In November 2014, four organizations in Taos, NM came together to acquire 93.5 KNCE and launched a unique Community station. Rita O’Connell, the communications director and one of the partners at “True Taos Radio” joins us to discuss the birth of the station and how it fills its niche in the Taos market.
In addition to her roles at KNCE, O’Connell is also editor of LiveTaos.com, writer, actor, singer, and self-described “general jane-of-all-trades”. The other KNCE partners are Max Moulton and Kevyn Gilbert, also of LiveTaos.com; John Henderson and Jerry Schwartz of Roots and Wires Presents; Stephen Plyler of Walking Rain Productions; and Dan Irion of Taos Mesa Brewing.
How did True Taos Radio come to be?
Four Taos entities — Roots and Wires Presents and Walking Rain Productions, both of whom produce and sponsor great live shows in Taos; LiveTaos.com, an arts, entertainment, and culture website; and Taos Mesa Brewing, a fantastic local venue and brewery, came together with one common interest — bring true community radio to Taos. We had all already worked together on various creative projects in the past and there’s a great synergy between all four groups, so when the opportunity arose to obtain 93.5, it felt like a no-brainer.
We wanted to both lift up the talent that’s already here, and help to put Taos on the map as a great place for outside bands and performers to tour to. Plus, it was surprising that Taos, which is a community jam-packed with artists, other creative types, and serious music lovers had gone so long without having a station of this nature. We want to fill that gap.
What’s the Taos radio marketplace like? How does KNCE differentiate from the competition?
We get a pretty broad variety of northern New Mexico stations here in Taos, including KUNM, UNM’s excellent radio station; KRZA, an NPR affiliate based in southern Colorado; KTAOS, the all-solar-powered station; and your standard mix of classic rock, country, and Top 40 stations. But no one else is doing what we are, with over 65 volunteer DJs on the air every day of the week. We’re completely sourcing our talent and content locally, and we’re playing in a freeform style that spans pretty much any musical genre you can think of. (Schedule at www.truetaosradio.com/schedule to get a feel for the range.)
The station’s about page describes it as “KNCE is not a public radio station, but we don’t identify as a traditional commercial radio station, either.” How do you bridge the gap between the two?
Well, we’re technically not a public radio station or a nonprofit, but we sort of act and feel like one. Our ethos and philosophy is about serving the community and the listeners, and leveraging the power of radio to bring people together, not to sell people stuff. So we do sell paid airtime on the station, but we absolutely don’t believe in long commercial blocks or, god forbid, commercial jingles. Our advertisers work with us to create copy that sounds and feels natural and honest, so that listeners don’t have to suffer through that jarring, turn-the-dial experience you get with long commercial blocks on ‘traditional’ contemporary commercial stations. A lot of our promotional opportunities involve live reads by our DJs, which, with the diversity of voices we have on the air, helps our advertisers to reach an extremely broad listenership. And we’re building a membership base, and running fundraisers (like our Kickstarter!), and generally encouraging KNCE listeners to feel like they’re part of something with us. So we’re operating as kind of a hybrid model, which we feel is working and sounding really great so far.
Have you found underwriting and membership drives to be easier than traditional advertising? Would you recommend other Commercial stations attempt it as an additional revenue stream?
I think it’s too soon to say if it’s “easier,” but we do feel better about it and think it makes a more listenable station. Commercial media in general has fallen into this pattern of just doing things one way because “that’s what works” and “that’s how it’s done” and “that’s what the Millennials will respond to” or whatever the commercial-media-blog-of-the-week says, and they stop thinking about what the consumer actually wants to hear, what actually makes good radio.
We want our members and advertisers to feel like they’re a part of something bigger — that we’re all in this together, and we’re doing it for our community, and they’re an integral part of helping us build that. Because that’s 100% true.
As for recommending other stations to attempt it, I think our main takeaway so far is to do whatever best-resonates with your own philosophy and intentions. If your goal is to make a shitload of money with your station, maybe stick with traditional tried-and-true advertising. If your goal is to build community, a loyal listen base, and a generally-better (we think) mousetrap, then definitely play around with other revenue options like membership and sponsorship, or even something completely different that speaks to your audience.
You guys operate from an airstream trailer in the lot behind Taos Mesa Brewing, how much does your location influence the station?
We make it a point to talk about everything going on all over Taos and northern New Mexico. We want to lift up Taos as a whole, to get people going out to all the venues and all the shows and just generally pump some real energy into the scene here, no matter where.
That said, the folks who started Taos Mesa Brewing are a critical part in what has become something of a watershed creative time in Taos, which has been steadily building over the past few years. There’s a great resurgence of creative energy here in Taos, and TMB has thrown its doors and stages (one indoor and two outdoor, including an enormous amphitheatre built by interns from Earthship Biotechture) wide open to the community, hosting fundraisers, live theatre, storytelling, dance and circus shows, and of course lots and lots and lots of live music. And of course they were generous enough to let us park our Airstream in their backyard. And furthermore, they have delicious beer. So it’s a terribly convenient location, and the energy at TMB and the energy inside KNCE are very much aligned.
You’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to improve your transmission facilities, how will the campaign assist the station?
Our local range is currently pretty limited due to the location of our antennae, so we need to move to a new tower. This project is not cheap, but it is critical for the long-term sustainability of the station. In order to cater to our local listeners and, in particular, advertisers, we have to know that our local signal is reliably reaching the bulk of the Taos Valley, which it’s currently not. And unfortunately here in rural northern New Mexico you can’t always rely on the internet, either, so it’s not as simple as saying “just stream it online!” to those folks who can’t get the signal (we are, however, streaming worldwide at truetaosradio.com, if you happen to live in a place that DOES have reliable internet).
So this tower move will greatly increase our range, which will make it much easier to lock down our local listener base — including, most importantly, the members and advertisers who will keep the station running over the long term! So the campaign will help us lay the last critical foundational piece which will ensure that KNCE can stay on the air as part of the great tradition of local, grassroots, community radio for years to come.
You are also editor of LiveTaos.com. Has the radio station helped to drive traffic to the site or vice versa? What kind of integrations have you implemented between the two?
Yes, we’ve definitely been able to encourage interest in and awareness about KNCE thanks to LiveTaos, which has been around a couple years and has an established audience of like-minded people. It’s great to have a media partnership like this one, and we’re seeing a lot of cross-pollination between the two.
The biggest integration is that LiveTaos houses the community’s go-to events calendar, which we read on-air at KNCE every day — critical for our local and visiting listenership.
What have been the most difficult issues the station has faced in its first months on the air? Have you learned any lessons that were completely unexpected?
Honestly, we had a huge learning curve because none of us have ever done anything quite like this before. Two of our partners have been on the air for nearly twenty years, but no one on our team has ever been in the administrative or management side of radio. So it’s all been really brand-new. (We wish one of us had thought to become an FCC lawyer about ten years ago, because that’s apparently where the real money is!) But at the end of the day, it’s been essentially like starting any other business: determination, belief in what we’re doing, and a willingness to work long, uncompensated hours for an indefinite amount of time all pay off eventually. Or at least that’s the idea.
Probably the biggest unexpected lesson has been that if you really ask for help, and mean it, people are willing to go above and beyond to give it. We learned this from the enormous outpouring of support and volunteer interest from our community — for a town of 6,000 to turn out 65 volunteer DJs (with dozens more applications still waiting to be addressed!) within basically the first month of operation is truly remarkable. It just goes to show how much people will rise to support a project that has a truly inclusive, community-centric philosophy at its heart.
After the tower, what’s next for KNCE? How will the station continue to grow its stature in the Taos marketplace?
There’s virtually nowhere to go but up from here. We have all kinds of station improvements in mind, from equipment to staffing to infrastructure. For example, we intend to go completely solar at some point down the line. And we’re looking forward to cleaning up, landscaping, and designing The Boneyard — the little fenced-in area behind the Brewery where the Airstream is housed — so the whole area around the trailer becomes an extension of what we’re all about inside the station. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — we have new ideas every day, and as long as we can keep the funding coming in, we’ll keep the great projects rolling out.
The Taos community has been hugely supportive so far, and we’re confident that they’ll continue to be behind us as this experiment moves forward. Since we’re bringing something so new and different to the airwaves, we believe they’ll be with us for years to come.