The idea of a community radio station for the Boise area came to Jeff Abrams in the early 2000s, while he was working as a fish biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Abrams left Fish and Game, not knowing he was about to embark on a journey that would consume the next 12 years of his life: founding Radio Boise. During that effort he made countless phone calls, sifted through mountains of paperwork, organized hundreds of volunteers, raised thousands of dollars, created a nonprofit, procured an FCC license and secured a spot on the FM dial.
The Treasure Valley has embraced Radio Boise—more than 3,000 donors contribute thousands of dollars. The radio station, which is broadcast over both 89.9 FM and 93.5 FM, is housed in the Alaska Building, has around 70 local DJs and is on-air 24/7.
This month, after seeing his idea reach fruition, 50-year-old Abrams will move on. Before he turned the dial on his trajectory though, he sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about Radio Boise.
This project got under way in 2003, but there was a hell of a lot of work to get it on air. Tell me about that.
Well, we knew what we wanted to have happen. The uncertainty was, we didn't know when the FCC would open up an application, so from 2003 when the organization was actually incorporated as a nonprofit, we had to wait over five years until the FCC opened an application.
You had an online stream first, right?
Yeah. In the meantime, people were so excited and chomping at the bit to go that we created a programming service that became what is known now as Radio Boise. Before, it was called the Boise Community Radio Project. For three years, we were on webcast.
Were you always located in the Alaska Building downtown?
Yeah, we were on the second floor of the Alaska Building back then, before moving into our 1,400-square-foot space in the basement that we have now.
[Back then] the building manager took me down a long hallway and he said, "I'm not sure this is going to work for you," but he walked me into literally a padded room—which I thought was going to be a wonderful metaphor for what we had coming our way. It was a carpeted room that had acted as a switching facility for a Telco provider.
Anyway, we applied and got a construction permit from the FCC in 2008, then the clock started ticking. We had 36 months to raise the money to buy our equipment and be operational, to get on the airwaves.
[Remember], this was in the middle of one of the biggest recessions this country has ever had. We needed to raise $300,000 to try to prove out an idea that was still very much conceptual. Yes, it had worked in other communities, but it was also right in the middle of a very steep ascension of digital media. So we were financially handicapped, bootstrapping it with no paid staff, with just an idea on the drawing board and a construction permit, in the middle of a digital revolution.
But there was this promise. There was a way for us to reclaim some of the voice that had been lost through mass media. We had that out there as a shining beacon.
Really, this was the last frequency that was available on the FM dial. We had one chance to make it happen. And we threaded the needle in every sense of the word.
Did you ever think Radio Boise was not going to happen?
I never thought it was never going to happen, I just didn't always know how it was going to happen. We had several very huge hurdles. The hurdles that we had in front of us, had somebody set all those hurdles up in the short 40-yard distance, we would have tripped on our faces. But they all lined up and were able to be overcome at the exact right time.
Like, if we wouldn't have found an existing broadcast facility with a 200-foot tower out in the middle of the desert 50 miles from Boise, we would have had to raise five times the capital that we did.
Do you think that most people would have the endurance for the race you ran?
It's hard to say. I just feel like... I'm a very purpose-driven person. A lot of my romantic relationships have suffered because of it. But there's just something in me that if I'm not doing something that makes me feel like I'm impacting the quality of life in the place I'm living in, I'm not feeling happy.
I think you have to have that certain fortitude to understand that stuff is just going to work out somehow. If you don't have that bedrock, if you can't be at the center of that spinning fan when everything else around you is going nuts, then you're just at the whim of the seas that push you wherever.
The station went live in April of 2011, and you've been general manager all this time. What have you learned?
I definitely learned things about myself. I have learned that I'm a bigger-picture person. I don't like a lot of details that come with managing people, budgets, administrative components that come along with this job.
It's the same way I didn't think I was cut out to be a biologist—if you're interested in saving ecosystems and the health of our planet, to get bogged down in the minutia of exactly how many smolts out-migrated in the spring versus the fall, eventually I came to question where and how I was spending my time trying to work towards a healthier planet.
But the thrills have come in every week. That first fund drive, when we put this out to the people for six months and our community actually picked up the phone by the hundreds and said, "Yes, I love what you're doing, thank you so much for being on the air," that was the ultimate validation.
What's the status of the station's transition?
My official end date is early March. We've had 10 resumes [as of Feb. 4]; most are not from Boise. We've had resumes from Canada, from people who have run Pacifica stations.
The really compelling part is, we're not this mature station that's been on the air for 40 years, and it isn't steady-as-she-goes, operation battleship.
We have a lot of initiatives that we haven't yet embarked on to fulfill the responsibility that comes along with the FCC license. There is still a lot of soil for us to plow when it comes to fully realizing the power of this resource that this community has decided to support.
I'm sure you're a little sentimental as you prepare to close this chapter of your life.
I am, but there's so much work to do right now that I haven't been able to go there. We went away as a board and staff a few weeks ago and I just didn't let myself go in that direction because we had to work out a transition plan, a staffing plan. I suppose later on, there will be time for that, and I'm sure it will overcome me. It can't not, right? After a dozen years?
I'm sure people will be sad to see you go.
I've had several people corner me on the street with looks of concern and a line of questioning. They felt very anxious for what's next for the station. All I can do is talk with those people and let them know that Radio Boise is governed by a board of directors that has a very unified vision for the station. It's up to us to find the right person that will continue building on our early successes.
Hopefully there won't be any noticeable after-effects.
So what's next? You're moving to McCall, right?
That's the plan. My girlfriend has two beautiful little girls. She's up there, [teaching] elementary school. I don't have my own kids. At some point, if I'm really going to make an impact on the lives of her girls, I need to be with them.
We've been together for about four years. I've been driving a canyon every weekend, sometimes twice in a week, for the last four years or so. It will be nice to be there, very different. I love Boise, and it will still be a big part of my life. It will be a hub for me, but McCall will be my home.
What's the next project?
I have some ideas about other ways to empower nonprofits across the globe.
It's just been such a privilege. Speaking not from the intellectual side, but from the heart—it's been a real privilege to be able to create a media organization from scratch.
We have lots to do. It's a baby organization, but I think we have pretty strong legs beneath us, and I know that when I go away, the station will continue to thrive.
- Jeff Abrams: "There was a way for us to reclaim some of the voice that had been lost through mass media."