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ABOUT NELSON: Kootenay Co-op Radio is not your average station

Donna Macdonald writes about the public effort to create KCR
Kootenay Co-op Radio manager Ed Zych (top left) speaks to volunteers Hannah DeBoer-Smith, Paul Orlowski and Rav Binning in one of the station’s studios. Photo: Submitted

by Donna Macdonald

As I back my electric car out of my carport, I’m surrounded by a cacophony of beeps and bongs warning of impending disasters, like a collision with a branch. When I finally clear the obstacles and my car relaxes, then I get to hear what I want: Kootenay Co-op Radio.

For 25 years, KCR has surprised and educated me. I’ve experienced music – classical and country, folk and funk, women’s and world, blues and bluegrass. I’ve heard about politics and news (local and global), environmental issues and history, and I even had cooking lessons. I may not love every show, but I love that they exist.

For a couple stretches, I was one of the hosts of the morning show, Nelson Before Nine, now Kootenay Morning. I remember dark winter mornings, driving down the hill, praying the station’s door would unlock, that my tech would be there, and that my carefully scheduled guests would show up or answer their phone.

Once safely behind the mic, with all systems go, I could breathe. I had the honour of interviewing notable Canadians like Stephen Lewis and Maude Barlow, and a Palestinian doctor who’d lost his family in a bomb attack. And of course I chatted with articulate and passionate locals.

I’m only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who’ve taken the opportunity to be on air at KCR. This station is so much more than a playlist of headlines and music – it’s a community-building medium, an opportunity to connect with neighbours, a place for all voices. It’s independent, responsible to its members as a co-operative. And you don’t need a degree in broadcasting to be part of it.

KCR began at a meeting in the basement of the big house at the foot of Baker Street in 1996. Many people there didn’t know each other but they bonded around the vision of a vibrant community radio station. Nobody knew exactly how to make that happen, but they each knew something about something, like how to make KCR’s first antenna by soldering together some bicycle spokes.

This group of innovators, with support from Vancouver Co-op Radio, figured out what had to be done and had a good time (usually) doing it. In 1998 they incorporated as a non-profit co-op.

In 2000 KCR finally got their permanent broadcast license from the CRTC. But before that, the station hosted some special broadcasts to keep the momentum going and build community support. The first was in February 1999, a 28-day special event broadcast. By day their location was a radio station; by night it was the Avalon Nightclub at the Savoy Hotel. Another broadcast, at a vacant storefront, was memorable because, in an attempt to bridge the deep sports-arts divide at that time, a table-top hockey game was brought in and games were broadcast with someone calling the plays.

The station moved several times until KCR bought the building on Hall Street in 2006. They negotiated an affordable price, and the Friends of KCR came together to loan the co-op the money. Naturally the low price came with the need for significant work on the building (from foundation to roof, wiring to plumbing). People generously volunteered and donated materials. Home at last.

As time goes by, KCR keeps re-inventing itself as a community builder. It gains its financial resilience from business sponsorships, memberships and grants. That all takes work, but it’s about more than money. It’s about building partnerships and friendships. Likewise, events like KCR’s summer block parties and polar bear swims are an invitation to come on out and greet your neighbours.

KCR’s unique programming can now be heard throughout most of the West Kootenay. More than 70 local programs and another dozen syndicated shows bring dynamic conversations and varied music to us. It’s like listening to friends or family (and sometimes it literally is).

It’s been a remarkable journey to KCR’s 25th anniversary and there’ll be celebratory events this fall. Meantime, tune in to 93.5 FM in Nelson, and discover what community radio is about. Be grateful for all the heads, hands and hearts that created KCR, and the many who continue to tend it.

Donna Macdonald has lived in Nelson since 1972, and is the author of Surviving City Hall, a memoir of her 19 years on Nelson City Council. Her column appears monthly.