The voice of Nevada City, KVMR, makes a move

KVMR’s program director, Steve Baker, left, interviews DJ Ralph Henson when the Nevada City station moved last week.
KVMR’s program director, Steve Baker, left, interviews DJ Ralph Henson when the Nevada City station moved last week. smcmanis@sacbee.com

For the record, it takes 42 steps to legally go from the old studios of KVMR, Nevada City’s venerable and beloved community radio station, to its new digs.

Of course, given KVMR’s famous leftist tilt and its quasi-anarchist heritage exemplified by the legendary folk protest singer U. Utah Phillips, you didn’t expect program director Steve Baker to actually use something so square as the crosswalks last week when he took a wireless mike and, on live radio, completed the move from 401 Spring St. to 120 Bridge St. by chatting up many of the station’s 180 volunteer DJs lining the sidewalks and spilling out onto the street for the occasion.

So, yeah, by jaywalking, Baker saved 21 steps in going from old to new and officially transferring the nonprofit station’s operations from a cramped, leased space with studios barely the size of a diva’s walk-in closet to a handsome, 8,000-square-foot building that not only abuts the historic Nevada Theatre but opens right onto its back stage.

But KVMR (89.5 FM) has, metaphorically speaking, come a long way in its 36 years as the community voice for Nevada City, Grass Valley and, due to its powerful signal high on Banner Mountain, even parts of Sacramento. Back in 1978, a plucky band of volunteers began broadcasting from an old tin miner’s shack on Banner Mountain, four hours a day with a signal of 20 watts. Now, with a full-time paid staff of 10 and a volunteer force that during busy times swells to 800, KVMR broadcasts 24/7, streams on the Internet and sponsors several folk and Americana music concerts.

Then again, you might say KVMR still broadcasts from a tin shack, albeit one with a $4 million price tag being paid for by donations and grants, according to business manager and interim general manager Julie Chiarelli. The new building, a collaboration between the radio station and the Nevada Theatre Commission, which gets a new 1,600-square-foot backstage out of the partnership, was built on a parcel behind the theater that had been, at least since the late 1800s, three ramshackle tin shacks. In designing the facility, architect Jeff Gold sought to re-purpose as much of the original corrugated metal and wood facade as possible, given Nevada City downtown’s famous reputation as a “historic” area.

“When we took the old tin off, most of it wasn’t usable so we ended up using some of it around the entry, but we got other old tin from a hog farm,” said Diane McIntire, a contractor and representative of the building’s owner. “The entire building’s (made from) repurposed (material).”

Nearly eight years in the planning and two years in construction, the so-called Bridge Street Project hit some rough spots, at least one of them potentially incendiary.

“They hit a 600-gallon fuel barrel, heating oil, that had been there at least 40 years and hadn’t been used,” McIntire said. “Crazy. They drilled into it on a Friday the 13th. This tiny stream (of fuel) comes out and the superintendent is out there with a little bucket catching it, like a little (Dutch) boy with his finger in the dike.”

The remains of the empty barrel, McIntire said, were filled in with concrete. “There’s a bump in the wall in one of the (two) studios where it still rests,” she said.

So the only fiery explosions coming out of 120 Bridge St. will be the rhetoric from some of KVMR’s most overtly political on-air personalities, who have been known to cue up Bob Dylan’s angry “Masters of War” at the drop of a drone. Chiarelli said that, thanks to state-of-the-art “blown-in insulation” in the the new studios, listeners will be able to better discern the broadcaster’s voice. At the old, closet-sized studios, if someone in the hallway coughed, it went on the air.

“I think a lot of people will probably still broadcast with the door open,” Chiarelli said. “And there’ll be people walking around. You aren’t going to necessarily be losing that (homey) feel.”

“To some of us,” Baker said, “it was annoying. You could hear people knocking on the doors. Not professional.”

The beauty of KVMR is its communitarian aesthetic. It’s not meant to be a perfectly scripted, pristine-sound-quality experience. These are your neighbors playing their favorite songs and telling about the potluck at the senior center and the lost dog on Broad Street.

As the minutes counted down to the changeover last week, not everything was going smoothly. Dave “Buzz” Barnett, chief engineer, told Baker and former board president Michael Young that “we’ve got five of the six headphone jacks working (in studio one). One fell apart. It’s fixable, but not today.”

At the appointed time – after playing Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” as the final song in the old building – Baker flipped on the wireless mike and began his walk across the street, narrating his trek into KVMR’s future. At first, dead air was made evident by the transistor radio someone had blaring as station volunteers and curious citizens lined Spring and Bridge streets. Glitches fixed, Baker stopped often to briefly interview the assembled DJs, then cued up a U. Utah Phillips recording at the first song played at the new digs.

It took Baker the better part of a half-hour to make that jaywalking journey. Then, he handed the mike over to Jenny Michael and Connie Coale for the regularly scheduled “Music Magazine” program.

Coale: “Are we on the air?”

Michael: “I’m a broadcaster, and I’m kind of speechless at this historic event.”

Coale: “Are we on?”

Editor’s note: This story was changed March 5 to correctly identify Banner Mountain.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


▪ Open house at the new KVMR facility, 120 Bridge St., Nevada City, noon-4 p.m. March 14

▪ “Live Old Radio Theatre” program, Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad St., Nevada City, 7 p.m. March 16

Information: www.kvmr.org