Story by Patrick Winderl
Perched high in a tower on the Montana State University-Northern campus is a small studio crammed with computers, switchboards, microphones and recording equipment. To reach it, you must ascend two flights of stairs hidden behind a door on the third floor of Cowan Hall that is marked only with a small sign reading "KNMC 90.1."
It is here that a small but dedicated group of disc jockeys keeps Havre's only alternative radio station on the airwaves. The deejays receive nothing for their service other than the freedom to choose their own music and the pleasure of providing listeners with material they won't hear anywhere else.
"I keep coming back because I enjoy listening to the music and talking to the people," said Craig Swanson, who hosts two popular radio programs each week.
Swanson said he believes many people tune in to the college station because they tire of the selection on other local stations.
"You hear the same thing over and over," he said. "This is a good alternative."
On KNMC, top 40 hits do not exist and listeners are never bombarded with advertisements. Other than music and talk shows, the only things played on 90.1 are two brief public service announcements each hour.
Swanson, who enjoys a wide variety of music, spends three hours on Thursday hosting an oldies show, which consists of tunes from the 1950s and '60s. On Tuesday he hosts a "toofer," in which he plays two songs by each artist.
Many of the requests are for modern rock, including Green Day, Tool, Rage Against the Machine and the Black Crows.
"I mix up some older stuff with new stuff, just to keep it fresh," said Swanson, who has deejayed at KNMC for four years.
Swanson also enjoys keeping the '80s alive by playing music from hair bands like Great White, Quiet Riot and Poison.
While Swanson may command two of the better-known shows on KNMC, he is only one of about 10 disc jockeys who regularly host radio programs.
Tune in on Wednesday nights between 5 and 7, and you will hear the political talk show "Off Center," hosted by Bruce Patera and John Mitchell. Using their radio personalities - Boris and Johann - the pair spend two hours each week discussing current events and reading excerpts from recent political publications.
"The goal of the show is to provoke dialogue," Patera explained.
To do that, the two spend the week prior to a show gathering material and e-mailing each other suggestions for topics to discuss on the air. "Off Center" includes some music, but most of the program is dedicated to discussing politics and talking to audience members who call in.
The show often leans to the left, a tendency that both commentators acknowledge.
"We kind of tend to pick on conservatives to get them to call in," Mitchell said, adding that the strategy is sometimes less than successful.
On a recent show, Boris and Johann heard from three callers in the first hour, all of whom were obviously of a liberal bent.
Still, the two maintain that having a forum to openly discuss politics and current events is critical to getting people involved in the democratic process.
Mitchell said he knew an 18-year-old who didn't plan to vote because "it wasn't that important."
"That's worrisome to me," he said.
Although the radio station has a dedicated following, Swanson believes the audience would be even better if the station could attract more disc jockeys. When no one is available to volunteer as a deejay, or if one fails to show up, the station either plays a prerecorded play list from the computer or is set on National Public Radio.
Neither option is attractive to Swanson, who said people "enjoy having a live voice on the air."
Still, finding reliable disc jockeys can be difficult, he said.
"They're hard to find," he said. "You don't get paid for this."
The studio in the tower of Cowan Hall will not be KNMC's home forever. The station is in the process of trying to move into a new studio in the Student Union Building, though Swanson said he is not sure when the move will take place.
"I'd love to be down there this fall," he said. "That's what I want to push for. Get us down there. I don't want to be up here all the time."
While deejays in the tower are hidden from the public eye, in the new studio they will be readily visible to anyone in the SUB.
"I think once we get down there, it will be better for us because people will be able to see us," Swanson said.
The station is also considering applying for a new Federal Communications Commission license that would allow it to increase the wattage of its antenna, expanding the range of the radio waves.
Swanson said he hopes the improvements encourage more people to volunteer at the station.
"I know people are out there listening. It's a matter of getting more deejays," he said. "With the exposure of the new booth and more power, this station could go a long ways."
Swanson also said he thinks the station could attract more disc jockeys if the school would offer volunteers one credit toward a college degree. He said he planned to talk with station manger Dave Martens about taking that suggestion to MSU-N's administration.
"This station does have potential," he said, adding that the success of KNMC 90.1 is contingent on having a reliable pool of volunteers.
"That would be sad not to have a station. That would be unfortunate. I hope it never happens," he said.