10 Questions with ... Nick Forster
August 15, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Independent guitar repairman, Denver Folklore Center 1975-1978; Founding member of award-winning bluegrass band Hot Rize, 1978-present (11 records for Flying Fish, Rounder, Sugar Hill); Founder, host and CEO of eTown, 1991-present.
1. How did the idea for eTown begin?
I was on tour with Sam Bush in Eastern Europe in 1990 and was blown away by the power of music in bringing people together -- even people who didn't get along, as was often the case back then just after the "wall" came down. I was also amazed to see the environmental degradation in that part of the world, something that happens in China and Russia and virtually anywhere where government and industry are the same (coming soon to a neighborhood near you!).
On the flight back from that trip, I sketched out an outline for a radio show based on my experience of having been a guest on shows like A Prairie Home Companion, the Grand Ol' Opry, Mountain Stage and Austin City Limits, as well as the weekly radio show that my band, Hot Rize, used to do on KGNU here in Boulder. That outline turned out to be pretty close to the original format of the show when eTown started less than a year later.
2. As you celebrate 20 years, what are the most important milestones that come to mind?
Frankly, I marvel at the fact that we've survived for 20 years! We started with no staff, money or sponsors -- and no real clue as to how syndicated radio worked. We learned fast and worked hard and pushed through several make-or-break moments over the years.
Milestones: Getting picked up by NPR in '91 enabled us to launch on about 40 stations. That was huge! Four years later, NPR became our non-exclusive distributor, which enabled us to offer eTown to commercial radio, another big milestone.
The most recent event is perhaps the most significant -- buying eTown Hall and beginning the process of renovating the building. It's literally a dream come true ... complete with the "be careful what you wish for" phase because it's a HUGE amount of work to both design the space and raise millions of dollars. With eTown Hall, we can control our own performance space, recording studio and editing rooms, enabling us to make whatever content we want in whatever format we need, while giving eTown its first permanent home and allowing us to better serving our local community -- big stuff!
3. How has the show's format evolved over time?
The format's changed a few times. Dennis Constantine suggested that we start each show with better-known artists rather than have them come in later in the show. We began to have interviews with authors or policy makers only when it's a perfect fit with the rest of the show ... not every time. Mostly, we've gotten more relaxed with the process over time. We're just as motivated by our mission, but we're having more fun than ever on stage, and I think you can hear that in the show these days.
4. How many affiliates now carry the show?
With KCSN just picking us up, we're on about 250 stations -- not counting all the repeaters and translators.
5. What do you like best about your job?
The variety of my responsibilities is what keeps it interesting after all these years. I spent so many years as a touring musician that the on-stage part is very comfortable for me. I love playing in the house band ... and I love interviewing our guests. I also love solving problems as they come up in the office. I still write the scripts, act as Music Director -- and I'm also the CEO who manages the money, reports to the Board and is responsible for overall management of the organization.
I personally raise all the money, including all underwriting (yes, I've sold every advertiser for 20 years), and I write grants, solicit major donors and manage our capital campaign for our new building. Frankly, I love my job, and am committed to getting eTown to the point where it will be so solid and strong that it will last well beyond Helen's and my tenure here. I do wish we had a bigger staff so I could hand off some of that workload!
6. What are some your biggest challenges?
We're a small organization with global aspirations. We want to reach more people with a constantly improving program in as many formats and on as many platforms as possible. We simply don't have the staff or the resources to do it all or to do everything as quickly as I'd like. Our new building, while representing our future and in some ways our salvation, is also a real challenge. I meet with all of our engineers and architects regularly ... and I'm responsible for raising the money. Those two things are challenging!
Meanwhile, our immediate challenge is to deliver a great show every week that works for all of our affiliates. We're constantly trying to make sure that we find the right balance between the comfort zone and the cutting edge.
7. Tell us about the new facility you are in and when does the performance hall open up?
eTown Hall, a former church in downtown Boulder, was built in the '20s and updated and added onto until 1960. It's a 17,000-square-foot facility comprised of four separate spaces: a small theater (200 seats), The Bohemian Room (a coffeehouse and community space), a recording studio (built in a former gymnasium) and an office wing.
We've already renovated the office wing and have been working from here for about a year. It also has dressing rooms and editing suites downstairs where we currently do all of our post-production work.
Our hope is that we can accomplish lots of things with eTown Hall. First, we're providing our community an acoustically ideal listening room, a place that's not a bar or a restaurant and is the perfect size to become a really flexible music venue. We can produce eTown shows here (although we'll continue to use the Boulder Theater as well) and we'll make it available for all kinds of other shows.
Second, Boulder has a history as a recording center, starting with the old Caribou Ranch studios and a few others here in town. We're hoping that our recording studio becomes a popular spot for artists to record. With a large tracking room and 20-foot ceilings, we should have a great sounding studio right in the middle of Boulder.
Third, we want to be able to produce videos of our shows -- and this facility will give us the flexibility we need to do that.
Of course, since I've been talking about renewable energy and sustainability on the air for 20 years, we had to make this a really green building. We've already installed a 56Kw array of solar panels on our roof here in sunny Colorado, and we hope to generate most of the power we need for the whole building on site.
We hope to have the building completed towards the end of this year ... maybe in December.
8. Of all the skills you have gained through the years, is there an area you'd like to improve?
Of course I'm always learning, and there are a lot of things that I wish I did better. Mostly, I'd like to be a better leader for the organization. I tend to be a hands-off manager with high expectations. Because of my experience and time constraints, I often solve whatever problems are in front of me rather than delegate and train. It comes from running a small shop, and I'd like to evolve as a manager as eTown grows.
9. What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Act with integrity - always.
10. If you wanted to completely change careers today, what would you do?
So far, I've essentially been self-employed all my life. I have been lucky to combine my skills and talents with my values. I have never had a boss and, as a result, I've had to work much harder than I would have otherwise. But I wouldn't change a thing.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
My "spare" time is usually taken up with my other job as a musician. I still travel to perform with Hot Rize. 30db or others -- and I play on lots of records. Over the last year, I've been to Europe twice and have played about 50 shows on both coasts including Bonnaroo, Telluride and many other festivals.
And I travel to see our kids -- one in New York who makes her living playing music (Au Revoir Simone); one in North Carolina who's a former professional volleyball player now in the natural products industry; and one in Colorado who's involved with music and non-profits, married with a nine-year-old daughter ... fun!!
Last non-industry job:
Swept tennis courts when I was 11 so I could buy my first guitar.
First record ever purchased:
45 of "Wipeout" by the Surfaris in 1963
December, 1969 -- Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden with Ike & Tina Turner and B.B. King