Culture, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is related to cultivation, a word that invokes images of sowing seeds, promoting growth. In this way, someone like Pete Seeger becomes something like a seed. Love or hate folk music, there are few of us that can't hum a few bars of Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer," and so generations find that, like it or not, there's something that has been sown. There's a song we know without knowing why.
Within this larger context, a person like Nick Forster comes into focus. Forster, an accomplished musician, whose bluegrass band Hot Rize was nominated for a Grammy, appeared on "The Grand Old Opry" and "Austin City Limits," was well on his way to living comfortably as a musician. But Forster traded it in for, of all things, an independent nonprofit radio program aimed at educating, entertaining, and celebrating our eclectic local and international culture.
From Seed to Germination
As the story goes, in 1990 Forster visited Bulgaria and lent his musical talent to the State Department, playing in the first open, public concert in the formerly communist country in 40 years. Imagine Forster, strumming his guitar for this audience newly united, thinking of home, his childhood spent in small town, upstate New York, his days and nights spent listening to the radio, the news and Pete Seeger's campaign to clean up the battered Hudson River. Looking out among the crowd, Forster remembers, "I was reminded of the amazing power of music to bring people together. It's unifying." It seems the opportune time for a Pete Seeger whisper, for something to germinate.
What sprouted was something Forster called etown, a community on the air formed in 1991 in Boulder, Colorado with the help of Helen Forster, Nick's wife. "I had been touring for fifteen years," recalls Forster. "I was a single dad, and I wanted to be home more for my kids, and I really wanted to have something that reflected my values and my personality." Values rooted in a family tree whose branches extend through an impressive list of artists, politicians, designers and diplomats, and can be traced all the way back to the Mayflower. As Forster talks about the lineage, which include signers of The Declaration of Independence and Julia Howe Ward (writer of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the founder of Mother's Day), one gets the impression that social responsibility and a desire to cultivate the ideals of the commonwealth is more than natural. It's inherent.
"We have a commons," says Forster, "and that includes our natural resources, our financial resources, our laws, and our culture, arts and music. We have a responsibility to take care of those things and make sure that, in fact, they are managed in a sustainable manner." In this way, etown seeks to inform its listeners and, through education and entertainment, provide a sense of community by cultivating a wider audience for a sector of the common American culture.
This might seem an unattainable ideal until one listens to a broadcast, or better yet, attends a taping. Forster is an easy and personable host, a style colored by his experience as a guest on Garrison Keillor's popular radio program "A Prairie Home Companion." "Radio is a very personal means of communication," says Forster, "and I learned a lot of that from Garrison Keillor. Watching him on stage telling a story, weaving these fictional tales to an audience of a couple million people, knowing that each of them was taking it in as a personal conversation."
This attention to engaging each audience personally combined with the variety show format lends itself to improvisation and the possibility of rare and unpredictable moments. At the 15th Anniversary Show in Denver, on May 16, 2006, through Forster's informal interviews, listeners learned that when Keb Mo was growing up he hid folk music in his car like a dirty secret, and that James Taylor, though renowned for his harmonic vocal arrangements and soothing melodies, can't read music.
The listener will also be treated to uncommon collaborations between seemingly dissimilar artists-Keb Mo and James Taylor's performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" being one of a long list of exciting pairings that have occurred over etown's course. And yes, thrown in to the mix will be a little education via the e-chievement award, an honor designed to recognize individuals who strive to make a positive difference in their communities. "The idea is to go deeper than just playing music or selling advertising," says Forster. "It's an experience to share."
In no small way the quality of that shared experience is guaranteed by the musicianship of Forster and etown's house band, The etones, who master the eclectic array of musical styles presented on the show often in one rehearsal. "I get to play Chicago blues with Charlie Musselwhite, then I'm playing banjo with Ricky Skaggs or Doc Watson," says Forster. "It's an amazing musical opportunity, and really challenging."
The Idea Grew
Fifteen years later it seems Forster's attention and cultivation has paid off. 230 radio stations broadcast etown nationally through NPR and both commercial and public stations. The show can boast an impressive and diverse list of celebrities that includes musicians like Ben Harper, Shawn Colvin, Natalie Merchant, Willie Nelson, Dr. John, The Fray, Ani DiFranco and Chris Isaak; scientists like Jane Goodall; and politicians like Jimmy Carter.
Looking fifteen years into the future, Forster hopes for continued growth and the expansion of etown's audience. In January of 2006 etown policy changed, free ipod broadcasts began and the days of selling the show to interested stations ended. Listeners are now able to download the show from etown's website free of charge, and the organization has plans to digitize its content for wider distribution and to share its treasure trove of rare performances and interviews. Check the website for information on future guests and where to find etown-population 600,000 and growing.
Recognition, Reflection and
a Glance at the Future
Nick Forster, reflecting on the early years of etown, recalls its rocky start-first, as a for-profit and later as a nonprofit: "As a for-profit sponsorships were scarce and the financial situation didn't improve with our nonprofit status." Money was simply scarce and Helen stepped forward, offering her savings to get the project on its feet. Shortly after the first etown show the couple got married and have been together ever since.
Much like devoted parents, Nick and Helen committed their talents and skills and picked up a few along the way. Helen offers up her talents as a vocalist, harmonizing with most of the show's guests, and even tackles the editing to perfect the recordings long after the audience has gone home. Though Nick seems capable of conquering any challenge that involves strings and a fret board, he's also had to oversee the finances, taking on fundraising, sponsorship and promotions.
"Now that etown's a teenager," commented Forster, "I'm looking forward to it getting its learning permit, carrying its own weight, having a long and healthy life," giving Nick more time to play with Hot Rize (yes, they still perform) and to produce records, as he has done for artists like Michelle Shocked.