Boulder’s eTown Hall has seen a lot of action lately — especially for a venue that’s not even officially finished.
The 89-year-old former church, which is undergoing a $5 million renovation, is the new home of eTown, the liberal-minded music-and-conversation radio show that reaches more than 300 stations and an estimated 1 million listeners each week.
It’s the dream of Nick and Helen Forster, the co-founders of the 21-year-old nonprofit show, who also host and play music on each hour-long episode.
“They’re uniquely Boulder, and they have a huge impact for us in that we’re advertised on hundreds of radio stations nationally,” said Liz Hanson, Boulder’s economic vitality coordinator. “We’ve heard reports that people visit Boulder just to hear where eTown is taped.”
The Forsters have produced more than 1,000 episodes of eTown since 1991, featuring artists such as James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Neko Case and Jack Johnson, but also interviews with liberal thinkers like former Vice President Al Gore, President Jimmy Carter and filmmaker Michael Moore.
“The ‘e’ first stood for ‘earth,’ ” said Nick, 57, who invented the name on the fly while pitching the show to National Public Radio, some of whose affiliates run eTown. “Now it could easily stand for environment, education or the electronic aspect.”
The show, which also appears on commercial stations such as Denver’s KBCO 97.3 FM, has weathered funding cuts and other setbacks in its drive toward financial and physical independence. It was dropped by NPR at the height of the mid-’90s culture wars, for example, but by that time the station had already benefitted from NPR’s stamp of approval.
“It took us maybe a week or two to figure out what a mixed blessing that was,” Nick said. “There was a certain amount of gnashing of teeth because we
were like, ‘Hey, man, we’re finally getting a nice head of steam here.’ But we found that for $20,000 or $25,000 we could replicate what they were doing (for eTown) as well as open up a new revenue stream for ourselves.”
The new eTown Hall is the show’s biggest gamble yet, especially considering the complex financing and multimedia plans its founders have in mind.
“We’re not just providing cultural events for the local community here, but expanding our content for worldwide distribution,” co-founder Helen, 62 , said. “There wasn’t much in town with the kind of components we needed.”
In addition to securing a high-tech home, eTown is hoping to build its brand with experiments in video and podcasting. If successful, it could become a model for similar organizations around the country.