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Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as Voice of Ouray

Voice of Ouray

A small Colorado town is tuning into a student-run radio station.

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At 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, citizens of Ouray who keep their alarm clocks set to 98.9 FM, as many here do, are awakened by the news that school authorities have granted 12th graders an extra hour of sleep.

But listeners who remember that May 27 is senior prank day at the 290-student, K-12 Ouray School probably guess pretty quickly that the announcement is a hoax. Some early risers even drive over to eyeball the school, which seniors have draped in graffiti-painted sheets, with classroom desks and chairs set up in the street, while music blasts from the open windows.

The tolerant reaction by adults and school officials demonstrates the small, mountain town’s affection for its teenagers, whom virtually everyone has watched grow up, and perhaps the knowledge that some will soon leave for jobs and colleges far from southern Colorado.

The radio station’s role in the prank is accepted, too—a sign of trust that school officials have in the students who run it.

KURA 98.9 LP-FM is one of only a few radio stations in the country managed and produced by high school students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long.

Since first hitting the airwaves in 2002, the station has been a public forum for teenagers’ expression—especially of their musical tastes—in a town that seems to rear youngsters who are independent-minded, sometimes to a fault, the locals say.

But KURA is not just about the teenagers. As the only radio station in town—and needing support from local businesses to survive—it has had to serve the adult residents’ needs and tastes as well.

And the teenagers seem to have stepped up to that challenge by making KURA an integral part of this town of 900 people and the lives they lead at 7,702 feet elevation.

KURA’s eclectic musical mix can be heard in many of the shops and restaurants lining the nine-block Main Street, which is uninterrupted by traffic signs or lights. The station is also a valuable source of local news.

“We only have a weekly newspaper, so KURA really is, on a daily basis, the only medium we have that can disseminate information,” says Glynn Williams, the proprietor of the variety store on Main Street.

The airwaves carry notices of lost pets, thank-you messages from students about to graduate, and bulletins about activities such as women’s fly-fishing lessons. KURA alerts citizens of water and power cutoffs and is giving 3rd graders a townwide audience for their poetry.

At times, that informational role has been more important, as in May 2004, when a 57-year-old tourist with dementia wandered from her motel and up into the mountains. At the behest of local police, KURA put out bulletins every 20 minutes for three days. Though the woman was found dead by hikers weeks later, the police chief praises the station for its role.

KURA’s eclectic musical mix can be heard in many of the shops and restaurants lining the nine-block Main Street. The station is also a valuable source of local news.

The station’s local emphasis is as much by technological necessity as by choice. KURA has a low-power fm broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission, which limits its signal output to a weak 100 watts. A federal law passed in 2000 created the LP FM class of license to allow nonprofit community and school groups to operate radio stations. Interest among those groups has surged, but the FCC’s unwillingness to issue more than a small number of licenses has forced many to settle for unregulated Internet-only broadcasting.

For the past three years, from the 12-foot antenna that stood on the school’s roof until early this month, KURA’s signal has reached no more than 10 miles to Ridgeway, where the Uncompahgre Valley opens a gap in the mountains. Just beyond Ridgeway, the station’s music would dissolve into fuzzy fan-beats. In June, the antenna was moved to a nearby mountain, doubling the station’s listening area.

At the school, KURA is housed in a large room just off the library and media center. Amid a colorful clutter of notices, photos, and radio gear, four or five computers rest on tables, some equipped with large microphones attached to metal booms.

Most of the 20 high school students who help run the station are enrolled in media specialist Nancy Nixon’s radio class. Others schedule time in the studio as part of an independent study of broadcasting.

The curriculum covers the history of radio, training in computer production tools used for audio editing, broadcast skills, and radio journalism.

But the teenagers’ daily assignments always include the many tasks that keep the station on the air.

Nixon, a tall, 56-year-old woman, says she realized early on that the station needed to be run like a business. “Kids really like having specific jobs,” she points out. “They feel much more comfortable.”

The students echo her observation.

“It’s practically a job,” says Fiona Meinert, a senior who is a KURA veteran.

But she likes the work. “It’s such a break in the day; you’re always listening to music,” she says.

As station manager, Meinert writes most of the daily “bulletin board” items of school or local news. She places slips of paper into wooden mailboxes for other staff members to read and record for broadcast when they are scheduled to be in the studio.

Meinert also writes and assigns the underwriting notices, which give publicity to the 20 local businesses that each pay $25 monthly to support KURA. Keeping underwriters happy is a key part of Meinert’s job, because, although the station has received several small grants, the school district provides no special funding.

Other students have positions such as music director and disc jockey.

The stalwarts at the station this school year have been Pete Morss, a sophomore whose father had a career in radio broadcasting, and Allison Kolowich, a junior. Those two have been awarded the coveted jobs of running the station this summer, working 20 hours a week at $8.50 an hour.

All the students learn the software needed to operate the station, such as Pro Tools, a sound-production program, which students use to record and edit the spots for underwriters and the station’s journalism pieces.

Students also download music for broadcast using iTunes or LimeWire, a file-sharing program that allows users to trade music online. Some of them also learn how to use Mega Seg, a jukebox program that manages the station’s collection of more than 8,000 digital songs.

Mega Seg fulfills another, valuable function for a school-run station: It can take over, at any time of day or night, and deliver on-air a programmed blend of Top 40 music. The software also keeps a record of everything that is broadcast, an FCC requirement.

The software also serves up dozens of legal identifications with the station’s call letters and frequency that the FCC requires to be broadcast every hour, and “bugs,” which are briefer sound bites that remind listeners where to tune in.

Students produce the legal IDs and bugs with a local flavor.

“We gather a lot of sound from the community, business owners, even kindergartners,” says Nixon, laughing about a preschooler who recently was tugging on Nixon’s T-shirt and reading aloud “98.9 KURA.”

“I grabbed a MiniDisc recorder,” she says, adding that the child’s words are now a station bug.

For local teenagers, both listeners and operators, KURA is mostly about the music, and this is where Jonnie Sirotek steps in. As KURA’s music director, the junior vets every addition to the music database. By scanning national Top 40 lists, poring over music magazines, and watching MTV, he works out a musical brew that aims to satisfy the diverse members of the community, from hard-rocking teenagers to mellow adults.

All the students learn the software needed to operate the station.

KURA’s recipe is summarized in its standard weekday schedule, distributed to shops and tourist hotels: modern popular music from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., a varied mix of mostly adult rock from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., jazz during the dinner hours from 5 to 7, then Night Blast from 7 to midnight, a time the station devotes to local teenagers’ appetites for hip-hop, rap, alternative, and modern rock. The period from midnight to 3 a.m. features classical and New Age.

All staff members help in selecting the music for Night Blast—the showcase of student musical taste—by culling through new cds that music companies send to the station in return for playing them on air. They also nominate favorites from their own CD collections.

Compared with teen-oriented programming that reaches Ouray from commercial stations in Telluride, KURA tends more toward new groups and independent labels rather than mainstream music.

“Here is a chance to hear cutting-edge artists, never aired on Clear Channel stations,” says Nixon, referring to one of two broadcast syndicates that dominate commercial radio across much of the United States. Only country music, a genre that apparently appeals to no one at the station, gets short shrift.

Sirotek handles the direct contacts with several record companies that specialize in the college market, such as Sugar Hill Records. But he admits it takes some creativity to convince them that they should bother sending music to this tiny station.

KURA is true to its side of the deal with record companies. Sirotek keeps a spreadsheet of the titles, artists, and frequency of songs KURA plays on air—and reports back regularly.

Still, the national music labels that dominate the Top 40 lists do not include KURA in their promotional mailings. So students resort to LimeWire to fill that niche in the daytime programming. Though the file-sharing program has raised the hackles of the music industry because of illegal downloading, Nixon says she has been assured by people who have worked in radio that downloading is permissible if the music is used for promotion.

Tanya Jaramillo, a sophomore, regularly uses LimeWire to download rap and hip-hop tunes for Night Blast.

“I have to edit all the cusswords,” she says, before demonstrating her technique in Pro Tools. Cueing up a hip-hop track, the software presents the song as a jagged line on the screen. Using headphones and the computer mouse, she deftly locates an off-color word, snips the pattern out and flips it backwards, then pastes it back into the song. The word is now reversed but still compatible with the song.

On a Thursday afternoon in May, eight KURA staff members are seated around a long table in the media center, in their best imitation of a corporate board. For the next half-hour, several younger high school students enter the room one at a time. They all want to join the KURA staff in the fall and, having completed applications with three references, they face the group interview.

The staff members have a list of questions and a 100-point scale for evaluating candidates. But in the end, they give a friendly, teasing interview—just like the one they were subjected to themselves when they first applied to work at the station.

“What’s in your CD player right now?” DJ Logan Tyler asks a candidate.

“How much do you think I can bench press?” Sirotek asks the girl.

“Twenty-five pounds,” she fires back.

No one is asking the question that Nixon, who has been rolling her eyes, thinks is most important, so she does: “Can you be self-guided?”

Nixon says later that she depends on students getting the station’s business done while being lightly supervised. They must also keep within bounds set by both the school and the FCC.

“We know this is serious,” says Allison Kolowich, referring to the station’s high profile in the community, “and that we’d better not mess up the same way twice.”

The meeting ends with job assignments for returning staff members. Kolowich will succeed Meinert as station manager. Morss and Logan will be co-music directors. Another student is given the challenge of upgrading the station’s Web page.

Though the station boasts about being student-run, adults are obvious elements in KURA’s success. “Student-run, that sounds good; it’s not really totally true,” says Nixon candidly.

In addition to the underwriters, two local men with commercial-radio experience helped work through many technical hurdles, and other adults host radio shows on weekends, when most teenagers lose enthusiasm for hanging out at the school.

“I’m guaranteed three hours of absolute fun, no matter how busy I am,” says Caroline Stoufer, owner of Buckskin Bookseller on Main Street.

At 50, Stoufer wears many civic hats, including treasurer of the local humane society. But on Sunday afternoons, she is “Sweet Caroline,” who plays three hours of music in blocks that cover the decades of popular music from the big-band sounds of the 1940s to the disco beat of the ’70s.

Yet of all the adults, Nixon is most obviously the force behind KURA, which some residents have affectionately dubbed “Radio Nixon.” At 56, she finds time for the station while also running the media center, teaching drama, and directing the annual school play.

Nixon’s mind teems with ideas for improving the station—such as doing more radio journalism, starting with a 10-minute daily report, next year, on the plans of the town maintenance crew.

But she sees her most important role at the station as teaching students how to serve all members of the community.

“Because we’re the only station,” she says, “we’re trying to find a harmony, a balance.”

Vol. 24, Issue 41, Pages 41-44

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