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KBXE: Station’s goal is building community

Volunteer Karen Ryan handles studio duties last week at KBXE in downtown Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – When KBXE celebrated its April 2012 grand opening with a live broadcast of the Great Northern Radio Show at the historic Chief Theater in Bemidji, it was the fruition of an idea that had its beginning with the Headwaters Unitarians.

Back in 2007, the group approached KAXE in Grand Rapids and asked for help establishing another public radio station in Bemidji.

“In 2007, a window opened for new applications for non-commercial radio stations,” said Maggie Montgomery, general manager of Northern Community Radio (KAXE and KBXE). “Our board had set for the staff the goal of maintaining the original 90 miles broadcast radius, so we decided to work with the Headwaters Unitarians in Bemidji to try to obtain one of the bands.

“Eventually they decided that they didn’t want to run a radio station, and we did, so we took over the operation because it was getting harder to serve this community. We jumped on the opportunity because it was the last chance to get a real radio signal that could be protected and also do a good job.”

Historically, KAXE in Grand Rapids has had many members from the Bemidji area. In February 1971, when the Articles of Incorporation were filed with the state, the non-profit was known as Minnesota Public Radio. In 1973, the name was changed to Northern Community Radio and what is now known as MPR took over that title. The two organizations are not related.

It took about five years from start to finish from when Northern Community Radio first obtained the license to broadcast out of Bemidji to open the studio in March 2012.

Montgomery and her crew, which includes station engineer Dan Houg and producer Charlie Pulkrabek, looked at many locations to find the combination of Internet access, adequate space, visibility in town and line of sight for the tower (a way to get the signal to the tower location).

When the TruStar Credit Union site went up for sale and Harmony Foods acquired the building, it was more room than they needed. NCR entered into a lease agreement with them and built the studio on the American Avenue side of the Harmony building.

“The mission of Northern Community Radio is to build community in northern Minnesota through radio programming, cultural events and interactive media, but what we are really about is having fun,” Montgomery said. “People tend to trust the voices of their neighbors and friends.”

NCR has a 10-person board of directors, including two from Bemidji: Charlie Parsons and Jack Shelton. It is a policy governance board which sets the policies and outcomes but gives the stations freedom in programming.

The staff at NCR feels that a lot of people who listen to KAXE and KBXE don’t listen to many other radio stations. Listeners might go online or listen to their IPod but are extremely dedicated and don’t touch the dial much.

The NCR goal is to keep programming on the issues and keep it local as much as possible. To that end, over 100 volunteers work together on programming like those involved with “On the River,” a music program that includes selections from personal and the station’s collections of folk, rock, blues and jazz. The deejays communicate with each other and then produce the shows.

Pulkrabek, the station producer, heads up Central Stage Minnesota and “The Beat,” poetry readings by locals.

RealGoodReads Interviews with Heide Holton is broadcast out of Grand Rapids to Bemidji audiences with such notable authors as William Kent Krueger. Anne Dunn weaves stories from the Ojibwa culture on maple sugaring or going from elder to crone.

“Making Sausage,” a segment on at least once a week, is devoted to conservative and progressive ideas. The name of the show is tongue in cheek as it pokes fun at how legislation is debated and passed. Chuck Marohn and Colleen Nardone try to keep the segments issues focused rather than opinion based.

“I think this is the place where things are really happening here, not piped in from somewhere else,” Montgomery said. “A real person is in there doing the show and every time you turn on the radio it’s something different that local volunteers have put together. As sister stations, we share, and sometimes broadcast, together; and we also pull in some programming from NPR like ‘All Things Considered.”’

In terms of news, the director, Scott Hall, covers local issues in depth; for example coverage on the future of the Carnegie Library or environmental concerns in other towns; issues or events that locals are interested in and may not find coverage by other commercial or non-commercial stations.

Another example might be the role of Rail River Folk School in gathering opinions from our neighbors, farmers and native peoples for the Minnesota Food Charter.

Rail River co-hosted “The Beat Café” poetry event about a week ago with Minnesota’s poet laureate Joyce Sutphen. NCR broadcast a live two-hour show with local poets, including some youth, and jazz musicians.

“It’s wonderful that young people can say that they got the share the stage with the poet laureate,” said Montgomery. “There was enough texture to make it go and people got to feel that they were involved.”

Arts producer and consultant Steve Downing writes on-air segments, and previews and reviews of arts related events. For example, Downing might write a review of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra performance or the newest installation at the Bemidji Community Arts Center or the Talley Gallery. He voiced what all of the other administrative staff alluded to during the interview session.