This year KHEN FM 106.9 turns 14 years old. As I write, I’m streaming KHEN over my cellphone and bluetooth speakers. My ear has confronted a fun house of music during the last 20 minutes that I never would have imagined – from show tunes to Sinatra to Avril Lavigne then a power pop duet and more show tunes. Now ABBA?
How did this mix of sound come into being? From a programming committee and DJ – all neighbors – who are willing to share their unique voices in our community. They are fulfilling the vision established more than 14 years ago at KHEN’s creation, that any voices that wanted to participate would be heard and undiscovered ideas would be shared and celebrated.
This year has been marked by efforts to rekindle some of the spunkiness and relevancy that brought together a hundred volunteers, the generosity of social organizations and individuals, some large personalities, and a narrow FCC opportunity to create the station.
Sometimes we forget the great value of a broadcast medium that comes from the citizenry. Radio has long been the singular venue that allows us to speak directly to each other, share our ideas and knowledge, and grow together as a community.
Leslie Matthews, newly elected head of KHEN’s board of directors, has hatched a plan to make the station’s 15th year a time when Salida and Ark Valley residents will routinely say two things: “I heard this cool thing on KHEN today,” and “This is really exciting (insert news, music, ideas). We should bring it to KHEN and share it with everyone.”
These phrases warm the poultry soul of any chicken-themed community radio station and make it feel useful and alive.
Here’s how it all started 14 years ago. A group of of six or seven Salidans led by Jane Carpenter and Mark Minor formed a nonprofit in 2000 called Tenderfoot Transmitting from the remnants of a radio club. Carpenter had been involved with Boulder radio station KGNU in the ’90s and really was the only one who had radio experience. When she moved to Salida in 1989, the only thing not to love was the lack of community radio. Radio was how she
had learned from and about her community in Boulder.
Minor took on the task of figuring out how to create an FCC-licensed entity on a shoestring. The opportunity peeked open like the noontime sun through the top of a slot canyon. At the time, communities were lobbying the FCC for more access to local broadcast opportunities, and suddenly in 2001, the FCC offered a limited number of low-power licenses during a four-day window. The board frantically assembled an application and then continued to meet and dream for nearly a year, mostly in living rooms. One day the tiny license arrived with the call letters Minor had conceived – KHEN. This group would be allowed a 100-watt antenna to share with anyone in Salida willing to adhere to a few broadcast rules and support the vision to build a community with many voices.
Meetings about how to begin construction moved to then Il Vicino Pizza for brainstorming and a bit of celebration. The few dozen initial supporters wanted to build a station that would give time to people who didn’t have the opportunity to be on the air elsewhere and “give a broadcast voice to the people that live here‚” Carpenter said. They also wanted to offer programming such as Democracy Now and E-Town, which didn’t air locally and would supplement the fare from other commercial and out-of-town stations.
“For $2 you could go buy a radio at Caring and Sharing, and there was not a lot of internet access in Salida at the time‚” Carpenter said. The idea was to provide a variety of content for the benefit of all, whether it be “music or interviews or whatever.” Hundreds of local “cheerleaders” showed their support as the community radio station slowly became a reality.
Construction labor and fundraising were all volunteered, and the initial “1960s equipment” included the accessory arm from a dentist’s chair as a microphone boom as well as stereo equipment and CD players from people’s homes. Carpenter applied to the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado for a grant to buy the $1,600 antenna. The fund had provided support to KGNU and generously responded in support of the people of Salida. People downloaded syndicated programs on home computers at the beginning, and it took a silent auction fundraiser to finally purchase an actual computer for the studio. They perservered. Many Salidans participated, even the mayor, Jamie Lewis.
Located in the alley behind the present Mountain Mail building, the station was to be ready for delivery in January 2003. Carpenter brought in David Andre from KGNU in Boulder. In a letter, Andre describes the astounding effort in building the station as “60 hours from empty rooms to first broadcast.” With over a hundred volunteers on hand, “I would write a job on the to-do list and it would be picked up and finished within 15 minutes,” he said.
The final days required that much support and some dramatic teamwork. When the volunteers discovered they were short an antenna cable, the rush fee to have one delivered almost bankrupted the effort. A man picked up the cable from the post office and bicycled back with it slung across his shoulders just in time for raising the antenna pole. The challenges mounted as raising the first antenna pole almost brought the roof down on the tall building that had been chosen to transmit KHEN’s signal. The landlord had to rescind his offer due to the structural concerns, and the staff almost gave up.
In the single-floor studio, “licking wounds with Australian cabernet,” the group agreed in one final stubborn push to stick the antenna right on the roof above them and give it a go. A ham radio operator named Fred tuned the antenna; Trish Cullinan and Mark Minor wired up all the boards under the direction of Andre; and on Friday, Jan. 10, 2003, at 6:33 p.m., Jimi Hendrix’ spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” found its way to Salida’s airwaves, followed by the sound of a clucking chicken recorded specially for KHEN by “Doc Martin” of KGNU. The call letters were announced in the first station identification, and Carpenter opened her first 30 minutes of programming with Tim O’Brien’s, “Hold to a Dream.”
“It still makes me almost cry to say that,” said Carpenter, who described that day as the most thrilling of her life.
In the following months, volunteers broke in a collection of 40 CDs and albums. The most frequently played piece was “Dead Air,” Andre joked, as the amateur DJs learned their craft.
“We all worked so hard and had so many dreams,” Carpenter said. She put 18 new people through radio training classes she made up on the spot. “If I wanted a radio station, I was going to have to step up to the plate.” KHEN soon attracted more experienced broadcasters like Pete Watson and Patrick Lee Hawkins, drawn by the energy and possibilities of the project. There was music, interviews and educational programs, all done by locals, as well as syndicated programming.
Over 14 years, there have been many struggles for the low-power station. Carpenter and the others have confronted the challenges as best they could, raising this “child” to full adolescence with the passion of loving parents. It has taken a lot of work and a few tears to fight for their mission and provide an open resource for the people of Salida. With the rise of other social media, which sometimes promotes more conflict than cooperation, support for community radio has waned in Salida. A community station is only as strong as the people who participate,
and the 99 gift certificates on the studio wall –the source of financing for the first equipment purchases – stand as a reminder of the vision these people had for Salida. As KHEN’s 15th year approaches, its leadership has a plan to reinvigorate the station by providing new streaming and internet-based technology, broadcast training for all ages and access to programming that the people of Salida and now Buena Vista can all call exciting and essential.
KHEN is throwing a party to celebrate opening doors to a “21st century” community radio station where your voice and ideas can be heard. The anniversary party will be Saturday, April 1, and feature Lady and The Gentlemen, an assembly of some of Boulder’s finest musicians. Ripping through soul, blues and funk-styled tunes under the gravity of vocalist Amanda Sileccheo, the group has quickly become a sought-after party band for some of the Front Range’s bigger celebrations.
In an interview with The Ark Magazine before a show at The Lariat in December 2016, the musicians explained their impressive chops as songwriters and the “group love” that brought them together to musically move people out of their chairs and make them “feel things.” A funk rhythm section revved by Marshall Carlson, one of the most versatile young bassists in Colorado, holds out scorching guitar whiz Jarrod Guaderrama and varied assortments of simmering horns. They exemplify the kind of fun and innovation that KHEN has promoted for 14 years.
The party will also debut Salida’s newest venue, Seasons on the River, a locale previously known for presenting some of Salida’s best musical offerings, located next to Shawn Gillis’ Absolute Bikes. Come to the party for KHEN schwag, cake, snacks, libations and opportunities to get involved in Salida’s best community resource. There will also be a giant chicken, if you go for that sort of thing. Cluck. Cluck.