On a recent Friday morning at 7 a.m., the residents of Ouray who rely on their alarm clocks tuned to 98.9 FM are awakened by surprising news. Reports claim that the school authorities have granted 12th graders an additional hour of sleep. However, those who are aware that it is senior prank day at Ouray School, with only 290 students from Kindergarten to 12th grade, quickly realize that this announcement is nothing more than a prank. Some early risers even drive by the school to witness the chaos caused by the seniors, who have covered the building in graffiti and placed desks and chairs on the street, while loud music blares from the windows.
This tolerant reaction from the adults and school officials illustrates the deep affection the small, mountain town of Ouray holds for its teenagers. Nearly everyone in the community has watched these young individuals grow up, and they are aware that some will soon depart for jobs and colleges far away from southern Colorado.
The role played by the radio station in the prank is also accepted, showcasing the trust that the school officials have in the student-run station. Known as KURA 98.9 LP-FM, this radio station is one of the few in the country managed and produced by high school students, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the year. Since its establishment in 2002, the station has served as a platform for teenage expression, particularly their musical preferences, in a town known for raising independent-minded youngsters, sometimes to a fault, according to locals. However, KURA is not solely focused on catering to teenagers. Being the only radio station in town and reliant on support from local businesses for survival, it has also adapted to meet the needs and tastes of the adult residents.
The teenagers have risen to the challenge and transformed KURA into an integral part of the town, which sits at an elevation of 7,702 feet and has a population of 900 people. The station’s eclectic mix of music can be heard in numerous shops and restaurants along the nine-block Main Street, which lacks traffic signs or lights. In addition to providing a diverse musical selection, the station serves as a valuable source of local news. With only a weekly newspaper in town, KURA becomes the primary medium for disseminating daily information. Glynn Williams, owner of a variety store on Main Street, attests to this, stating that KURA is the only outlet capable of sharing news on a daily basis. The station broadcasts notices regarding lost pets, messages of gratitude from graduating students, and updates on various activities, such as women’s fly-fishing lessons. Moreover, KURA allows third-grade students to reach a wider audience by showcasing their poetry to the entire town.
The station’s importance in delivering information became evident in May 2004 during a critical event. A 57-year-old tourist suffering from dementia wandered away from her motel and into the mountains. Local police requested KURA’s assistance, leading to the station airing bulletins every 20 minutes for three days. Although the woman was ultimately found deceased by hikers weeks later, the police chief commended KURA for its significant role.
Given its geographical limitations and low-power FM broadcast license, which adheres to the Federal Communication Commission’s regulations, KURA’s local focus is both a necessity and a choice. The station operates at a weak 100 watts, following a federal law enacted in 2000 that established the LP FM class of license, allowing nonprofit community and school groups to operate radio stations. While there has been a surge of interest among such groups, the FCC’s reluctance to issue numerous licenses has compelled many to resort to unregulated internet-only broadcasting.
The students enthusiastically agree with her observation. Fiona Meinert, an experienced KURA senior, describes it as practically a job, but one that she enjoys. She appreciates the break it provides in her day, as she gets to listen to music constantly. As the station manager, Meinert takes on the responsibility of writing most of the daily bulletin board items, which include school and local news. She places these slips of paper into wooden mailboxes for the other staff members to read and record for broadcast when they are scheduled to be in the studio. Additionally, Meinert is in charge of writing and assigning the underwriting notices. These notices give publicity to the 20 local businesses that each contribute $25 per month to support KURA. Pleasing the underwriters is crucial to Meinert’s role, as the station does not receive any special funding from the school district, apart from a few small grants. Other students have positions such as music director and disc jockey.
The dedicated individuals running the station this year are Pete Morss, a sophomore whose father had a radio broadcasting career, and Allison Kolowich, a junior. They have been given the coveted jobs of managing the station during the summer, working 20 hours per week at a rate of $8.50 per hour. All the students are taught the necessary software to operate the station, including Pro Tools, a sound-production program used for recording and editing underwriter spots and journalism pieces. They also use iTunes or LimeWire, a file-sharing program, to download music for broadcast. Some students learn to utilize Mega Seg, a jukebox program that manages the station’s collection of over 8,000 digital songs. Mega Seg also serves another important purpose for a school-run station – it can take over and play a programmed blend of Top 40 music at any time of the day or night. The software also maintains a record of everything that is broadcast, a requirement by the FCC. Additionally, the software provides legal identifications and "bugs," which are short sound bites reminding listeners where to tune in. The students create the legal IDs and bugs with a local touch, gathering sound bites from various sources in the community, including business owners and even kindergarteners.
For both the listeners and operators in the local teenage community, KURA is primarily about the music. Jonnie Sirotek, KURA’s music director, plays a key role in this aspect. As the junior vetting every addition to the music database, Sirotek scours national Top 40 lists, music magazines, and watches MTV to create a musical blend that caters to the diverse members of the community, from passionate rock fans to easygoing adults.
KURA’s weekday schedule, which is distributed to shops and tourist hotels, provides a summary of their recipe. It starts with modern popular music from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., followed by a varied mix of mostly adult rock from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jazz takes over during the dinner hours from 5 to 7, and then Night Blast runs from 7 p.m. to midnight. During this time, the station caters to the local teenagers’ appetite for hip-hop, rap, alternative, and modern rock. The period from midnight to 3 a.m. features classical and New Age music. All staff members contribute to selecting the music for Night Blast, where the students’ musical taste is showcased. They sift through new CDs sent to the station by music companies in exchange for airtime and also nominate favorites from their personal CD collections. In comparison to the teen-oriented programming from commercial stations in Telluride that reaches Ouray, KURA leans more towards featuring new groups and independent labels rather than mainstream music.
In a media center on a Thursday afternoon in May, a group of eight KURA staff members gather around a long table, resembling a corporate board. Over the next thirty minutes, several high school students, eager to join the KURA staff in the coming fall, enter the room one by one. These students have completed applications and obtained three references, and now they face a group interview.
Equipped with a list of questions and a 100-point scale for evaluation, the staff members conduct a friendly and playful interview, reminiscent of their own experience when they first applied to work at the station. DJ Logan Tyler asks one candidate, "What’s currently in your CD player?" Sirotek jokingly asks a girl, "How much do you think I can bench press?" To which she confidently responds, "Twenty-five pounds." However, Nixon, who has been rolling her eyes, feels that the most important question hasn’t been asked yet, so she takes it upon herself to inquire, "Can you be self-guided?"
Nixon later explains that she relies on students to handle the station’s tasks with minimal supervision. They must also adhere to the boundaries set by both the school and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "We understand the importance of this," says Allison Kolowich, referring to the station’s prominent position in the community, "and we must avoid making the same mistakes twice."
The meeting concludes with assignments for the returning staff members. Kolowich will take over as station manager, succeeding Meinert. Morss and Logan will serve as co-music directors, while another student is tasked with upgrading the station’s webpage. Despite being referred to as student-run, KURA’s success is attributed to the involvement of adults. "The idea of being student-run sounds great, but it’s not entirely accurate," Nixon admits candidly. In addition to underwriters, two local individuals with experience in commercial radio have helped overcome technical obstacles, and other adults host radio shows on weekends when most teenagers lose interest in spending time at school. Caroline Stoufer, the owner of Buckskin Bookseller, shares her enthusiasm for hosting a three-hour music show as "Sweet Caroline" on Sunday afternoons, playing songs from the 1940s big-band era to the disco tunes of the 70s.
Among all the adults, Nixon is the driving force behind KURA, affectionately known by some residents as "Radio Nixon." At 56 years old, she manages to juggle her responsibilities at the media center, teaching drama, and directing the annual school play while devoting time to the station. Nixon’s mind brims with ideas for enhancing the station, including the implementation of more radio journalism, starting with a daily 10-minute report next year, focusing on the plans of the town’s maintenance crew. However, she sees her most crucial role at the station as teaching students how to serve the entire community. "Since we are the only station," she explains, "we strive to find a harmonious balance."