11 minute read

KZMU celebrates 30 years

“An audio anchor to your community”

Moab’s community radio station celebrates 30 years and a banner fundraising season

Written by Rachel Fixsen

On April 23, Moab’s community radio station, KZMU, finished its annual spring “Radiothon” with $44,191, the highest amount ever collected through the event in the station’s 30-year history.

Station Manager Serah Mead is proud and grateful. “It’s in our blood to be of, and for, and by the community, and put the community first,” she says.

The small, self-described “scrappy” station has provided a platform for Moab locals to commune with each other through music, discussion, and laughter since the early 1990s, and Mead says she and the staff have high hopes for the station’s future.

“We’re so much more than a radio station,” she says. In addition to 24-hour broadcasting, with a wide variety of locally-hosted music and talk shows, KZMU also promotes community creativity, expression and kinship.

“It’s not just something you flip on and get entertained,” Mead says. “I like to think of it as an audio anchor to your community.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Moab resident Carl Rappe provided the spark that got the radio station going. He owned a restaurant in Moab in the 1980s called the Main Street Broiler.

“It was a horrible time to open a restaurant,” he says. Moab had gone bust after a uranium industry boom, and the town was mostly deserted. The Broiler, however, provided a place for locals to hang out, get a meal, and listen to music Rappe played through speakers hung from the ceiling. He’s always loved music.

“I think it’s a great medium,” he says. “It’s the soundtrack of people’s lives. You hear a tune and it brings back that memory; it evokes emotion; it can make you happy, it can make you sad, it can make you angry; you can love a song, you can hate it. It’s therapeutic.”

Rappe had lived in the Durango area for several years and worked with KSUT, a local radio station owned by the Southern Ute Tribe and headquartered in Ignacio, Colorado. When he moved back to Moab, he thought it should have its own radio station too. He got help from his contacts at KSUT, especially Wayne Bundy, who talked him through applying for a license from the Federal Communications Commission, obtaining 501c3 nonprofit status, and applying for grants. He recruited friends, drummed up local support, secured equipment and networked with other radio stations—at one point, he and some friends drove to Las Vegas to pick up an antenna from a public radio station that wasn’t using it anymore. It turned out not to be the right piece of equipment for KZMU, but Rappe held on to pieces of it: parts of the antenna are now elements of windchimes in certain Moab yards, and one piece serves as part of the railing on Rappe’s front porch.

During the 1991 filming of the movie Thelma and Louise, cast and crew hung out at The Broiler and made friends with Rappe, inviting him to the set. Several participants in the movie donated to help get KZMU off the ground.

“A lot of people came in to The Broiler and were enlisted,” as Rappe puts it.

It took about three years to get everything together, including the location. Kim Loveridge, a friend of Rappe’s, sold half an acre of property at the top of Rocky Road to the station for $1. A cast-off National Park Service single-wide trailer was secured to house the station’s studio, equipment, music library and office.

The aging trailer served for close to ten years—probably longer than it should have. “There are stories of DJs holding the drywall up while broadcasting because the roof was caving in,” Mead says.

In the early 2000s, the current building was constructed with the support of community donations and volunteer labor. It’s still modest, but it’s not caving in. Pieces of the old trailer are preserved: in a storage shed crowded with materials and equipment, the interior is sheeted with drywall sections salvaged from the old trailer, covered with the graffiti of DJs from the 1990s and early 2000s (some of whom are still on KZMU’s airwaves today). “Music is music good or bad,” says one inscription. “As long as it grooves, I’ll play it,” says another. Drawings and stickers fill the spaces between messages and signatures.

GROWING UP

The station gradually grew and took shape. It’s primarily a music station. Local volunteers— more than 80 currently, from ages 9 to 79—DJ weekly or biweekly shows and feature all different kinds of music: jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, Americana, Latin American, African, Celtic, reggae, Native American, Broadway musicals, big band, electronic, rock, and any genre a DJ selects. Rappe has DJ’ed a show on and off for 29 years—mostly “on” for the past 15, under the DJ name Uncle Meat.

“I like to start with some jazz,” he says, “and depending on how the song ends, go on to something that has that same riff—maybe some rock and blues, then maybe some reggae—just let the music take it.”

Mead co-hosts Rocketship Radio, “a stellar journey through genres and styles,” as DJ Honeywine.

“We’re a community station, so we’re naturally more weird and less mainstream,” Mead says.

There are also long-running talk shows. Christy Williams-Dunton has hosted “This Week In Moab” for over 20 years, inviting in-studio guests and on-air callers to discuss local current events and issues. During Radiothon, Williams-Dunton played some archival clips from those discussions. One covered the local housing crisis, which was a serious concern even in 2010. Another featured Tim DeChristopher, who famously protested a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease in 2008 by bidding on, and winning, leases which he had neither the means or intent to pay for.

All photos courtesy of KZMU, except as otherwise noted. Top, left to right: KZMU General Manager Serah Mead. Founder and volunteer DJ, Carl Rappe; Co-founder, volunteer DJ and public affairs host, Christy Williams-Dunton; Co-founder, trustee, and volunteer DJ, Doni Kiffmeyer. News reporter Justin Higginbottom. Opposite page: News and Public Affairs Director Molly Marcello (right) conducting an interview.

More recently, KZMU has expanded its news programming. Molly Marcello had been a volunteer DJ for about three years and worked as a reporter for Moab’s Times-Independent, but in 2018 was looking for a change. When then-station manager Marty Durlin offered her a part-time position as the station’s news director, she took it.

“It was an opportunity to build a new program,” Marcello says. “It was exciting—it still is exciting—figuring out what it looks and sounds like.”

Marcello, who is now full-time, produces a daily newscast and also collaborates with her part-time co-worker, Justin Higginbottom, in experimenting with longer standalone pieces. For example, recently the two of them started interviewing local Moab restaurant workers with the idea of creating “audio-portraits.” As they spoke to more people, they realized they had a bigger, more cohesive story, and they produced it into an hour-long piece called “Welcome to Moab: A Service Story” documenting how small restaurants are struggling to retain employees and meet demand and how restaurant workers are desperate to find stable and affordable housing. The piece resonated with many. KZMU’s independence allows for staff and volunteers to be creative and come up with surprising formats.

“NPR can’t really do that,” Marcello says.

KZMU was once dependent on funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a circumstance which meant the station had substantial support but was also subject to certain requirements. In the mid 2010s, the CPB changed its criteria for stations it would support. KZMU had once been the “sole source” for emergency broadcasts in the Moab area, and that was no longer the case, meaning the station failed to meet one CPB requirement; KZMU also didn’t have a big enough operating budget to qualify for CPB funding. When CPB withdrew its support, suddenly the station lost half of its operating budget.

“It was terrifying,” Mead says.

“It was a really big deal for the station,” Marcello agrees. “Everybody doubled down.”

Durlin tracked down major donors and tightened up the budget. Mead started writing grants. They launched a live

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radio drama—created by locals, performed live at Star Hall, and broadcast live on the air—to foster community and support for the station. They networked with other small radio stations and joined the Rocky Mountain Community Radio Coalition, through which small studios share support, ideas and audio stories.

“Having that cohort to ask advice and get inspiration and ideas has been really helpful,” Marcello says. Some stations in the coalition serving tourist destinations aired “Welcome to Moab: A Service Story,” seeing their own communities reflected in the piece.

The efforts worked. Now the station is stable, relying on donations and grants, and the loss of CPB funding has a silver lining of full independence for KZMU. The operating budget is still small, but workable. The staff takes pride in being able to do a lot with a little: creating ongoing unique, heartfelt content, even though the overhead costs for a tiny station like KZMU are similar to those for a much larger station.

“I hope Moab understands how hard, and cool, that is,” says Williams-Dunton.

The recent outpouring of financial support during Radiothon demonstrated that Moab values its radio station. Mead envisions using the funds to repair or replace some aging equipment and to finance an AmeriCorps position to focus on youth and community outreach. She’d love to be able to offer classes on things like how to produce a podcast, and facilitate access to broadcasting equipment and skills for community members. This spring the station held a “radio play festival” through which community members could learn to produce a short radio drama; Mead hopes to create more programming like that. She wants to use the station to both reflect Moab’s character, and advocate for its residents. She wants all community members to feel welcome at KZMU.

“It’s like an intangible town square where people can share their ideas and feel heard, and feel seen,” says Mead. During the pandemic shut-downs, it was for some, the best way to experience human contact.

“A lot of people told us KZMU was a lifeline,” Mead says. Moabites tuned in to hear friends’ and neighbors’ voices in their cars, homes, or headphones; they could call in and feel connected to community when they couldn’t gather in person; they also received solace from the music. The station’s genuine and quirky spirit have persisted through the decades. Though the station has evolved and grown, Rappe says it hasn’t really changed that much since it launched in 1992.

“The heart of it is pretty much still the same,” he says, adding with satisfaction, “It’s still got a funky feel to it.” n

Top, left to right: Office manager Kik Grant [Photo by Murice D. Miller]; “Moab Mamas” host Samantha Derbyshire; Volunteer DJ Howard Trenholme [Photo by Murice D. Miller] Bottom, left to right: Music Director Crystal Bunch [Photo by Murice D. Miller]; Former station manager Jeff Flanders with Lois Cooper; Hosts of the original “Moab Mamas,” Becky Thomas, Brittany Sheain, Jeanine Waite, Donna Rivette.