Grand Rapids
Hibbing Bemidji
Bagley Brainerd

Northern Community Radio History

The Beginning
Northern Community Radio's founders (Rich and Suzi McClear, Dave Molvik and Dale Constantine) were among the early pioneers of community-based radio. Their idea, new in the early '70s, was to build a full-service public radio station in a rural location that focused on community access and ownership, and that relied primarily on listener support for its revenue. These ideas had not been tried in a rural area before.

In one of KAXE's earliest publications, Rich and Suzi described KAXE as both reflecting educational broadcasting's traditions (several founding board members were alumni of WCAL at St Olaf College in Northfield) and the philosophies of Lew Hill, noted pacifist and founder of KPFA/Pacifica Radio. WCAL was one of the first public educational radio stations in the country. It was traditional in structure and programming (classical music). On the other hand, Lew Hill felt that exciting programming should grow out of the dynamic tension within broadcasting organizations that included all world views, and that themselves were often rocked by bitter internal disputes. KAXE, our founders decided, should be a hybrid that contained elements of both.

In December 1970, the corporation that eventually became Northern Community Radio (Minnesota Public Radio) was formed. The articles of incorporation were accepted by the State of Minnesota on February 11, 1971. The name changed to Northern Community Radio in March, 1973 (Northern Community Radio and the present-day Minnesota Public Radio are not related, and they never have been).

Finding funds to build the station was tough. Because there was no precedent for a rural public radio station like KAXE, potential funders were reluctant to buy in. The CPB and several foundations turned down Northern Community Radio's requests for funding. The station had to be built on a shoestring, with donated and used equipment and volunteer labor. Itasca Community College provided small studios and forgave the minimal rent on several occasions. Office furniture consisted of cast-offs literally held together with duct tape and wire.

On April 23 1976, 91.7 KAXE signed on the air for the first time, with a weekend of music and information drawn entirely from northern Minnesota.  The first song played on KAXE when it first went on the air back in 1976 was "Gypsy Woody" by Charlie Maguire.  NCR held its first Annual Meeting on April 21, 1977. At that meeting over 100 members voted for the organization's first board of directors and enacted its initial bylaws. On May 1, 1977 KAXE became a full member of National Public Radio. Also in May, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting committed its first funds to the organization.

Operating a full-powered public radio station in such a small market presented some challenges. Almost immediately, Northern Community Radio had problems coming up with enough cash to meet payroll. After the organization's founders moved on, Northern Community Radio suffered a period of revolving door managers and chronic cash flow problems that lasted through its first 15 years. These were exacerbated by an incident in 1985 where a dump truck working on the tower road caught a guy wire and brought the tower down.

KAXE's early leaders may not have been fiscal wizards, but they contributed to the organization's long-term success in other crucial ways. They created an organizational culture that focused on listeners rather than programmers. They had great respect for the people and nature of the northern Minnesota region. They also brought with them a high degree of dedication, professional skills and journalistic ethics. Because of their efforts, KAXE was always worth listening to. And because the programming and the station had value, listeners and members rallied to be sure the organization stayed afloat when times were hard-and, especially in the beginning, times were hard a lot. The body of work that has been done over the past 35 years-the strength of the programming, the investment of thousands of people, the positive impact a community-focused public radio station in a rural community can have on people's lives-these have been Northern community Radio's greatest strengths.

Better Times
KAXE and Northern Community Radio moved to new studios and offices in 2005. Our first broadcast from the north bank of the Mississippi River was Friday May 13, 2005. The first song at the new studios was Natalie Merchant's "Where I Go" (down to the river).

Northern Community Radio opened the KBXE studios in Bemidji on March 23rd of 2012, broadcasting a 50,000-watt signal from our tower in Bagley.  KBXE serves the Bagley/Bemidji area. KBXE and KAXE operate together, with programming sometimes originating at KAXE's studios in Grand Rapids, and sometimes originating at KBXE's studios in Bemidji. The combined signals of KAXE and KBXE can be heard from Fosston in the west, almost to Duluth in the East!
Northern Community Radio 800-662-5799
KAXE260 NE 2nd Street • Grand Rapids, Minnesota 55744 • 218-326-1234 • FAX: 218-326-1235
KBXE 305 America Avenue NW • Bemidji, Minnesota 56601 • 218-333-9005
Grand Rapids - 91.7 FM • Bemidji - 90.5 FM • Brainerd - 89.9 FM • Ely - 103.9 FM