On July 14, 1978, Nevada City’s community radio station, KVMR, signed on the air with Jim Abbott’s immortal words, “Is this thing working?”
Two years in the planning, KVMR started off in a small shack on Banner Mountain broadcasting at a mighty 20 watts just four hours a day.
“You had no idea if anyone was listening,” recalled Mikail Graham, who began his 35-year career as a KVMR DJ Aug. 10, 1978. So, one night he decided to let a record run out, just hissing and clicking. It took 20 minutes before loyal listener Bob Lickter called from his bathtub to say, “I think your record’s over.”
“We don’t let that happen now,” laughed Steve Baker, program director of the busy public radio station that today broadcasts 24/7 from multiple transmitters and streams live on the world wide web. It takes 150 volunteer broadcasters, 700 volunteers and 10 paid staff — and a whole lot of community support — to make it happen.
To show its appreciation of the community, KVMR is hosting a free birthday party Saturday afternoon in Pioneer Park in Nevada City.
“The party is the kickoff of a month of celebrating KVMR,” said Baker. “The station’s actual birthday is July 14 (same as Woody Guthrie’s), and KVMR’s 35th birthday celebration membership drive will begin July 15. “
“We will be gathering birthday greetings and stories from listeners, broadcasters and community leaders to run throughout the month,” he added.
The free 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. party kicks off with a … softball game?
“It’s going to be us against us,” joked Edy Cassell, volunteer coordinator. DJs, staff and volunteers will play against each other on two teams. “It should be pretty goofy.”
For your entertainment, DJs George Olson and Rick O’Shea will be juggling. So will the ever-popular comedian-juggler Izzy Tooinsky.
For your vegetarian or carnivorous eating and dining pleasure, there will be several food vendors and the KVMR Bar .
Partygoers will also have the opportunity to dunk various dignitaries including General Manager David Levin, board President Michael Young and others yet to be drafted.
Throughout the day, party guests are invited to visit the KVMR Lounge to learn about the history — and future — of KVMR.
“We may be approaching middle age at 35, but we’re still growing,” Baker said.
KVMR outgrew the original shack on Banner Mountain by 1981 and moved to the American Victorian Museum (now Miners Foundry Cultural Center) — from which it derived its call letters, Victorian Museum Radio. Later, it moved to its current three-story facility just across the street from the Foundry. And now, the station is partnering with the Nevada Theatre (which is also just across the street) to build “the biggest media and performing arts construction project since the original theater was built in 1865,” said GM Levin.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a KVMR party without music, reported marketing director Amanda Rodgers, who has been affiliated with KVMR on and off ever since she was a little girl visiting the Banner Mountain studio.
The music starts at 4 p.m., but unlike many KVMR events, it won’t be broadcast live, she said, so you’ll have to come to the party to see and hear live local favorites.
Voices of the community
KVMR’s motto is “Music of the World, Voice of the Community,” and it fully lives up to its name. The DJs play music you might not hear anywhere else, and it is thoroughly embedded in the community.
“No one ever tells you what to play,” said veteran DJ Laura Miller, who worked her way up from a volunteer at age 18 to general manager at age 24 in 1985 and 1986.
“It’s community supporting community,” agreed DJ Connie Coale, who’s been on the air since 1987.
“When it snows, we’re the station people listen to,” confirmed DJ Jerianne Van Dijk. People call in weather reports, and “it becomes kind of a community on the air.”
Because the station is always live with its own backup generator, KVMR is the county’s official emergency broadcast station.
KVMR has a tendency to suck listeners in. For instance, Mary Ross and her family were looking for a place to live in 1998 and came across KVMR’s 20th birthday party in Pioneer Park.
“The park was alive with music, friendship, family, and a warmer sense of community than I had ever experienced. That was when I realized how very special Nevada City is and how big a part KVMR plays in that,” said Ross, who is serving her second term on the board of directors.
Is this thing working?
At last count, KVMR has 40,000 listeners in its broadcast range, and nobody knows how many web listeners, but phone calls and emails ranging from Thailand to Rio de Janeiro to Paris confirm a worldwide audience.
So, yeah, this thing is working.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.