Click the image above or use the arrows to see more images from the front porch.
CRESTON – In the Flathead Valley, music was asked to take a number and it chose 101.9. And it needed a home, so it nested in a century-old farmhouse east of Kalispell.
Over the past five years, the Montana Radio Café has emerged as both a distinctive voice and a keen set of ears for the local music scene. When an aspiring artist shows up at the Radio Café’s front door with a guitar, chances are owner Scott Johnston will put him on air. In fact, Johnston might pick up a guitar and play along. But first things first: a cup of coffee is always in order.
In Flathead’s interconnected arts culture – where painters are blues singers by night and fiddle virtuosos are guitar teachers by day – music lovers look out for each other. Christian Johnson, one of the most active and well-known musicians around, said Johnston is the embodiment of that philosophy.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Johnson and guitar player Billy Powell stopped in at the Radio Café to jam on air and field a few questions.
“He’s opened his door to any musician who has a record coming up, a show coming up, or maybe a party,” Johnson said. “Radio doesn’t usually do that. It’s just great.”
In March, Johnston celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Radio Café, which can be heard locally at KXZI 101.9 FM or anywhere in the world at www.montanaradiocafe.org. The FM station is touch and go, as it originates from a low-power, 78-foot antenna tower in Johnston’s yard. But the warmly fuzzy connection often feels like part of the station’s charm – and it has plenty of charm.
Driving between Kalispell and Creston on Montana Highway 35, you may notice a neon sign that says “On Air.” If you turn there, you’ve made it to the Radio Café, also Johnston’s home. Johnston and his wife have lived in the quaint farmhouse for 22 years. It has served well as the stomping grounds for their six children and now is serving equally well as the control station for the Radio Café.
The house’s front porch is adorned with microphones, computers, guitars, a photo of a young Johnston with Louis Armstrong, and enough miscellaneous memorabilia to prove Johnston’s point: He loves music and cares deeply about it. The Radio Café is his tribute.
“We’re trying to keep the music alive as best we can here on the front porch,” Johnston said at the end of his live show with Johnson and Powell.
The Café’s menu is diverse, but follows along the veins of blues, bluegrass and jazz, with plenty of rock- and folk-inspired variations interspersed. Some of it is unclassifiable. For these songs, Johnston has a “miscellaneous” category. The Café’s database has more than 20,000 songs and growing.
One can listen to the station everyday for weeks and not hear a repeat song. It’s a one-stop station for musicians and serious listeners alike, lacking in popular hits but full of lesser-known gems. Striving to keep the music nonstop as possible, Johnston doesn’t ever name the songs on air. But they can all be found, with their exact play time, on a continuously running list on the station’s Web site.
Johnston operates the station through a series of computers and servers, along with an operating system called OTS-DJ, which he said has far more features than he’ll ever need. With all of this new technology, Johnston realizes he possesses powers better left unused.
“I can scratch bluegrass – it sounds weird,” he said. “I don’t think I’m too good at it.”
Johnston gets his music from friends, local artists, music labels and through word of mouth. If a musician brings in a CD, Johnston will add it to the rotation. If a musician brings an instrument, Johnston might put him on air.
Dozens of artists have played live shows at the Café’s front-porch studio. Some are lesser-known locals, while some are nationally acclaimed artists like John Gorka, Too Slim and the Taildraggers, and Michael Martin Murphey. One time The Samples parked their giant tour bus in Johnston’s yard and jammed for awhile. As Christian Johnson says: “I’ve heard some magical things happen in here.”
But Johnston’s contributions to live music don’t stop at the farmhouse. He and painter Marshall Noice organize a concert series at the KM Theater that brings in big-name groups from around the country.
The Café is non-commercial and the music flows mostly uninhibited all day and night. Laws prohibit non-commercial stations from using traditional advertisements, such as saying the word “sales” or other similar promotional tools, Johnston said.
So when he does make reference to his sponsors, he does so through stories that he calls “mentions.” He might tell a story about the friendly owner or a good experience he had at the sponsor’s business or any tidbit he finds interesting. He has the advantage of being a good storyteller.
“There’s no contracts, just relationships,” Johnston said. “We’re all in this community together.”
Having been in the commercial radio business for years prior to starting the Radio Café, Johnston said he prefers stories as a more intimate method of introducing listeners to sponsors. There are no gimmicks or catchy jingles – just Johnston. For every hour of music, there’s an average of five minutes of sponsor mentions. Some commercial stations have more than 20 minutes of advertisements per hour, he said.
But Johnston is the first to admit money is getting tight. Sponsors and potential sponsors, like everybody else, have been hit by the economy. Johnston speaks with genuine appreciation of the supporters he does have and is happy to take whatever they’re able to provide to keep his station alive.
Andre Floyd, a renowned Kalispell musician whose career has spanned decades and numerous geographical regions, said Flathead’s music scene would have a large void to fill without the Radio Café.
“I love that guy and I love the station,” Floyd said. “It’s in the tradition of freedom – the freedom to play the records you want to and the access to music that the community doesn’t always have access to.”
Floyd added: “He’s an awesome community spirit.”
Johnston doesn’t want the music to stop. He’s making due with limited funding and will continue to do so as long as possible. But no matter what happens, he’s thankful for the run he’s already had.
“It’s been pretty darn good, these five years on the front porch,” Johnston said. “That’s why I have that sign up there that says, ‘It’s a wonderful life.’ Because it has been a wonderful life.”