If you happened to be futzing with your radio dial in early April of 1983 you may have come across a mysterious broadcast at the south end of the FM band.
“We all smoke marijuana in El Paso,” a man boasted above a playful country western groove. “We all take our trips on LSD.”
These are the opening lines of a mostly forgotten song by the tongue-in-check Texas outfit Chuck Wagon and The Wheels called “A**holes from El Paso,” one of many obscure tracks produced by independent record labels that would wind up in KMUN’s coffers.
Engineer Scott Wills, on loan from KBOO in Portland, was testing the signal of what was to become a brand new radio station. According to Liam Dunne, who has been with KMUN since the start, Wills instructed Dunne to spin this specific record at 2 p.m. sharp from their nascent office in the Gunderson Building on Commercial Street as Wiles drove his truck up Megler Mountain to see if he could catch the signal.
Already many years in the making at that point, about two weeks later on April 17 the station would officially launch with Dunne declaring on air, “Welcome to the birth of a station.” Then the packed studio broke into a sing-along atop of a recording of “Hallelujah.”
“It was just a play on ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Dunne recalled recently of his famous cold open. “This is the last time I want to see that published.”
From these scrappy beginnings, KMUN 91.9 FM, which would later come to be known as Coast Community Radio, has matured into a fine adult and an important citizen of the North Coast. Many of the original programmers, including Dunne, Pam Trenary and Barbara Hansel, among others are still on the air, though they now broadcast from the Tillicum House on 14th Street, a large Queen Anne donated to the station about 30 years ago by benefactor Helen Patti.
To celebrate their upcoming 35th anniversary, Coast Community Radio is throwing a giant birthday bash 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 14, in the Ruins at the Astor (1425 Commercial St.), and you and yours are invited.
In the spirit of community, there will be a cash bar with brews from Fort George, spirits from Pilot House Distilling, sandwiches from Good to Go, vintage vinyl spun by DJ Joey Altruda, and the venue space was donated by local developer Paul Caruana, who owns the building. Local print shop Anchor Graphics also provided promotional materials for the event.
The party coincides with Astoria’s Second Saturday Art Walk, and KMUN is happy to poach any and all gallery gazers for a little bit of revelry. All ages are welcome.
“We’ll be passing the hat, so to speak,” KMUN board president Joan Herman said. “But there’s no cover.”
As the only community-run station in the Lower Columbia region, and a National Public Radio affiliate to boot, Coast Community Radio is annually threatened as Congress continues to float the idea of fully defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With the recent passing of the federal budget, for now, Herman said, “No news is good news,” but she stressed that it’s the support of the community that keeps KMUN running.
Besides eclectic, original programming, with favorites like The Ship Report and Bedtime Stories, it is important to remember that KMUN is also here for the community in times of crisis. “We’re there in a big storm, when a pet’s lost, when there’s an accident on the bridge,” Herman said.
Despite a tree falling on the station during the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, Coast Community Radio continued to broadcast throughout the storm and its aftermath. Herman said she has heard from people who lived alone through this historic event that KMUN was the only human voice they heard for several days.
“The live broadcasts of FisherPoets by KMUN has made this community event accessible to so many more,” said Clatsop Community College writing instructor Nancy Cook, who has long been involved with the FisherPoets Gathering. “And an arts event wouldn’t be an arts event without a Friday Arts Live & Local! interview with Carol Newman.”
Staying the course
Successful community radio requires just that: community. Herman, who also hosts the public affairs show “Perspectives,” urges potential volunteers to just drop by the station and see what opportunities await them.
One such holdover is station manager Graham Nystrom, who first got involved with the station through the encouragement of his partner, Jessamyn Grace, who hosts the late night show Day of the Velvet Voice every other Monday evening. “I made a donation of some much needed gear to the station, and started volunteering by cleaning and organizing the engineering space in the basement,” Nystrom recalled. “It turns out cleaning basements is a good way to win brownie points. The staff started referring to me as ‘the guy that lives in the basement.’ When I would hear a blown speaker, I would fix it. When I saw a need, I would address it. About six months later, I was offered the job of operations manager. I was thrilled!”
To remain relevant, Herman hopes more young people will get involved with Coast Community Radio to help usher in the next chapter of the people’s station.
“Looking back at early program guides, the station is not so different now than it was back then,” Nystrom added. “And I expect it won’t be so different 35 years in the future than it is now. I don’t predict music and news going out of style, but hey, it’s a brave new world, right?”
Like the course of true love, Dunne said, “not all relationships run smoothly. But with a combination of desire and discipline, and if the spirit is willing, we will stay the course for generations to come.”