KFGM's Jesse Blumenthal brings the community into the DJ booth
Plus: Butte rapper 2 Dolla Will drops another dose of hyper-libidinous weirdness.
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Good morning, one and all. The sun is shining, the trees are budding and the 2023 Legislature has reached its blessed conclusion.
Today we’re going to take a break from the fraught world of Montana politics to talk about something much better for our collective blood pressure: community radio.
At KFGM in Missoula, anyone can try their hand at participating in the thrills and chills of being a DJ, playing music and letting their voices be heard.
Jesse Blumenthal is the station’s executive director, and has played a huge role in both steering KFGM into its new home in the Missoula Public Library and acquiring a full-power radio frequency, provided by the national conglomerate Townsquare Media.
A passionate community member and wearer of many hats, Jesse additionally serves as an adjunct professor in the Media Arts Department at the University of Montana, a teaching artist with Spark! Arts, a metal artist for hire and more. You may recognize him as the gent cycling around town on a giant tricycle equipped with a small iron forge, teaching unsuspecting Missoulians the basics of metal arts.
I hope you’ll take a minute to sit back and enjoy our conversation, which touches on Jesse’s personal history with community radio, his life-risking snowmobile adventures to fix the station’s transmitter and how KFGM plans to celebrate its one year anniversary at its new home.
Max: How were you introduced to community radio?
Jesse Blumenthal: I've been involved with community radio in one form or another since I was in college. I think the first time I was on the air was 2002. I was on CIXS, The Edge, at Dawson College [in Montreal]. I was the morning drive DJ for a couple of years. I was coming out of a hippie phase and into more of a punk phase. But I mostly wanted to play mellow music ‘cause I'm not really a morning person (laughs): alt-rock, post-punk, Built to Spill.
The DJ before me was a noise DJ; it was like hardcore that devolved to static. I just could not for the life of me understand why anyone would want to listen to noise music at five in the morning. And now I play noise music at five in the morning on our station (laughs).
I came back around to [community radio] when I was living in Crested Butte, Colorado. They had a radio station that was the only FM radio station in the entire valley for a good while. It had a real creative funky vibe to it. It was a big party station, and they were kind of the only [organization] throwing cultural events that were specifically oriented towards locals.
How is KFGM different than KBGA or KUFM, other non-profit radio stations in Missoula?
KUFM and KBGA are stations that I really want to see succeed. They are also non-profit stations that are community-oriented and have community members that contribute content, right? But KUFM is mainly purchasing syndicated programming that's being created for a national audience. That is the principle driver of their content and programming. I don't mean to sell them short in that respect. Their programming that they do produce in-house is usually oriented towards an older audience.
KBGA, their programming is usually oriented towards a younger audience. Many of the people who work at KFGM spent time at KBGA at one point.
How many DJs does KFGM have at this point?
We have 45 local presenters and 6 "syndicated" alternative media shows and 35 hours of locally recorded "noise" sessions from midnight-5 am every night.
We've been adding at least two or three DJs every month, if not more. We're really starting to fill out the schedule. That being said, if anyone's reading this, there are still open slots.
You recently told me about the wild ride you went through to fix the station’s transmitting equipment up at Mount Dean Stone. Are you game to share that story?
Yeah, so, our transmitter is housed at Townsquare Media's tower on top of Mount Dean Stone, which is on private land. It’s only accessible by a pretty narrow shelf road that goes all the way up there from Pattee Canyon. It's a pretty long road and it's a single lane.
During the winter we were having some cold-related issues [with the equipment]. The Townsquare Media engineer was going up there and needed someone else who could snowmobile with him. It goes through some avalanche terrain and it's pretty easy to get stuck. It gets very wind drifted. And you can lose snowmobiles off the side of the mountain if you're not careful.
They've got him on a pretty new Ski-Doo and they give me a 1980’s, maybe seventies Phazer that has a big orange headlight, like a spaceship. It made it about halfway before getting miserably stuck. It took us five or six hours of trying and we didn't even make it because there was just a wall of sugar snow at the top that we couldn't get through on the snowmobile (laughs).
There's lots of advantages to having our tower up there because we can now reach all the way down to Darby. Before, we barely reached out across the river. It needs to be on top of a mountain for that to happen.
We were [eventually] able to get back up there on a snowmobile on a clearer day once the snow had set up a little bit and do that service work . But the brakes didn’t work and we had to jump out a couple times.
Well, I'm glad you're still here.
It's kind of revealing about how these huge corporate stations run. You think behind the curtain everything's all super clean and dialed and all that (laughs). I'm not trying to shit on corporate media here, but it was just interesting that most engineering is pretty bootstrapped.
Alright, switching gears a bit. Are there specific criteria for the kinds of shows and other live events events you're interested in sponsoring via KFGM?
I think we've been able to help promote quite a few local artists and be that middleman-type connector. But as we move forward, we're going to move more towards events that are uniquely Missoula. And I think a great example is Rock Lotto.
[The event] is all about taking people out of the musical groups that they're normally in, shaking 'em up and making 'em play with each other in different ways. It’s such direct collaboration and community building, and it brings out each of those individual scenes.
The musicians put in months of preparation and so they really bring so much intentionality to it; that's really felt by the attendees as well. I think that's something that we really want to build off of.
Our next event that will be kind of in that vein and an example of how we're trying to think about being intentional with including multiple scenes of the community: we're gonna do a DJ battle at the Badlander to start off Pride weekend on Friday, June 16. KFGM DJ Auntie E will curate six DJs alongside a live painter battle that's curated by Mickey Haldi. That'll also mark one year of us being full power.
I think that’s a really good example of how we can show that we are here to be a platform for everyone and that we are a resource for our community, and especially for disadvantaged voices.
Community radio and low-power FM have always played a historic part in culture and being able to provide news and provide a platform for people to speak to their community without fear of being visually outed. And I think that that's been something that's been really important, for example, following the Stonewall riots in New York. That was the first real example of community radio being super involved in news and culture.
We have a lot of people who have an alternative voice to what has been showcased traditionally [in radio]. And so, you know, trying to showcase that we are that platform for these people and are here for them I think is important.
If you’re interested in becoming a DJ at KFGM, you can write to the station at MissoulaCommunityRadio@gmail.com or stop by the station desk on the first floor of the Missoula Public Library.
** Lastly, this week marks the annual Missoula Gives donation drive for non-profits across town. Any interested readers can make a donation to support KFGM here. **
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Montana Song of the Week: 2 Dolla Will feat. Matt Mars — “YOU’RE PROBABLY FROM GLASGOW”
This one ain’t for the faint of heart.
Over the course of 70 releases (yes, you read that right), the enigmatic Butte rapper 2 Dolla Will has dropped verse after verse of wildly raunchy hip-hop. All the while, he has remained focused on just a handful of subjects: having sex with older women, describing the seedy underbelly of Butte, throwing shade at Bozeman and smoking really potent weed.
It’s no surprise, then, that 2 Dolla chose 4/20 to drop one of his wildest projects to date, the group effort THE WEDGEWOOD TAPE VOL. 3: HIGH SOCIETY. You can buy it on Bandcamp, appropriately, for $4.20.
On standout track “YOU’RE PROBABLY FROM GLASGOW”, producer jdmasters lays down a gentle doo-wop sample that provides a sharp contrast to some of 2 Dolla’s most perplexing horndog bars yet: he hypes himself as a mix of George Costanza and Hulk Hogan, hosts an orgy of soccer moms and then smokes weed with your aunt. Talk about a breach of decorum!
No matter whether you love him or hate him, I personally salute 2 Dolla Will, his bravado and his hustle.
Also, 2 Dolla—if you’re reading this, I’m ready to lay down a verse for you, anytime. Just say the word.
One more thing (or two)…
I was honored to be interviewed by the wonderful Izzy Milch on the What the Helena podcast about weed policy in Montana. We get into Senator Keith Regier’s recent failed attempt to kill the adult-use program, share our dream blunt rotations and give a shout-out to Senator Steve Daines for his work on cannabis banking reform. You can listen to it here.
I also wrote a piece for Montana Free Press about Sen. Jon Tester’s new bipartisan bill to deregulate industrial hemp, an emerging industry that has been hobbled by red tape and excessive testing requirements. You can read it here.
Thanks so much for being here. We’ll see you next week! In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.