Going live in three, two, one…

Jon Van Dyke, the former program director at KBGA in Missoula, sits at the controls of Missoula Community Radio, which goes live on New Year’s Day. The station will be found at 105.5 FM. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

Tucked away in a rather warm room in Union Hall on Main Street sits a broadcast board dating back to 1987. It once belonged to KUFM in Missoula before the station donated it to KBGA.

Now it belongs to Missoula Community Radio, soon to be known by its call sign KFGM-LP, or 105.5 FM if you prefer.

“We gave it a good scrub-down,” said Jon Van Dyke, a station volunteer who is seated at the controls, imagining a day not too far from now when the station will go live. “There was a good hum in it. But it works great now.”

Over the past two years, members of Missoula Community Radio have raised around $15,000 from local resources to launch the low-power station, which will appear at the upper end of your radio dial – so long as you still have a dial.

When the station goes live at 10:55 a.m. on New Year’s Day, listeners across a three-mile radius might tune in to any number of programs, from punk and metal music, or activities like yoga and foreign language.

The grass-roots programming offered up by community volunteers plays to a wide array of interests, much of it left to the discretion of the volunteer DJs.

For Van Dyke, who helped start a bilingual radio program in Japan to highlight local artists, those interests now lie with local government. He believes a community broadcast on hot-button issues facing the Missoula City Council will gain a dedicated audience, resulting in a more informed population.

“Civic engagement is key to me,” he said. “I’ve been interested in how an issue comes up and becomes a hot issue for people who are immediately affected or already had their view on the matter set one way or another.”

That’s a common theme at some City Council meetings, which has handled a number of controversial issues over the past year, from background checks on gun sales and purchases, to the latest debate on whether to reduce Fifth and Sixth streets to a single lane of traffic.

While the controversy is nothing a robust community discussion can’t sort through, taking it to the airwaves on a nonprofit station might bring a new twist to exchanging opinions and perspectives.

“January is going to be our program build-out month,” said Van Dyke. “We’ve been trying to establish our identity as we create it. A lot of people are still learning about what we are and how they can be a part of it. As that happens, more people will want to be involved.”

While the station doesn’t face many staffing expenses, it still faces licensing costs. The second-hand equipment was passed down from KBGA, which received it from KUFM, Montana Public Radio. The transmitter was donated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

To fund the station into the future, Van Dyke said it will apply for grants and pursue underwriting opportunities.

“We’re talking ourselves up with local businesses,” he said. “We want to reach out to other nonprofits in the area who have a message they’d like to share.”

The radio booth at Union Hall is rather spartan, though it’s likely to undergo a transformation as the station finds its footing. It has already purchased ENDEC – an alerting system required by the Federal Communications Commission.

Like much of the other equipment, the amplifier, limiter, mic-amp and CD player were acquired second hand, though they work fine and represent the determination of the station’s board to hit the airwaves.

The station was founded by a board of directors headed by Ann Szalda-Petree, who believes in the “transformative power of radio.” She has helped similar stations launch in Butte and Hot Springs.

The new station adheres to the motto, “amplifying awareness, cultivating change.”

“Community radio celebrates differences of opinion,” she said. “Everyone is welcome.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com