"Hey, how would you like to run a radio station on the coast again?"
That's what Doug Sweet says he heard when he picked up his phone in November. The caller was Cindy Price, a member of the board of Tillicum Foundation, the nonprofit corporation that operates KMUN/ Coast Community Radio.
Sweet was the original general manager for KMUN when it signed on the air on April 17, 1983. He left in 2001 to take over the Mt. Hood Community College station, which he ran until 2008.
He said Price told him KMUN was having trouble raising money and wanted to find a new permanent station manager. Price must have been very convincing. Sweet signed on for a six-month stint to help get the station back on course while the board looks for a permanent manager.
The public access FM station has grown and thrived since its humble beginnings in 1983, when it was located in the Gunderson Building on Commercial Street in downtown Astoria. Sweet said audience research shows KMUN FM is now "the most-listened to station in the area."
It's quite an accomplishment, considering the stations have a potential listenership of around 100,000 people. That's the total population, including "men, women, children, dogs and dolphins," Sweet joked.
To celebrate the anniversary, KMUN Astoria 91.9 FM and KTCB 89.5 Tillamook will present special birthday programming Saturday, featuring invited guests throughout the day.
Sweet, 65, credits the stations' success to dedicated volunteers and more than 3,000 community listeners who have supported KMUN, along with its new sister station, KTCB. The station's small staff of five would never be able to keep the station going without the volunteers.
"Some of the same people are on the air as when I left, but there are a lot of new people and a lot of new energy," Sweet said. "It's been great."
Since the station began, volunteers have put in more than 100,000 hours, according to Tom Hartland, Coast Community Radio's development director. He said there are currently more than 100 volunteers who consistently help out. They come from as far away as Pacific City to the south, Tokeland, Wash., to the north, Clatskanie to the east, and Wahkiakum, Hartland said.
They include Jenn Smith, who arrived Tuesday with Angel, her tiny white poodle/Lhasa Apso, to sort and catalog CDs. And Herb Mindt, a Tillicum board member who's taking a turn staffing the front desk from 2 to 5 p.m. There are different volunteers each day of the week for that time slot.
Hartland mentioned many others, including Larry Ziak, who goes into the basement where the old reel-to-reel tapes are stored and puts them onto CDs. Tom Brownson put a new skylight in an upstairs production room. Ray Merritt, a longtime member of the Tillicum board, takes care of vacuuming. Other people man phones and take pledges during pledge drives. Ham radio operators keep the station updated during emergencies. They make up mailing parties to put out the quarterly newsletter and help set up equipment for broadcasting events.
Except for programs from National Public Radio, and newscasts, most of the voices heard on the air are volunteers, who create their own shows. They play music from every genre, host public affairs shows and generally put their personal and often quirky stamp on what comes over the KMUN airwaves.
Carol Newman, for example, takes turns with Bob Goldberg hosting All Kinds of Folk from 10 to noon on Tuesdays. Newman also hosts Arts Live & Local from 3 to 4 p.m. on Fridays. She has been part of KMUN since the very beginning.
Another popular program is Wayne Downing's In the Mood, which airs Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and features big band music. "It's good music. We can't let it disappear. It satisfies my urge for a creative outlet," said Downing, who moved to Ocean Park, Wash., from Seattle in October 1999. Six feet five, with a gray beard, Downing is an imposing figure with a distinctive voice. He was in the type setting and printing business "until desktop publishing came along and threw us all out in the street. I've been tossed out twice because I got replaced by a machine," Downing said. He was an online book seller for 12 years before retiring two years ago after a stroke.
Downing, 60, said he got started at KMUN five years ago after he and his daughter dared each other to step out of their comfort zones. "She started a girl band and I started this," Downing said. "I try hard. I don't think it's right that a whole generation of music should disappear."
There are no CDs on Downing's show. Fifteen minutes before the show was to start, he sauntered into the on-air studio and cued up a couple of records on the turntables. "I grew up with vinyl. I'm a vinyl kind of guy," he said.
The music means a lot to Downing and his fans. He said he was playing a Glenn Miller song when an older man called the station and told Downing he was living in the Netherlands during World War II and hid under the floor boards of his home to listen to Glenn Miller on Armed Forces Radio. "He said he could have been shot then for listening to it," Downing said.
Downing said he started taking radio seriously when he realized it gave him the capacity to influence people in a wide area, including two states. "KMUN is rare. It's a jewel. I listen to it at home all the time," Downing said. "Ninety-nine percent of little towns don't have anything like this."
Guiding the programmers is Elizabeth Menetrey, who has been KMUN's program director for 15 years. On Tuesday she was hanging out in her second floor office with Daisy, her blue heeler mix. On the wall were photos ranging from the Dalai Lama to Brad Pitt.
"Right now I'm listening to music. We get about 20 or 30 CDs every week. Some are crap, some are great," said Menetrey, who has a degree in film and video from California Institute of the Arts.
She grew up in Los Angeles, worked in community radio in the Catskills in New York, but wanted to come back to the West. "I love radio, I love it," Menetrey said. "I'm very proud of this station. It's a real accomplishment to have this kind of radio station here and have people support it."
KMUN started out with an air room built out of "junk wood and what not," Sweet reminisced Tuesday. It had an audio console, a couple of turntables, CD players, a cassette player and a couple of microphones, he said, and a transmitter on Megler Mountain. "We built our own building up there and put the antenna on a utility pole and that was it," he said.
For the first six months, the station came on at 6 a.m. and shut down between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to train volunteers. It came back on from 2 to 10 p.m. "We would have a human being in the air room. That was the only way we could operate," Sweet said. "There was no satellite, there was no automation system, there were no computers in the air room. Nothing."
Today, the station has its own building, with three studios and two stations running out of it. It also has modern equipment, thanks to a $250,000 federal grant secured by Sweet in 2001. "We got enough money to replace all the equipment from the microphone in the air room all the way up to the antenna. Just before I left that was my last big project, to rebuild the whole station," Sweet said.
Still, KMUN is mainly about the people, the programming and the community, much more than the equipment.
"What this station does is to be a public forum for all kinds of things the community is interested in and is involved in, culturally, politically and municipally," Sweet said. "I feel very good about it. I think it's terrific."