volunteer three years ago after his retirement from Boeing.

"What's the frequency, Kenneth?"

KSER had its roots in KRAB, one of the earliest noncommercial radio stations in the country, which was started by Lorenzo Milam in 1962. For nearly 30 years, the Jack Straw Foundation operated KRAB.

Eventually, Bremer said, "Financial problems got the best of them, and they needed to sell the frequency." They used that money to set up Jack Straw Productions, a nonprofit audio-arts center in Seattle, and to put KSER on the air.

KRAB sold its FM frequency of 107.7 and applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for another frequency. "The frequency that was available was 90.7, but it was assigned to the city of Everett," Bremer said.

Since the Jack Straw Foundation was in Seattle, and the 90.7 frequency couldn't be heard consistently in Seattle, rather than just give the frequency back to the FCC, "they allowed the listeners and supporters of KSER to put together the KSER Foundation," Bremer said. "And they transferred the assets to that foundation so the radio station could continue to function."

"The frequency 90.7 is a part of the radio spectrum set apart by the FCC for noncommercial broadcast," Bremer added. "So that little sliver was available at the power level that we could come on, so we wouldn't interfere with any other radio stations."

From 1991 to 2004, the station was at the back of a small strip mall in Lynnwood.

Much of the operating capital comes from listener contributions.

"We're not commercial, but the government allows us to collect support from individuals and from businesses, and we just mention their name on the air," Ramstad said.

KSER's annual pledge drive starts Oct. 23. Last year's drive had a goal of $29,000, and "we made $36,000," said Becky Passarella, the station's development director. "That was the biggest, most successful pledge drive we've ever had."

The station's annual subscription rate for members is "basically anything, but we like to encourage a minimum of $52," Passarella said. "That's a dollar a week."

The station also sponsors concerts by such groups as the California Guitar Trio and Pearl Django. The station will present Amy Goodman of the "Democracy" show Oct. 28 at McIntyre Hall in Mount Vernon, and Children of the Revolution, a world-music group, Nov. 16 at the Everett Theatre.

"It's not an understatement to say we're trying to bring the truth," Ramstad said. "And we need a lot more power."

Like 50,000 watts?

"Boy, could we rock the boat with that," Ramstad said.

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