It's as free as it can be, without being offensive. It's available to all in the community, whether to speak their minds or to live out their fantasies of being disk jockeys. It is an open forum. It is information central. It is the communication link for the town.
The communal lovechild is all grown up, and at 30, epitomizes the best of Telluride's progress.
This is the final installation in a series, which started on Sept. 30, about KOTO's 30-year history in Telluride. KOTO celebrates its birthday tonight, 8 p.m., at the Silver Trestle Building on main street, 205 E. Colorado Ave., with music by your favorite DJs and cake. A season pass will be given as a door prize. Everyone is invited and the party is free.
The "Bobalouie" era of the station between 1987 and 1989 brought KOTO into a more professional sound, a larger music library and the biggest step of all a permanent home in a new building behind the Miners Union.
Bobalouie is Robert Allen, a man of towering height crowned by a head of Harpo Marx-like hair. (It's white now.) An Ohio native, he moved to northern California in the 60s and lived a conventional life. He made his living as a tax consultant in San Francisco, had two daughters and probably didn't appear any different than any businessman commuting to the city. But Allen led a double life. After a week of dealing with numbers and tax shelters, he'd change clothes and attitudes and spend his weekends in the clubs or at concerts in the outrageous first days of the San Francisco music scene. There was more music than could be imagined. The Fillmore concert hall was in full swing. Names that are now rock legends Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were giving free concerts on flatbed trucks in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. This was the universe that Allen cared about.
In 1977 Allen saw a photo of Telluride; the next year, he attended the Jazz Festival. In the summer of 1979, he attended every festival, and a friend introduced him to middle-of-the-night radio at KOTO, teaching him how to run the board. What attracted him most about Telluride, he said, was that "it was hard to get to." After so many years in mainstream, fast-paced San Francisco, he loved the fact that Telluride was a destination place, remote and "at the end of the road." He spent the next two years commuting between the Bay Area and Telluride, building a home in the woods in Ilium Valley, and volunteering to "do anything" at the station.
KOTO jumped on his offer, and Allen was put to work helping Himmelsbach in the music department. The record companies were still reluctant to send records to this backwoods radio station, and Allen helped with the continuous letter writing.
Allen recalls his first radio show, filling in at the 9 a.m.-12 p.m. slot. Impressed by the fact that he could play "anything I wanted," he even double-checked. "Anything I want?" he asked, and was reassured. So it was a rude surprise when, at around 9:45 a.m. while playing the Doors, a man walked in abruptly, saying, "You're playing kind of rough rock and roll for the morning. Maybe you'd better mellow it out."
Not knowing who this "jerk" was, telling him what to play, Allen recalls, he threw him out of the station, saying it was his show who did he think he was, telling him what to play. The man left and ten minutes later Stephanie and other staff members came in, laughing, and asked him if he knew who Jim Bedford was the founder and manager of the station? This was Allen's first introduction to Bedford, and the two of them, both stubborn, had a mutual respect and friendship from that day on.
Ironically, Allen never played hard rock on his show after that, and his show was called the "Soft Rock Guru." He was given the name Bobalouie by John Sir Jesse, and even after he had decided he hated it, Allen couldn't get rid of the name. As with so many others, the name has stuck; years later, almost everyone who knows Robert Allen from the old days, at least in Telluride, calls him Bobalouie or Baba.
The Ol' 'Outside Expert' Syndrom
Allen moved up the responsibility ladder at KOTO just by being there and doing his jobs well. When Himmelsbach quit in 1982, Bobalouie took over as music director and became more aggressive, calling the companies and letting them know the station had been around for seven years. He also connected with record companies in his travels back and forth to California.
When Selby resigned as general manager in 1987, Allen took over the job temporarily while a committee looked nationwide for a manager a case of the "outside expert" syndrome, often seen in Telluride. This is where it's believed that someone from somewhere else will know more, and be more competent, than people who live right here. But Allen says the station was "dreaming. We couldn't find anybody because we didn't have anything to offer a headache job that paid little." They thought maybe they'd get lucky and find someone who "didn't need the money, wanted to live in Telluride and run a radio station." Eventually, when the outside expert didn't materialize, the committee stopped looking and Allen agreed to do the job for a year. But he needed help he had been doing the books, being the music and program director and it was too much for any one person. Allen hired Ben Kerr as program director, and continued as general manager for the next two years.
The hiring of Ben Kerr as program director in 1986 was a giant leap forward in stabilizing the station. Kerr, in his mid-30s, was the rudder that would keep KOTO on an even keel. His life was finally in order after years of turmoil. Eight years earlier he had lost an arm in an electrical accident on a construction site in Telluride.
Kerr laughed as he remembered that when he was first asked to apply to be general manager he had turned it down in a flash too many headaches, he said. So in 1986, when Bobalouie asked Kerr if he'd just fill in for a few months as program director, he said he "thought he could handle that." Once again the SMEF board (still exhibiting the outside expert syndrome) was going to search nationwide for a general manager. Nine years later, Kerr was still program director; in 1995, he became general manager, a post he holds today, and describes as "all-encompassing."
In the beginning, Kerr's major responsibility was making sure all 50 weekly air shifts were filled, something he still does. "You try to juggle the DJs, the personalities and the kind of music they play with the times you have available, with their work schedules and everything else." It sounds like an impossible task, and, Kerr says, at first it was. "But it got easier," he recalled. "The longer a DJ stayed with the radio, I got to know his or her personal likes, dislikes and schedule. If I needed a last minute fill-in, I knew who to call and usually found someone within three or four calls."
Creating a balance of music on the air is a tightrope walk, according to Kerr. Since KOTO's format is "freeform," a light and diplomatic touch is required to handle the program director job well. Kerr says he tried to fill vacant spots from a list of volunteers waiting for shows. He didn't try to judge their music choices, but rather let the audience judge. It was not a formal procedure, but was based, rather, on feedback that Kerr would get, both on the street and at the station. He would usually hear about the shows that many people didn't like. He says he had to hear a good number of negative comments before he would pay close attention to a given show and speak to the disk jockey, something, he says, that didn't happen often.
Most of KOTO's DJs are people who love music, whether it's a specific genre or just music in general. These people seem to use their programs as creative outlets, and the high quality of the programming on KOTO reflects the care and energy they give their shows.
KOTO can be an emotional rollercoaster for some of its volunteer disk jockeys, but then, once they overcome the fear of speaking on the air and making technical mistakes, it can seem like the most wonderfully creative thing they've ever done. It's a great boost when the phone rings and a stranger has called to tell you what a great show you're playing. Conversely, when the phone never rings you're all alone at the station at night, and have been playing music for three hours it seems like a vacuum. Is anyone out there? And the worst cut of all the unkind phone calls. When DJs are on the air, they set themselves up for both praise and criticism. Anyone can call 728-4333 and comment. Sometimes it takes a tough hide to be a disk jockey.
The philosophy of the more experienced DJs is that they're not going to please everyone; there are many musical tastes in and around Telluride. But the bottom line for ego-survival at KOTO is this: If a listener doesn't like a particular show, they can always turn it off and come back in a couple of hours.
Janice Zink has been the Monday evening stalwart with her "Jumpin' Jan with Steely Dan" show since 1980. She has won several "Silver Tongue" awards, an annual trophy presented to the disk jockey whose show has brought in the most donations during fundraising periods.
Zink remembers back to 1978 when she was traveling the west looking for a ski town to move to from Wisconsin. She says this writer was the first person she met in Telluride, when she walked into Telluride Realty to ask about housing and heard the Beatles playing on the radio. Zink says that when she was told about the station and that she could be a disk jockey, she decided to move to Telluride.
Her first shows consisted primarily of music by Steely Dan, a jazzy rock and roll studio duo with numerous million-seller albums in the 70s. The program evolved from that point to an eclectic variety of jazz or bluegrass/jazzy rock and roll. Zink's shows often had a theme songs about love or ecology, or whatever struck her fancy during the previous week. "When I do my show I feel like I'm painting a picture,"' she reflects.
Janice and husband Norman Squier got to know each other at the radio station. He recalls eight years back, long before they became a couple, when his news show preceded hers on Monday nights; one night she was late, and he locked her out to teach her a lesson. She remembers the story differently, but each one learned something about the other that night and they were married eight years later.
These days Janice does her show every other week. Her son Zack has a show on the alternate Monday called "Tyin' Your Shoes with ZT." One of the high points of Zink's life came when she finally got to meet Steely Dan, because of KOTO, she says, when they played Fiddler's Green in Denver in 2001. She will never forget how, onstage, they played a song from their latest album, dedicated to her. Zink has been KOTO's special events coordinator now for 11 years.
Former Town Council member Steve "Rasta Stevie" Smith was another longtime KOTO regular with his 9 p.m. Tuesday "Heartbeat of Zion" show. A man devoted to the Rastafarian religion, Smith played three hours of reggae music and had a following in town full of "rastas" and mostly young people. Smith's show, a smooth blend of the best reggae artists, weathered the anti-reggae music storm that erupted in 1986, when longtime listeners complained about the growing amount of reggae being played on the air. Kerr took the problem in stride, explaining that when slots opened up, the only available DJs tended to be younger residents, not yet tied to full-time jobs and family obligations, and their music of choice, in the late 80s and early 90s, was reggae. Slowly, the reggae went away, changing, as so much has on KOTO, more through attrition rather than because of direct action.
The Jazz Show
The jazz aficionados were in a class by themselves. Their dedication and knowledge of their music is legendary and their shows were some of the most professional on KOTO.
Paul Machado's "All That Jazz" was on KOTO from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays for 27 years. Machado said he hadn't focused much on jazz until he started doing his show, when he went from A to Z in the records, "experimenting" with what he liked. He didn't come to music cold, however Machado's mother was a singer, and Machado himself played lead soprano bugle in a professional drum and bugle corps, in his youth.
Machado's favorite jazz is swing what he calls "the kind of jazz that keeps your feet tapping." The station will always have a soft spot in its heart for Machado, who was construction supervisor of the work on the new building, and who donated the concrete walk in front. Machado is now producer of the Telluride Jazz Celebration, bringing jazz artists to town for a summer festival that many consider the best in town, not only because of the excellent music but also because of the smaller crowds, and fewer impacts on the town.
Jim Lynam was the executive director of SMEF in 1990 and his enthusiasm for the station knew no bounds. Lynam moved to Telluride in 1986 "to follow my wife Leigh Ann's dream." They were living in Phoenix, where Lynam worked as a plumbing/pipe-fitter. Leigh Ann told him about a beautiful place in the southwest Rockies, a small, safe little town that would be a great place to bring up kids. But the one thing she said that convinced him to move to Telluride, sight unseen, was that "there was a radio station just like the old FM stations from the underground era."
The Lynams moved here jobless, armed only with faith and hope that things would work out. Within a month, Jim was the manager of Jerry Greene's Baked in Telluride, a perfect position for the likeable, organized Lynam. Now the young newcomers to town talked to "Dr. Jimmy" for their first job, allowing Greene to take some long-overdue time off, and do other things in addition to running the bakery.
In 1981 Art Goodtimes started a five-year run with his show "Afoot with Visions," the only live poetry show on the station, interspersing music with his live reading of different poets. Goodtimes arrived in Norwood in 1979 and "lived on Craig Chapot's front porch for the summer," he recalled. He knew Chapot because they had both attended seminary together in San Francisco. Goodtimes now lives in Norwood, and is in his third term as San Miguel County Commissioner.
Both Terry Tice and Dick Unruh had radio slots for many years. Each brought his own take and taste to country music shows. Terrible Terry and the Ol' Road Hawg were favorites for decades and they have remained in the community since the beginning.
There are so many DJs and volunteers in general who have contributed to the station too many to name, but you know who you are.
KOTO would not be what it is, if it weren't for you.
A Kinder and Gentler KOTO
The tone and course of the station is set by the general manager; in 1990, Texas transplant Cindy Obrand took the helm of KOTO. Obrand and her family moved to Telluride from southern California in 1986. They planned to stay for three days, having come to visit friends on their quest to find a new place to live. A series of calamities forced them to stay for two weeks, and Obrand says because of this, she got to know the town and chose it over other contenders.
"Telluride was an alternative lifestyle to the corporate world," she related. "I was sick of that life and keeping up with 'fashion-forward' women." The family called it a sabbatical for Obrand's husband, Mick, who decided to try on for size the life of a small-town lawyer for a year. Obrand had her sons 15-month-old Edgar and 10-year-old Jesse to raise. She helped out with the elementary ski program and "immediately became a DJ."
Radio history was made with Obrand's first Wednesday afternoon "Humpday Honeys" show with Kathy McLaughlin. McLaughlin lived across the street from the Obrands on Oak Street, and they had known each other casually in Laguna Beach. Their humor melded and they developed what they called "White Trash Radio," much of it based on the kind of kidding around Obrand's family did when she was growing up in Texas. The show was extremely popular with radio listeners with its mix of "high-fat/low-rent" recipes, country and blues tunes and a laidback outlandishness that listeners loved.
Obrand was elected to the SMEF board ten months later. "I was doing volunteer work at the station all the time," she recalled. "I loved this radio the people at the station were right up my alley."
Meanwhile, the station was being managed by Tom "Doc" O'Connor, a former television newsman from the Lake Tahoe area. The board had finally found their "outside expert," having advertised the position when Bobalouie was ready to resign after three years. After six months, O'Connor moved on to managing the town's public-access television station, his former field of expertise, and Obrand was hired.
Her mission as general manager was to continue the circle of bringing the community to the radio and the radio into the community. She was pragmatic and organized and brought a distinctly feminine perspective to the station. After speaking at the Rotary Club (never KOTO boosters), Rotary President Judi Kiernan pronounced Obrand the harbinger of a "kinder and gentler KOTO." This probably was a reference not only to Obrand's management style, but to the community's acceptance of the station as well. The Obrands eventually moved back to California, although they have now bought a rental home in the Telluride area, so they can return.
Copyright Mavis Bennett from Romancing the Radio published in 1991 by Paramenides Press. All rights reserved.