What's it like to be one of the last? Were the final dodo birds lonely? Did the few remaining Caspian tigers know that the gig was almost up? It's tough, hanging on by a thread, teetering on the edge of passé. Ask anyone at KOTO, the community radio station in Telluride, Colorado, which is one of the few stations left in the U.S. that is completely free of commercials and personal underwriting. All the DJs are volunteers, and every cent in KOTO's coffers comes from grants, fundraisers and donations.
KOTO is an acquired taste. With revolving DJs--whose handles include such tags as "Flyin' with the Fishbag," "The G Spot," "Nordic Commando Radio," "Cows with Guns" and many more--come dynamic swings in musical genres. Reggae, bluegrass, gospel, jazz and hip hop might fill one day's schedule, and the next is entirely different. Telluride citizens rely on KOTO's local news, weather and avalanche forecasts and clamor for a few syndicated shows from the BBC and NPR. Local talk shows about travel or sports and even live broadcasts of town council meetings round out the programming.
At KOTO, the DJs often say it's "radio almost like the professionals." Although this phrase is usually slung over the air after accidental dead air, it's said with no shortage of pride. And for good reason. These are my friends and neighbors in the booth. The avalanche forecast caters specifically to the San Juan Mountains that surround my home. The daily community calendar lists local birthdays and social events. And thanks to KOTO, I once collected gallons of free ice cream when the DJ announced that the freezers at the grocery store had broken. Lost dogs are reunited with their humans; carpool rides to every corner of the U.S. are coordinated; roaming elk on Highway 145 are announced to alert drivers. It all happens, thanks to KOTO.
What began in October of 1975 with a measly 10 watts and a few grand has grown to consume an annual operating budget of $350,000 to keep its 8,900 watts (and online streaming) pumping. KOTO's fundraising is a biannual event, always kicked off with Guest DJ Day and supplemented by various annual events (a black bean sauté breakfast, serving beer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, concerts, a ski swap, etc.) and contests (a rubber duck race, cribbage tournament, lip sync contest, etc.). But over a third of KOTO's operating expenses are raised through on-air pleas for pledges.
This year's spring fundraising was a five-week slog, not the slowest, but long enough that the events director stepped in and stayed at the controls to raise the final $12,000 for over 24 hours of "Insurgent Radio," during which she made entreaties to be saved from a self-induced threat to eat a sardine every 15 minutes if pledging lagged. It worked, but it's not painless. The "fun" in "fundraising" began to wane.
Still, even during fundraising, my radio dial stays at 91.7 FM. Corporate radio has more ads than KOTO has sardine threats. Most satellite radio stations rely on advertising, and even Pandora succumbed to the easy ad buck. Terrestrial radio without underwriting and commercials is on the verge of extinction. Most community radio stations tolerate, at the least, underwriting. In contrast, KOTO DJs announce regularly that our station is "community radio brought to you by you, the listener." KOTO may struggle to make ends meet, but I hope it never goes the way of corporate, satellite or Internet radio--or worse, the way of the dodo.