Yampa Valley’s classical music station still going strong after 50 years
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Toward the end of the old-fashioned radio dial sits a classical music station that crescendos into the Yampa Valley via a radio tower atop Storm Mountain. It’s a New Jersey-based radio station that broadcasts its popular radio shows to the East Coast, but they operate one little affiliate in Western Colorado on 91.1 FM.
“We’re their only radio station outside the New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia area that broadcasts WWFM,” said Richard Boersma, member of the West Slope FM board, which was established to bring classical music into the Yampa Valley.
“You’ll hear them give a weather report for the East Coast then they’ll say, ‘and in Steamboat Springs, it’s 23 degrees and snowing,” laughed Boersma.
And no, classical music and old-fashioned radio are not dead said outgoing Board President Lynn Abbott, who’s handing off the care of the radio station to her fellow volunteer board members. She said 91.1 is evolving, with plans for an online presence to connect more people.
“There are younger interests on the board now,” Abbott said. “They’re not all gray hairs like me.”
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You could say Abbott inherited her position on the West Slope FM board. After all, it was her mother Ann Rich who brought classical music to western Colorado, along with her friend Jan Vail.
“Growing up with her (mom Ann Rich), it was classical music all the time,” said Abbott, who now lives in her childhood home on Grand Street in downtown Steamboat Springs. “We did not have TV in Steamboat Springs; we had phonograph records, and her love was classical music.”
Abbott said classical music was used as a calming influence.
“She and my dad ran the grain elevator, and harvest time was crazy in this house,” she said. “The classical music calmed us down.”
Abbott said her mom started researching how to get a radio station in the 1960s.
“She started exploring how to get a license for a transmitter, and ‘what was a megahertz and a transmitter’ … all that lingo,” Abbott said.
By 1976, Rich and Vail had enough donations to put radio equipment on Emerald Mountain, partnering with various established radio stations in Colorado. Abbott said her mom and friend weren’t the best record keepers, and exact dates are a little fuzzy, but the radio station would eventually settle on 91.1 and broadcast New Jersey’s WWFM radio station live via their Storm Mountain transmitter.
Boersma said WWFM is like having a benevolent rich uncle.
“They’re pleased to have us, and they don’t make us pay,” Boersma said.
However, the West Slope FM board has always had to maintain their own radio equipment and pay for the transmitter lease on top of Storm Mountain.
“We’re in a good position right now,” said new Board President Susie Leeson. “There were hardly any outages this winter, and we have enough money to cover our costs and budget for another fundraiser.”
In the meantime, Leeson said the board hopes to create an online presence for 91.1 FM, and she credits local voice and music teachers like Christel Houston with promoting classical music.
“The amount of school-aged kids taking classical music in Steamboat is increasing,” said Houston, also a WSFM board member.“There’s an orchestra at the high school now, and there are so many great classical teachers in Steamboat that are raising classical-loving kids.”
Houston said tuning into 91.1 during a car ride is the best way to introduce classical music.
“You have a captive audience — Bach is in the passenger seat, and Beethoven is riding shotgun,” Houston.
She said the partnership with WWFM in New Jersey is an amazing experience for the little town of Steamboat. Not only do you get music, but classical DJs and guests offer insight into the people and culture behind the music.
“I’ve been involved in classical music my entire life,” Houston said. “I listen to 91.1 and hear things I’ve never heard before. I won’t get out of my car.
“Radio can get a bad rap, that it’s old school, but it can bring you so many new things,” Houston added. “It would be a mistake to dismiss it. That’s why I’m passionate about this radio station. For a relatively low cost, I think we’re a bargain.”
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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