The best little radio show in the West

An appreciation of Radio High Country News,and of the band of brilliant, visionary and completely nuts peoplewho made it possible

  • Betsy Marston

    MICHAEL BRANDS
  • Adam Burke

    CINDY WEHLING
  • Krissy Clark

    GREG HANSCOM
 

Back in my high school days in a Utah mountain town, my friends and I got around in an old Datsun station wagon. To say it was held together with duct tape and baling wire would be a compliment: The odometer had rolled over 200,000 miles, the springs were shot and the tires were bald. The ignition had gone kaput; instead of replacing it, some creative mechanic had installed a button under the dashboard.

It wasn’t much to look at, but that car took us places. I still remember driving all night to get to a remote outpost of Canyonlands National Park, dodging jackrabbits while a battery-operated boom box blasted music from the camping gear piled in the back seat.

Radio High Country News was a lot like that. Nobody looking at the early operation would have guessed how far it was going to travel. The show started on a whim in the summer of 1998. KVNF, the public radio station here in Paonia, Colo., needed money, and to attract that money, it needed to patch the holes in its programming schedule.

“We could put together a radio show about the West,” High Country News staffers suggested. “How hard could it be?”

Famous last words. On our first show, Ed Marston, then HCN publisher, acted as host. I was the engineer, since I’d been doing an early-morning music show on KVNF and knew how to work the sound board and the phones. Our very first guest was then Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. Nothing like starting small.

I don’t know that the word “fiasco” really captures what followed. Ed read a prepared introduction to Dombeck, and to the U.S. Forest Service, and to Gifford Pinchot, and to John Muir, and … It lasted for 10 minutes, an eternity in radio time. When Ed finally finished, he lobbed the first question to Dombeck, who had joined via telephone from Washington, D.C. No response; the phone line was dead. We managed to get the chief back on the line, but the show deteriorated from there.

“It was a hilarious debut,” says Betsy Marston, then editor of the newspaper, who quickly replaced Ed as radio host, “but we thought, what the hell, if we can’t learn from screwing up, we won’t learn.” (Needless to say, Ed and Betsy had learned quite enough about my skills as an engineer; I was fired on the spot, and sent back to the newspaper.)

Thus was born Radio High Country News, a homegrown production with more character than know-how, and more naive “can-do” spirit than a whole troop of Boy Scouts. The show eventually grew into a polished weekly news magazine that aired on 32 public radio stations around the West. But we had no idea how much heart, soul, blood, sweat — and outright insanity — it would take to get here from there.

The early shows were literally patched together by producer Gabe Ross, who joined the operation in the winter of 1998-99, straight from National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., and an editorial internship at HCN. Gabe knew just enough about radio to be a good coach for Betsy, who had been editor of the newspaper for 15 years, and before that, a television producer in New York. Gabe recorded interviews on an aged reel-to-reel machine in the KVNF studios, and spent late nights editing them with a razor blade and a roll of tape. To get music into the show, he mixed it live, with help from longtime KVNF staffer and musician Jeff Reynolds. The pinnacle of his Radio HCN career, Gabe recalls, was a story about New Mexico rancher Jim Catron, which Gabe and Jeff mixed with sounds of a Jeep’s engine, wind in the grass, and Celtic music. “Every show, we did something we hadn’t done before,” he says. “Every show felt like two years of improvement.”

Gabe left in the summer of 1999 to get a law degree in New York, and we hired Adam Burke to take his place. Adam fit the bill perfectly: Brilliant. Highly caffeinated. And completely oblivious to the fact that he was about to undertake the impossible. He had a great ear for a story, though, and a passion for wild places. He also had some experience with public radio; he’d worked as the music director for KBUT in Crested Butte.

Adam quickly set out to take Radio HCN beyond KVNF’s few thousand listeners. Using a new computer and sound-editing software, he wove the best of Gabe and Betsy’s work into a pilot show, which he sent to astations around Colorado. In short order, public radio stations in Boulder, Carbondale and Grand Junction signed on, and Adam and Betsy went to work producing a weekly half-hour show. They soon learned that the show would never make it to the bigger stations unless they bumped up production quality. Miraculously, Peggy Rawlins appeared. Peggy, an environmental activist and arts advocate from Parachute, Colo., read about the radio show in the newspaper, came to Paonia and promptly gave HCN the money to build a small studio. “She was the angel,” Adam says.

Adam designed the studio himself, based on what he’d learned from a book and the Internet. “We had to build something that would withstand a passing train,” he says; the Union Pacific tracks that carry coal out of this valley sit just 100 yards from the HCN office.

It took most of the summer, but Adam and two local carpenters built a double-walled, super-insulated sound box, suspended above the floor on rubber pucks. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

The technical hurdles were just the beginning. After a year of working 80-hour weeks, Adam needed help. In the spring of 2000, Ali Macalady came on board, the first in a line of bright, fast-on-their-feet radio staffers that would include Katie Oppenheimer, Catherine “Kit” Wiitanen, April Reese, and finally, Krissy Clark and Maria Schell.

Of course, these people needed to be paid. Peggy Rawlins gave the program a big push to get it started, but we had to find a way to keep it going: we were digging into the newspaper’s fast-diminishing reserves.

That’s when the readers of High Country News came to the rescue. In 2001 and 2002, you donated more than $1 million to the Spreading the News Campaign. That money kept the radio show alive, along with our Web site and Writers on the Range column syndicate. Then in 2003, we signed up our first radio underwriters — Mountainsmith, which makes backpacks, sleeping bags and other outdoor gear, and The New Belgium Brewery, which runs the world’s first wind-powered brewery in Fort Collins, Colo.

The quality and the reach of the show improved steadily, and it eventually aired in 10 states. Those of you who were listeners know how lively the interviews were. Betsy — and later Adam, who took over as host in the fall of 2002 — spoke with authors, activists, artists, politicians and everyone in between. They brought Western characters to life in a way that’s impossible to do on paper. “What I remember is the women,” Betsy laughs. She spoke with writer Terry Tempest Williams, historian Patricia Limerick and rancher Linda Hasselstrom, among others.

For Adam and Krissy, an interview with Native American author Sherman Alexie stands out. The conversation, which centered on Alexie’s movie, The Business of Fancydancing, was yeasty. At one point, Alexie broke into the Carly Simon song, “You’re So Vain,” ad-libbing, “I bet you think this pow-wow’s about you, don’t you?”

A good radio interview is “more than just question, answer, question, answer,” says Adam. “You’re dancing.” Even the worst interviews sometimes turned out to be magical. Adam and Krissy interviewed Bruce Eilert, a former Department of Defense biologist, planning to discuss the military’s environmental ethics, or lack thereof. Instead, Eilert wanted to tell his own story, about being harassed, threatened and eventually fired for trying to protect the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. “I came out of the booth feeling completely crushed,” says Adam. “But Krissy said, ‘No, no — there’s something there.’ ” Krissy spent a few long nights in the studio. She cut out most of the high-minded Defense Department talk and concentrated on Eilert’s personal story. “I would be listening to the tape and at moments, I would almost want to cry,” she says. “It was really a great feeling. Life was happening on air.” “The best moments in radio have been the moments of surprise,” says Adam, “when things have crystallized around an individual human experience.”

The radio crew had the show running well, and for a while, we felt like we were out in the fast lane, whipping past some of the shinier vehicles on the airwaves.

“Everybody in the public radio world is trying to figure out how to cover the West, how to tap into all these ears that have suddenly moved here,” says Krissy. “It was fun to do a story and then, a few days later, hear it on NPR and say, ‘Ha! We were there first.’ ”

But with the beefed-up staff, a satellite feed, and freelance radio producers out in the field, the Spreading the News money began to run thin. The underwriting dollars helped, but foundation money was hard to come by. In early August, HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer decided we could no longer sustain the program: The last installment of Radio High Country News will air during the first week in September.

“I was in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, and sometimes I wonder if we had that same naive energy,” says Krissy. “We beat it for a long time; we beat the odds.”

Even though the odds eventually beat back, Radio High Country News has changed High Country News for the better. Radio forced us to speak to a broader audience and stay up-to-the-minute with news. In these days of instant Internet headlines, with more publications trying to cover “our” issues, HCN has to be a “quick judo fighter,” as Adam says. At the same time, we have to continue to provide the depth of perspective on which we’ve built our reputation.

We have a lot of people to be grateful to — to Adam, and to the pack of radio producers who have worked slavishly for the past five years. And, of course, we thank all of you, who have “suspended disbelief to believe,” as the saying goes, that a small Western newspaper could beat the odds and become a multimedia organization. We’ll continue with the Web site, Writers on the Range, and, of course, with the biweekly newspaper that has covered the West for more than 30 years. And we have plans to still do an occasional radio special. But for now, our built-from-scratch radio studio will sit quiet, a testament to just how far a dream can carry you.

Radio High Country News original programs from Sept. 10, 2001, through Aug. 25, 2003, can be heard on Real Audio at www.hcn.org/radio.jsp. Earlier programs are available on CD. Call 800-905-1155.

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