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Distinctive Grand Rapids-based Northern Community Radio explores the world through a local lens

Northern Community Radio, which went on the air in 1976, is an independent affiliate of National Public Radio.

Heidi Holtan
Heidi Holtan, Northern Community Radio’s news and public affairs director, in the KAXE studio in Grand Rapids.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

One day in August, on Northern Community Radio, an FM station based in Grand Rapids, Chuck Marohn and Aaron Brown were discussing the lasting appeal of President Donald Trump, who carried a large swath of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region in the 2016 presidential election.

Marohn, an engineer and city planner from Brainerd, and Brown, a college teacher and writer from rural Grand Rapids, were taking part in “Dig Deep,” a public affairs program that features the men engaging in lengthy discussions about politics and other topics related to the region. Marohn is billed as the conservative of the pair, Brown the liberal. Heidi Holtan, the station’s news and public affairs director, moderates.

Marohn kicked off the segment by pushing back against the notion that Trump is popular with working class voters because he appeals to their base instincts – their racism and xenophobia. That’s offensive, he said, the result of lazy thinking. More likely, Marohn argued, blue collar workers who are used to economic ups-and-downs – like the miners here on the Iron Range – looked at Trump, a flamboyant if flawed businessman, as a kind of fellow risk-taker.

“If we went to the mill or we went to the mines and we said, ‘Would you rather have a beer with George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Donald Trump?’ I think even before Donald Trump runs for president they say Donald Trump,” he said. They would think, “This is a guy that I feel that I could relate to.”

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Brown didn’t buy the risk-taker part of that argument. But he did see in Trump parallels to a famous Minnesota politician who also appealed to the common man: former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the third-party outlier who was elected 20 years ago after a career in professional wrestling.  

“He was a villain, as a wrestler, and those were the best wrestlers ‘cause they could do whatever and it was awesome and you could throw things at them and you could hit ‘em in the head with a beer bottle and they didn’t care!” Brown said. “You know, it was beautiful. And I think Trump kind of filled that role.” Many voters, he added, probably figured that Trump, like Ventura, could disrupt the body politic, thinking, “You know what, I don’t know what’s going on in Washington, but why don’t we send a professional wrestler in there and body slam some folks.”

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
KAXE, Northern Community Radio’s headquarters, is located near downtown Grand Rapids, an Itasca County town of 10,000.
In an era of media instability, Northern Community Radio is banking on the kind of sensibility found in that exchange – smart, topical, chatty – to remain vibrant in this region of blue-collar workers, cabin dwellers and outdoors enthusiasts. By a few measures, the formula seems to be working; 42 years after it started, NCR has a $1 million budget, nearly twice the paid membership it had two decades ago, and an enviable geographic reach.

Julie Crabb, a longtime station volunteer who currently serves as president of its board of directors, explained the station’s approach this way: “We want people to understand northern Minnesota in sort of a global way, if you will.”

People, not gophers

Northern Community Radio, which went on the air in 1976, is an independent affiliate of National Public Radio – meaning that it broadcasts some of NPR’s popular programming, such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” along with its own offerings.

NCR’s first station was KAXE in Grand Rapids, an Itasca County town of 10,000 people on the far southwestern edge of the Iron Range. NCR has expanded over the years, adding a station in Bemidji and relay towers in Brainerd and Ely; its broadcasts now stretch from the western edges of Duluth to near the North Dakota border. The station estimates that it has about 20,000 listeners at any given time, not to mention many others who tune in digitally from other states, or even other countries.

It had an inauspicious beginning. As the story goes, according to station founder Rich McClear, writing in an early annual report, a staffer at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the former federal agency that oversaw public radio) wasn’t impressed by plans for a station in this remote region because the agency wanted “to fund stations which serve people, not gophers.” The station outlasted that slur and weathered near-bankruptcy in 1984 after the broadcast tower in Grand Rapids crumpled when a truck snagged a guy wire.

These days, NCR has 11 full-time employees, two part-timers and some contract workers who are paid with funding from the Legacy Amendment, which created a state fund that supports arts and cultural pursuits across Minnesota. It also draws on a network of more than 100 volunteers who play music, read the news on the air and host various programs, including a weekly trivia show.

The volunteers have become an integral part of NCR’s mission, helping to give many of the broadcasts a particularly local feel.   

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Besides serving on the board, Crabb, a retired postal worker who moved to the area from the Twin Cities suburbs 28 years ago, hosts the station’s trivia show, “Green Cheese,” along with two other volunteers. She said she looked at the work as a way to support a media outlet that reflects the local culture. “We want (listeners) to understand what it feels like to live in northern Minnesota,” she said.

Like public radio elsewhere, NCR also relies heavily on listener contributions for its survival. In fiscal year 2017, it raised about a fourth of its roughly $1 million operating budget from member drives and other promotions.  (The station received about $150,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).

Montgomery, the general manager, said KAXE had fewer than 1,000 members in 1995, when she became the general manager; today, membership is around 1,800. Its budget has tripled over that span. The challenge, Montgomery said, is to maintain that contributor base in an era of media uncertainty fueled by smartphones and satellite radio. One approach: lowering the monthly membership fee to as little as $5 to attract younger listeners. “We kind of think we have a groovy, cool thing here and millennials are participating,” she said. “They have a future here.”

Early in the decade, the station began a drive to recruit “sustaining members” – those committed to making annual donations – and now has more than 600.

Curiously engaging

On Sept. 25, John Latimer opened “Phenology,” his weekly NCR segment about the natural environment, with the kind of earnest chatter that has made him a popular figure – a Fred Rogers of northern Minnesota, delivering ordinary updates about the natural environment in a curiously engaging way. (Phenology, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a branch of science that deals with “relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena”).

The lead topic of the day: whether listeners should put their hummingbird feeders away for the year. Latimer had gotten some reports from students who follow his show and had shared their observations.

“I, personally, have not seen a hummingbird in probably two weeks now, but the students are still seeing a few,” he said. “I think the latest one in the north was over in Cherry (a village in St. Louis County) on, well, let’s see, the 18th at North Shore Community School. They had a hummingbird reported there, so keep your feeders out. Mine’s still out! I’m hoping everyday that one last migrant will stop for a nip and then head south.”

Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Latimer also talked about the reeds standing along lakes and roads, which were turning brown; red maple trees, whose leaves were just reaching their peak fall colors; and trembling aspen trees, whose leaves were showing flecks of yellow.  

“As I was driving along County Road 49 north of Grand Rapids,” he said, as if talking to a neighbor who knows all of the back roads, “I noticed that the entire tree group – all of the aspens along that road – were sort of lime green. There’s a bunch of yellow that’s starting to mix in.”

Other shows include “Give & Take,” Holtan’s weekly interview with local newsmakers; and “What’s for Breakfast,” a Friday morning bit that involves listeners calling the studio, sharing what they ate for breakfast – and then digressing into whatever topic is on their minds.  

One morning in August, Joe Morrisey, an Ely resident who was on vacation in Mexico City, called in and reported that he was about to eat scrambled eggs and chiles over dried-out tortillas that he had fried in coconut oil. Holton and John Bauer, the station’s development director – who doubles as coach of the local community college women’s basketball team – were on the air.

As the discussion unfolded, Morrisey recalled how he had attended a language school in Mexico in the late 1970s, an experience that deepened his interest in the country. He hoped to retire there. The hosts listened and asked a few questions – then shifted gears, bringing the segment back to what they had been talking about before Morrissey called: hats.

Bauer asked: “Do you look good in a hat, Joe?”

Music mix unlike ‘anywhere else’

“On the River,” Northern Community Radio’s daily music program, provides listeners with an eclectic dose of folk, rock, blues, jazz and world beat. Music Director Kari Hedlund provides a format for the show, highlighting certain albums and new releases, but the volunteers who take the mic when she isn’t on the air choose their own playlists.

Hedlund, like Crabb, is a northern Minnesota transplant. She lived in Minneapolis before moving to the Grand Rapids area, happy to get away from the “constant rigmarole” of the Twin Cities and to reconnect with nature. For a time, she worked as a caretaker at a resort, then on an organic farm. “I thought, moving up here, that everyone was going to be local, that everyone would probably be a native of the area,” she said.  “It was surprising how many are not and have similar stories as mine and were living in the Cities.”

That revelation – of people being from other places, interested in a diversity of experience – has reinforced the station’s choice in music. We like to think that we offer a mix of music that you don’t get anywhere else,” she said. “A lot of places people can’t get exposed to that kind of music. So, it’s sort of our job, our position, to introduce listeners to music that they wouldn’t normally listen to.”

A recent afternoon playlist included “The Mad Hatter Rides again,” by Jeff Coffin and the Mu’tet; “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” by Bob Dylan, and “Free,” by Joan Armatrading.  

The station strives for gender balance in its music, splitting its airtime 50-50 between male and female artists. (The breakdown in the commercial radio world, Hedlund said, is more like 70 percent male and 30 percent female). DJs are also encouraged to play one song from a Minnesota artist each hour. Listeners will hear such Minnesota acts as Jeremy Messersmith, The Cactus Blossoms and the Christopher David Hanson Band.  Centerstage Minnesota is a Friday segment that features Minnesota artists exclusively.

The station is also in its third year of co-sponsoring concerts in a 200-seat theater at the Reif Performing Arts Center, a complex at the local high school. “One of the best ways to measure who we are reaching is by who shows up to the concerts,” Hedlund said.

A very different place’

Northern Community Radio is headquartered at the KAXE studio, a low-slung building with a brick exterior tucked along the Mississippi River just off of downtown Grand Rapids. A large tower hovers over the station and a small outdoor amphitheater.

NCR doesn’t follow the familiar format of rural radio, with its market summaries, high school sports broadcasts and local news reports. As a public station, however, it must fulfill an educational role, which it does through interviews with local movers and shakers (on “Give & Take”), commentary on the issues of the day (on “Dig Deep”); and reports from other media (like occasional discussions with Marshall Helmberger, the publisher of the Timberjay, a newspaper in St. Louis County).  

Earlier this month, Holtan interviewed memoirist Sarah Smarsh about her recently published book, “Heartland:  A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” a meditation on her experience growing up in Kansas.

As the interview began, Holtan, a northern Minnesota native who grew up in Brainerd, shared a pet peeve of hers: media characterizations of people who live in rural areas as poor or blindly conservative or somehow lesser. “As you can tell, I get a little PO’d about the definition of rural people from other areas,” Holtan said.

Smarsh agreed, referring to the “blind spots” that reporters – particularly those in the New York newsrooms where she has worked – can have about class and place. As if speaking to those journalists, she said: “The framework you are using for describing an immense swath of the nation is reductive and stereotypical and dwells in caricature.” She hoped her book would push against those “simplistic stories.”

Holtan added: “It’s a very different place than what people have been defining us as.”  

A few weeks earlier, Holtan had welcomed me to the station on a late afternoon near the end of a workday. The building was quiet. We sat in the studio, a small room with a picture window that looks out over the famous river, discussing the station’s programs. “Dig Deep” was generating some positive feedback, she said. People liked its depth and – in this era of heated politics – its civil tone. “I have heard from a lot of people who appreciate that,” she said.

Years on the job have given Holtan an ear for the kinds of interactions that can make for interesting segments or add perspective to the issues of the day. She doesn’t have to go far to discover them. “We want to find local people and let them talk,” she said. “You know, there’s a power in hearing from people and letting them tell their stories.”

This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.