In the heart of downtown Boulder, the former church converted into a radio station sits mostly dark, but it is not empty.
Nick and Helen Forster toil away on computers, running Zoom calls with famous musicians. A small, dedicated group crafts the upcoming episodes of Boulder’s internationally syndicated radio show, eTown.
These walls used to be bustling with a live audience, and those virtual chats with band members used to be in person. COVID-19 has forced a lot of change. But for eTown, the evolution has been in logistics. Not heart.
The Forsters, the local husband-wife team that literally runs the show, are gearing up to celebrate eTown’s 30th birthday in 2021.
“It’s always been about connecting our listeners to the higher ideals of making connections, having respect for other cultures and different points of view and the planet,” Nick Forster says.
And music has always been a key component of that: harnessing the energy of live music to help inspire positive change. On radio.
The idea was so unusual that it took a while to convince others.
“The thing that aggravated radio stations and programmers when we first started was they couldn’t tell what we were. They encouraged me, ‘Will you just make up your mind? Are you a music show or a talk show?’” Nick Forster recalls. “We’re a combination. And not just a talk show. We’re a talk show based on our mission and values.”
The end goal: The audience is entertained. They hear some great music. And they’re also inspired and educated.
“Those are the things that make eTown different from any other radio program,” he says.
The Missing Step
The vision came when Nick Forster, a musician touring the world with the bluegrass band Hot Rize, wondered if there was a way to harness the incredible connection between the musicians and the audience at a successful performance.
That energy is palpable, he says.
He recalls one show in Bulgaria: a huge crowd of a diverse audience, all united by the power of the universal language of music.
“It struck me that there was a missing step: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could then take a step together toward affecting positive change,” he says.
Even back in the ’90s, Nick Forster was an environmentalist concerned about climate change.
He began thinking about ways to use that power he’d witnessed on stage to raise awareness about environmental stewardship. On the flight back home, he wrote an outline for a radio show that was a blend of dialogue and live music. It would feature musicians, as well as policy-makers, scientists and other inspirational characters. It was like nothing else out there.
Just unique enough to catch the eye — and get the go — from NPR.
In 1991, eTown launched on Earth Day. Less than a month later, Nick and Helen Forster got married. It was a true mom-and-pop operation. The couple themselves hung up posters, picked up artists at the airport, did the prep work for the show, the post-production and the editing.
Nick Forster redefined the role of radio host. In addition to interviews, he would pivot and pick up the guitar or mandolin to jam a bit with the musical guests. Then he’d bring it back to conversation.
Helen Forster knew how to make eTown a successful radio show and musical experience. She had experience working on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and she also had been the co-owner and co-producer of the internationally acclaimed Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
They immediately began packing the show with their musical connections, from James Taylor to Lyle Lovett. Over the years, the list of eTown performers would grow to include Ray LaMontagne, David Gray, Michael Franti, the Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, Los Lobos, Jack Johnson, Ani DiFranco and hundreds more.
In the true spirit of eTown, the notable names stretched beyond music, too. Other interviewees featured on the show would include Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore, poet Allen Ginsberg and Dave Barry.
‘A Manifestation of Our Values’
The show didn’t have an easy path. In fact, at one point, it ran out of money and had to raise funds to get back on the air. It came back stronger than before, and in 2008, the Forsters opened eTown Hall in a former church building in downtown Boulder. They completely gutted the building and redesigned it to meet their needs and priorities.
“It was a manifestation of our values,” Nick Forster says. “It’s energy-efficient, solar-powered, state-of-the-art.”
In fact, eTown Hall consumes no fossil fuels on site and makes enough power that it doesn’t even have a natural gas line. It used recycled and repurposed materials in the renovation.
The 1,700-square-foot production facility includes a studio where musicians can record. For example, Elephant Revival and Big Head Todd and the Monsters have made records here.
The building is also a world-class music venue and was a gathering place for the community. Of course, that was before the pandemic emptied the seats and cleared the stage, for now.
A New Era for eTown
Today, more than 300 radio stations carry eTown. Over the years, it grew to include more staff, and most recently it welcomed a few additional producers to help with the new demands.
The show still includes music performances, as well as interviews with musicians and other inspirational people, but now, it has to be more curated and designed in-studio; the live shows are currently on pause.
Some artists, such as Nathaniel Rateliff earlier this fall, have begun returning to the studio to record. But for those who can’t, there are Zoom calls, separate recordings of performances in the artists’ homes and sometimes sharing music that was previously recorded.
“We’re making it up as we go. We’re improvising,” he says. “That’s what musicians are good at: improvising.”
There are some unexpected blessings with the forced change, too, he says. No longer does eTown have to work around such difficult tour schedules, and without requiring artists to make it to the Boulder studio in person, it opens up the potential to connect with people who might not have otherwise been options.
Helping the Healing
The pandemic has devastated the music industry, Nick Foster says. But he hopes eTown can play a role in helping the healing.
In a world with easy music streaming where people don’t pay for music anymore, the main form of revenue left for musicians was touring. Then COVID-19 hit. That income stream was largely wiped out.
“We’re able to provide an outlet for artists to raise awareness for their art; artists will still make art, and songwriters will still make songs,” he says. “We help get the word out, so they feel like they’re still connected to an industry that’s been paralyzed.”
Even if eTown has to do it in a remote way, it can still make a positive impact, he says.
In that, and amid today’s growing social, political, economic and environmental turmoil, eTown is more important now than ever — to shine a spotlight on our common humanity.
eTown has always done that, Nick Forster says. Over the years, eTown has presented black musicians singing with white; musicians singing in the style of Spanish, Cuban, Hawaiian, Celtic and African music; and unlikely artists singing together, people who never would have paired up otherwise, like Willie Nelson and African pop singer Angélique Kidjo, who joined together on a reggae song.
“The goal has always been to combine these things to show that we are part of a global community, and we can learn from each other,” he says. “It’s a fundamental part of what eTown has been about since we started.”
The nation is “unbelievably divisive” right now, he says. He says he hopes the show can not only model unity around music, but also inspire fundamental values like kindness, respect and sustainability.
Nick Forster believes a radio show can make a difference, and he has received a ton of mail from listeners around the world backing that up. Things like:
Over the years, I’ve changed the way I think about transportation and the food I eat.
The show provides a positive view of the U.S. that I might not have gotten otherwise.
It helped me discover so many artists who are now among my favorites.
Nick Forster says he’s proud that eTown has survived three decades. To create something out of thin air and watch it grow and withstand the test of time is satisfying, he says.
But above all, he says, “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve stayed true to our values. We haven’t compromised them, and in some ways, that’s made our path harder. We haven’t pandered to the marketplace or fads or trends.”
eTown’s mission was true 30 years ago and it’s true today, even amid great change and chaos. In Nick Forster’s words, “We are a home for great music and good ideas.”