On a recent Tuesday morning, Scott Johnston lit a match in the Montana Radio Café studio at his old farmhouse east of Kalispell and handed it to Paul Archie. The small flame flickered. The ceremonial torch had been passed.
“It starts small,” Johnston said of the impromptu matchstick torch, “but it gets big.”
For the past 15 years, Johnston has been the sole proprietor and omniscient voice of the Montana Radio Café, an FM station at 101.9 that stands out as an utterly unique source for serious music aficionados and anybody seeking an authentic, non-commercial radio experience. It has been a committed outlet for local musicians, who are invited to drop off an album, sit down for an interview and jam session, and Johnston will play every track on air. He has also interviewed a long list of nationally known musicians and organized numerous concerts throughout the valley.
With nearly a 30,000-song database, listeners can go many days without hearing a repeat song, either on the station itself or its website through streaming by clicking the “listen” button. There are no advertisements, only occasional interjections by Johnston mentioning a sponsor. It never feels as if Johnston is selling you anything, but rather offering you a piece of himself.
In fact, he poured himself completely into his little low-power, listener-supported radio station from the day he founded it. Now, he’s ready to retire and leave it in the hands of Archie, who shares his principled vision and is a longtime friend, not to mention a fellow music obsessive.
“I don’t look at it as my station,” Archie said. “I feel like I’m the caretaker of this incredible catalog of music. I’m continuing what Scott built. I’m just really grateful to him. To me, it’s unbelievable what he did as the sole guy here. That’s why I want to have a party for him, to thank him.”
That party will be on Sunday, June 9 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Eagles Club in Kalispell, and it will feature a who’s who of Northwest Montana music figures all there to pay their respects to a pivotal figure in the region’s music and arts scene. The potluck shindig will have plenty of celebrating, commemorating and, of course, jamming.
“There are a lot of musicians here who wanted to express their gratitude for everything you’ve done over the years,” Archie told Johnston.
Johnston operates the Montana Radio Café from his farmhouse studio near Creston, with a 78-foot tower and antenna in his yard, right next to his chicken coop, and a transmitter in the basement. As a one-man shop, he utilizes a computer and server network to run the station and host the extensive database of songs, which extends across the genres of bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, world music from all corners of the globe, and beyond.
Prior to the Montana Radio Café, Johnston worked for many years in the commercial radio business and spent time as a musician. Launching a low-power radio station is difficult on multiple fronts: securing your slice of the airwaves and licensing through the FCC; the tricky nuts and bolts of the engineering itself; and the challenges of keeping a non-commercial station financially afloat with razor-thin margins.
“You’re not going to get rich running a low-power station,” Johnston said. “For me, it was about the music and the people. That was always the point: real radio, real people, real music, and lots of different music.”
“It really is all about the music,” Archie concurred. “And I’m passionate about that. Our mission is to promote music in the Flathead Valley and provide an alternative listening experience.”
Johnston combined his radio experience with the expertise of a broadcast engineer friend to navigate the convoluted process, build the infrastructure and ultimately emerge as a sustainable unicorn of sorts in a big-money, commercial-driven radio landscape. As he considered retirement, he wanted to make sure the station didn’t turn commercial, especially not political talk radio.
“I didn’t want it to go off air, but I’d rather have it go off air than have it turn into something commercial,” Johnston said. “Paul is the only guy I’ve talked about selling the station to. It’s in good hands.”
The shared vision of Johnston and Archie has two bedrock fundamentals: music and community. Not only does the community support the station by listening, it does so financially through sponsors. Johnston at one point had 85 sponsors, a swell of support that was almost overwhelming and taking up too much air space, so he dialed it back. Members of the public and friends of the station often supplied Johnston with new music as well.
“I want to continue to grow it through community involvement,” Archie said. “Let’s all move forward together.”
Archie is taking the same open-arms, inclusive approach to managing the station, eagerly accepting input on music and day-to-day operations. He is also facing considerable expenses as he searches for a place to relocate the tower and transmitter and open a studio sufficient to continue hosting live music sessions. Currently, Archie is running the station off-site through computers, but he knows he can’t house the equipment on Johnston’s property forever.
“I’m interested in talking to anybody who might have a potential spot for a tower,” Archie said.
Johnston suffered serious episodes related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) awhile back, a “crash-and-burn experience” that left him unable to talk for a period. He was an elite U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in the Vietnam War and for government agencies, and deeply embedded scars from his experiences have been surfacing in harsh ways. He said he has been managing his disability with “incalculable” help from the VA Clinic, but running a radio station full-time is no longer in the cards.
“When you get a manifestation of PTSD from a long-forgotten war and have a stress disorder, it becomes impossible,” Johnston said. “I never thought I’d retire — it’s been a labor of love — but I have to.”
Johnston is now focused on spending more time in the mountains and on rivers. He will miss his labor of love, of course, but he has no regrets.
“I got to meet the most amazing people,” he said. “I had so many opportunities. It was like taking a kid to the candy store, meeting all your heroes and people you’ve been playing on your station. I’ve made deep, lifelong friendships.”
To learn more about the station, including how to support it, call (406) 755-7575.