Music director Iaan Hughes begins his weekday music show with a fact, or a historical tidbit. Sometimes he’ll open with a specific song, tying it to a theme or piece of news. He hopes for some inspiration to guide his daily opening decision making before noon hits.
In early March, session drummer Hal Blaine died. In tribute, songs that he contributed to were sprinkled throughout Hughes’ show. They included the mid-1960s tune “California Dreamin,” performed by The Mamas and the Papas. Blaine played the drums on the recording.
Regardless of how he opens his multi-hour noon program, after being a part of the KBCS team for about 20 years, Hughes notes “I still get really psyched thinking about the music.” And, “it’s still an absolute kick to be on the radio.”
The Bellevue College radio station was born during a politically tumultuous time in 1973, when America was entangled in the Vietnam War. And the station was formed after students held a sit-in, in front of the college president’s office.
“(Students) wanted to play music. They wanted to have a voice on campus and a voice in the area,” Hughes said. “Of course at the time, radio was the most significant way to get a viewpoint and young and underrepresented voices heard in the community.”
Having received old equipment from King-FM, the station was a whopping 10 watts and later improved to 100 watts. But it was nonetheless blaring tunes at the direction of what was then Bellevue Community College (later renamed Bellevue College) students.
“You could hear us from here to maybe Eastgate on a good day,” Hughes said. “We were truly a low-power FM station.”
The station’s had its fair share of change, relocating to different spots throughout campus. Each of theses moves connected with a period of growth for the station, not only in listenership numbers, but also in the station’s signal strength, Hughes said.
The station eventually transitioned away from the student-run model, after KBCS acquired a general manager. And in 2009, focus at the station began to split between music, news and public affairs toward social justice. The station became more “serious” about how they presented those facets.
“It stops being freeform, which has its own charm, and starts being more mission driven,” Hughes said. “Our theme of social justice through news and music … at the end of the day it’s really important for the life blood of the station.”
Stirring up controversy, the station was flooded with 300 emails from listeners after management chose to alter the programming offered by the station, in an attempt to drum up new listeners. During August 2009, the station replaced some of its old offerings of weekday jazz with syndicated public-affairs shows “The Takeaway” and “The Michael Eric Dyson Show.”
But there is still eclectic music to be heard on the station. From Brandi Carlile, to new indie sounds like Big Thief, to classic tunes from Otis Redding. There’s avant-garde jazz, the Grateful Dead, Hawaiian, Brazillian and Keltic music.
It was also during that time that the Federal Communications Commision allowed the station to boost its signal, increasing the footprint of coverage and those who could listen. Now the station could be heard as far south as Tacoma, and north past Everett.
Hughes said, of all the changes, one of the biggest has been access points transitions, how listeners access content and the many more places there are to go to get both music and news. KBCS has had to adapt to the dynamic idea of digital platforms, incorporating social media platforms and other online avenues to connect with listeners.
“An average public media listener is 50 or 60 plus years old typically,” Hughes said. “So how do we connect with younger Gen X, Millennials and younger generations too? How do we bring them along with us?”
On top of that, the station’s collection of CDs is aging, slowly degrading in quality. The team has been working to preserve the music encased on thousands of CDs by digitizing them. But much like the other challenges, the station’s team has adapted to address what has sprung up.
Throughout those transition points, the station has maintained its goal of shining a light on underrepresented voices and groups, as well as underrepresented music, they said. And its nonprofit status gave the station leaway on diversified programming not found at commercial stations.
Yuko Kodama, journalist and news director at KBCS, has been a force in this mission. The series, “Unmute the Commute,” one she helps to produce, is a gritty program taking place on buses and bicycles. It covers the various aspects and perspectives of diverse travelers.
“With our pieces, we often cover people with first-hand experiences, their personal experiences,” Kodama said. “We try to get out of the way and let them share their story.”
In 2017, a pair of segments of the program landed the station the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism 2017 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability competition. “Dorian Wants Transit Policy Toward Disabled Persons to Change” followed a wheelchair user as they navigated King County Metro’s bus system.
In the first part, reporters spoke with the person on their challenges using transit, and being a person of color. They spoke on how although some, with good intentions, would offer to help by pulling their wheelchair, it was actually considered an extension of the body that conjurs feelings.
In the second portion, a meeting was arranged with King County Metro, and a conversation held about those challenges, and their ability to take care of themselves and navigate the system alone.
“It had that sense of gritty emotion,” Kodama said. “There was grit to the story and in the interviews.”
But even in giving voice through interviews, the station also gives voice to new talent on the air. The station offers opportunities to new learners on how to conduct on air hosting. Parties with intrigue in learning can venture in and learn how to work a board and find out what the makings are of an hour-long program.
“I feel like, unless you can cultivate people with different lived experiences doing the production, you can’t really change the media landscape,” Kodama said. “Who is producing the media makes a big difference in how it goes out and what’s put out.”
A lot of on-air talent has had their start at KBCS, and moved on to other stations locally but also elsewhere. Gregg Porter and Liz Jones of KUOW, were both formerly at KBCS.
Those at KBCS say they are lucky to live in a vibrant community radio landscape. One where room for everyone exists and there’s no hesitation on collaboration.
There’s been many moments of triumph. Some of the successes team members note include their connections with the community through live broadcast events at venues of the city. And they’re proud of their showcasing of local musicians, going against constraints found at other stations which can limit the types of music they can play.
When tough times come, the station — and those on the air — reflect what’s impacting the community. Kodama recalled working during the 2012 Café Racer shooting in seattle.
“When a shooting like that happens, it’s so unbelievably shocking,” Kodama said. “Everything came to a screeching halt. And I thought, ‘How do I go back on the air, and how do I react to this thing happening in real time in my community?’”
She added that KBCS has done an exceptional job of living in the real time moments like that. When musician Tom Petty died, or Prince and Aretha Franklin, the station’s crew mourned with listeners. It’s those connections that are priceless, they said.
And throughout transitions of administration, Hughes said, and after the “winds of change” have blown, the station has always stayed true to its purpose.
“KBCS has remained pretty dang consistent with thoughts and themes, the people we champion and speak to,” Hughes said. “It comes back to the mission-driven idea of who we are, what we believe in and what we’re doing. It’s not going to change.”
On March 13, minutes before Hughes went on the air, he hadn’t yet thought of something to open the radio program with. “Sometimes it comes down to the last few minutes,” he said.
He ultimately decided to go with the 1971 tune “One Toke Over the Line,” staying true to the station’s sound — roots, rock and soul.
This story originally appeared in the Bellevue Reporter, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.