In the twilight hours between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, a small group of people braved the chilly night air to gather at a seemingly inconspicuous 4th Avenue alleyway in the Sunshine Plaza. Behind closed doors, Cameron Willingham and his sister Katura greeted their frozen guests with warm embraces before darting off to find auxiliary cables in the nooks of the building’s dimly lit rooms. In the corner, a DJ happily spun records on a wooden desk, lost in his music, while a flurry of activity took place around him. Some worked in unison to affix black paper to the windows, while others used cell phone flashlights to locate a working outlet to power a jerry-rigged disco ball pinned to the ceiling. In a back room, another person gleefully wrapped old couch cushions in white trash bags and positioned them into a makeshift lounge to go along with the frozen Kool-aid pouches and hodgepodge of snacks laid out on a small table. Apart from a colorful James Temte mural, there’s nothing on the walls. Not that it would matter given the strategically dark mood lighting.
The space might not resemble the swanky Montreal club scene Willingham had in mind, but in a pinch and with a little imagination, it’ll do.
“I think I was at a party in Montreal like a decade ago and was pretty much high as all get out and I realized ‘man, we are in a renaissance now,’” exclaimed Cameron Willingham. “I wanted to be a part of that and the music of the renaissance is electronic, for sure! When I go outside to concerts it really pushes me to make things like that happen in Anchorage.”
Meeting Willingham in his musical element, it’s difficult to imagine him in any other context, especially one like a cutting-edge hydroponics farmer.
“I own a business with a partner and we ship and install hydroponic shipping containers in rural Alaska to make vertical farms. So yeah, that’s my day job and KONR is my night job,” explained Willingham nonchalantly.
In his ‘night job,’ Willingham is one of the four-member team that make up Beats Messiah – an electronic dance music (EDM) focused radio show on Out North’s little-known radio station KONR.
“Anchorage in public does really lame things like listening to Top 40 music and in a lot of ways we fail - we go to our least common denominator. But in private, Anchoragites are actually really cool! One-on-one, I have met so many cool Anchorage people and I feel like there is a collective emerging that is questioning why we are ashamed to want more, to want something better from our arts community? I think to some extent by playing this music, we are helping Anchorage connect to itself but more than that, by getting people in the studio to have fun and listen to underground music we are getting people to see Anchorage as one notch cooler. We have to have the courage to show our weird side more often,” explained Willingham.
EDM on Thursday night’s might be the renaissance for Willingham but its only one small cog in the larger rejuvenation of Out North’s KONR that began in 2009.
“[KONR] was granted a license to 2009 and it's just been this weird roller coaster of ups and downs and all sorts of things since then,” said Station Manager Jason Sear.
Sear who works as a Digital Assets Manager at KTVA took over the helm in early 2016 and despite adding a wife and a baby to the mix, is still pouring himself into the station.
“The original idea for the station came about in 2000-ish when Daniel Sparks and crew worked to try and make things happen by piecing together old equipment and applying for an FCC license. I don't know what the exact date of application was - I've tried to ask a few people who were around, but no one really knows an exact date. I just know it was granted. Since then it’s kind of just lived on the fringe of legality. Like we’ve done enough to keep the license legal and that's basically it,” explained Sear.
One of the regulations KONR has struggled to fulfill has also made the station hilariously infamous in some Anchorage circles. According to the ‘Low Power FM Station Self-Inspection Checklist,” all stations are required to operate at least 36 hours per week, consisting of
at least 5 hours of operation per day, at least 6 days of the week. To fill the dead space and maintain KONR’s license, Sear did what any resourceful Alaskan would do, he improvised. In his case, it was playing Bill Wither’s ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ on endless loop for 36 hours each week.
“We had just moved the studio from one room to another room in the old Out North building and I put Bill Withers on repeat because I needed to file a bunch of FCC paperwork,” Sear said in a deadpan voice. “Out North had been continuing to apply for temporary licenses but the thing is, there are a ton of regulations that have to be followed and with the station changing hands so many times, things were starting to fall through the cracks.”
Keeping the station alive via the mellifluous voice of Withers wasn’t the only thing Sear was dealing with. The station’s status as low power FM meant that if another bigger station came along, they would lose their radio frequency. As seems to be the case with KONR, luck wasn’t on their side.
“KONR was originally granted a license on 104.9 but then this Christian station came in with a 50,000 watt transmitter in Eagle River and they started broadcasting on 104.9. Because they were a commercial station they took priority over our local low-powered FM station. Ultimately, a commercial license supersedes low powered FM. Out North was kind of forced to figure out a new frequency, so they switched to 106.1 after getting a written approval from the radio station that was closest which is of course 106.5 KWHL and it's like 100 watts versus 100,000 watts so we don’t make a dent in their coverage,” said Sear.
“KONR’s antenna isn’t very strong so it’s like having a checkerboard laid over Anchorage and you can only hear the black squares. Mercedes [Curran] and I always joke about our negative two listeners,” said co-host of KONR’s ‘The Summit’, Kendra Doshier.
“But then we’ll hear from like five people that they really liked our show the previous night, so I guess someone is listening,” added Curran.
Even though they may only be reaching five people each show, Curran and Doshier don’t have any plans to give up.
“KONR matters because it’s an opportunity to give every community in Anchorage a voice and a platform to share,” explained Doshier. “Why play music that you're gonna hear probably 15 times in one day between three different stations when you can play stuff that expresses who you are?”
Doshier and Curran modeled their show’s concept after their own meet cute on Tinder.
“Kendra and I are obviously big music junkies both in terms of performing experience – Kendra has experience as a session singer in L.A. and I went to college for music. We both intersected in that we both ran our acapella groups in college and just love curating and making playlists. That's actually how we started dating! We met through Tinder and the way that we would communicate was by sharing different playlists,” said Curran.
“We also like to get on our soapbox, like we’ll start talking about Beyonce and then somehow like an hour and a half later we'll end up talking about the patriarchy and then I'll like stop the conversation and be like ‘are we having a summit,’” laughed Doshier.
“We thought, ‘what if we did that same kind of thing where we curated these playlists like different themes every week and then we just chat about whatever?’ We summit about everything! I think our first show was ‘how to fall in love’ which was a compilation of the songs that we sent to each other,” added Curran.
While Curran and Doshier enjoy being a part of KONR’s line-up, they acknowledge that they have some frustrations with the pace at which the station is moving forward.
“I mean it’s been the same issue for 10 plus years of trying to get the station off the ground. I mean it's gone through a variety of hands but where we always fall into problems is the organizational part. That's what separates you from being the people that actually go somewhere with it, from being someone with a dream and well-meaning ideas,” said Curran.
“It’s hard because there are a lot of us who have big ideas and passion but at the end of the day, we all have full time jobs and have to do this on our off time. It’s going to be a matter of just continuing to get the right people involved so we can grow this into a community staple,” added Doshier.
If organization and small wattage were KONR’s most pressing problems a week ago, they have been replaced by a more ominous set of circumstances. On Friday, December 15, the station was broken into and robbed.
“Some asshats broke into the studio Friday night and stole our on-air computer, production iMac and two mixers. They also stole our UPS battery backup, a 500gb hard drive filled with music, our record player, $5 from our donation jar and all of our pens,” proclaimed a Facebook post on KONR’s page.
“We’ve spent months getting our systems set up, building logs, tweaking the sound and organizing the studio. All of that is lost. BUT... we won’t let these bastards deter us from building Out North Radio into the most badass radio station in Anchorage! Within hours, our incredible volunteers scrounged up another mixer and on-air computer, and had everything hooked back up. We’re rebuilding the music library and on-air logs. The radio revolution continues,” continued the post.
Although the station is putting on a brave face, the robbery was just another financial blow slowing the progress of the little-station-that-could.
“At the moment it's a little wild west because we're sharing space with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership so are our costs pretty low. I mean it's internet, music licensing and web hosting for the website. The other side of it is the equipment. Right now, we are kind of using old shitty equipment and we are making it work but it could be better. It works for what it is, and we've got a rad studio downtown. Annual costs are fairly low at this point, but we probably need about $20,000 to really get this thing launched and to be at a professional level,” said Sear just weeks before the break-in.
Currently, the station is the midst of setting up a GoFundMe page to try and off-set the cost of the stolen equipment.
“For right now, we scrounged up an old PC from storage and repurposed it to run the on-air software. We had an extra mixer that [Beats Messiah program host] Lawrence Hoeschel hooked up to get us back on the air. We’re still going to need to purchase a newer computer, but we’ve had a bunch of volunteers come forward to get it back on the air. It’s been incredible,” said Sear.
One volunteer who has been stepping up in a major way even before the break-in is Surreal Studios owner Kurt Riemann who has been at the forefront of the Alaskan music scene since opening his recording studio in 1979. Over the years, Riemann has catalogued 1,000s of songs from Alaskan musicians but had nowhere to play them – that is until he had a chance encounter with the voice that has been quietly keeping KONR alive for years.
“So, I'm driving to the studio last February, I think it's the middle of the night and I'm turning left on International and flipping through stations and I end up on KONR and you know it’s playin’ ‘Ain't No Sunshine’ and it dawns on me, here's a radio station that can play whatever it wants - obviously, because they're just trying to stay on the air,” chuckled Riemann. “Here I had this huge amount of music sitting on a drive with no place that it could go but I knew in my heart that having all this stuff in one spot was important and that’s how the ‘Alaska Music Show’ was born!”
Riemann now hosts the 40 hour a week program that single handedly fulfills the FCC’s regulation on a mandatory 36 hour a week broadcast schedule.
“On my show there is always something different, something new. In two weeks you will hear a thousand songs and it doesn't repeat! That's a lot of music and it’s all Alaskan and from all kinds of times and all kinds of styles. You may not like indie folk songs about the environment from Kodiak, but I only play two in a row and then it'll be something else. Or just you know, grit your teeth and then here comes some other band,” laughed Riemann.
The ‘Alaska Music Show’ may currently only have rotation on KONR’s limited network but to Riemann, it serves as a larger metaphor about Alaska.
“Alaska has a particular attitude, a particular camaraderie sort of like, ‘it's cold outside, you're cold, come into my place.’ I don't really see anything like that in a place like Portland or whatever. I mean I don't see this attitude as a pacific northwest thing but a uniquely Alaskan touch because we're in this together and actually our survival sort of depends on it,” said Riemann.
As KONR continues to find it’s place in the Anchorage community, those who believe in the station know two things the be true. One, Anchorage needs a place of artistic self-expression that represents its diverse community. And two, even though it might be easier to ‘leave young thing alone, there ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.’
To learn more about KONR visit http://www.outnorth.org/konr.html and make sure to tune into 106.1, just be patient if you don’t hear anything right away.