BRAHAM, MINN. – In an age when radio is corporatized, homogenized and mechanized, a small-town FM station is betting that its future lies in the past.
In this east-central Minnesota town of 1,700 residents about 60 miles north of the Twin Cities, listeners get an eclectic mix of live programming that both serves the local residents and, thanks to the internet, draws fans from across Minnesota and the Midwest.
On KBEK, you’re more likely to hear an in-studio performance from a little-known Twin Cities band than the latest from Eminem or the well-worn hits of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.
And there may be a few lost-pet announcements in the mix as well.
“At the risk of sounding a little hippie, I think the pendulum is swinging back. People are embracing the local approach,” said Shawn Sullivan, the station’s co-manager, chief advertising salesman and host of the weekly “Happy Trucker Show.”
“Our variety is pretty much unheard of in commercial radio today.”
He’s not blowing smoke.
Over the last quarter-century, corporate giants have gobbled up radio outlets, with the five largest radio companies owning more than 2,000 stations. Meanwhile, technology has made the old-fashioned DJ an endangered species. Many stations are fully automated, purchasing cookie-cutter program offerings that industry insiders have dubbed “radio station in a box.” Locally produced programming is increasingly rare.
In the converted crematory that houses KBEK, the programs and on-air talent are drawn from the community — people like Sullivan, who was a truck driver delivering office supplies and porta-potties before his neighbor, the station owner, thought he had a personality made for radio.
“It’s handpicking people who fit your vision,” said Mary Lodin, who bought the station in 2014 after its longtime owner retired and KBEK went off the air for eight months. Lodin and her business partner, Jay Manke, already owned a successful wireless company and weren’t looking to get into broadcasting.
“But we were hearing that people were missing it,” Lodin said, “and we decided, ‘Why wouldn’t we do it?’ ”
They bought the station and moved it into the crematory, which also had served at one time or another as a warehouse, a print shop and City Hall. A crucial step was adding a studio large enough to hold not just a DJ, but also musicians for on-air performances. The total investment, Lodin said, was several hundred thousand dollars.
Pretty soon, local people started showing up to hear the musicians, “just pulling up chairs in the studio,” Lodin said. So they built a stage.
Now, every Friday night, the “listening room” offers a live performance that’s broadcast and streamed. Sullivan’s wife, Emma, serves cocktails and beer from local makers, and plans call for a commercial kitchen and food service in the near future.
It’s become the hottest ticket in Isanti County. On a recent Friday, a dozen people were waiting when the doors opened, and all 50-plus seats were filled well before the 8 p.m. showtime.
“I love live music and I love small venues,” said Charrie VanVleet, who makes the 20-mile trip most weeks from her home in Brook Park, Minn. “I’m so thankful I don’t have to drive to the Fine Line [in Minneapolis].”
For the bands, the opportunity to play live and promote themselves with on-air interviews is a rare privilege.
“Shawn genuinely cares about supporting artists,” said Liz Collin, singer and guitarist with the Minneapolis band Red Eye Ruby. “That seems to be the foundation of this whole enterprise.”
“I love Braham,” added the band’s cellist, Caitlin Pieper. “It shows you that small places can have big resources and do big things.”
The station does run automated programming in the overnight hours, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and also for a few hours each afternoon to give Sullivan a chance to make sales calls. But KBEK’s formula of live and local programming excites Larry Miller, a longtime radio executive who now directs the Steinhardt Music Business Program at New York University.
“When I hear about a single local station in a small market providing local programming for a local audience, in what sounds like a delightful and compelling way, I love that story,” Miller said.
“That’s when radio is still at its best: when it’s live and local,” he added. “If they do that and they’re able to sell it locally, and the local retail base is strong enough, then they’ve got as good a shot as any at being successful.”
The station is preparing for an ownership transition, as the Sullivans take over from Lodin and Manke.
“This is probably the most fun I’ve had and the most tired I’ve been,” Lodin said, explaining why she’s ready to step back.
For Shawn Sullivan, the path forward is simple.
“We’re not doing anything new,” he said. “We’re just doing what everyone else quit doing along the way.”