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Thursday, June 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

What in the world will they play next?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Music programs from Bellevue-based community radio station KBCS can be found at 91.3 FM and online at http://kbcs.fm

Guess which of these is not an artist whose concert the Bellevue-based radio station KBCS has produced:

a) Merita Halili, the voice of Albania.

b) D'Gary from Madagascar.

c) Zontar, the Thing from Venus.

d) The Queen of Romany singers, Esma from Macedonia.

They haven't booked Zontar. Yet. But there's not much that the community radio station at 91.3 FM rules out. With its current pledge drive in swing through Sunday, we peeked behind the curtain at the unique little station located at the intersection of Diverse and Arcane.

Folk. Lounge. Hawaiian. African pop. Celtic. Medieval ... The physical nexus emanating the sounds from all those places and eras — along with some news and current events — is a well-used house on the Bellevue Community College campus. Funding for it comes from concert ticket sales, pledges and business underwriting, but not the college.

About 150 volunteers make their way to the station from throughout the region and at all hours, sliding past the working sink in the narrow main hallway, meeting at the little table that the front door practically hits when it opens, and schlepping in their own CDs to augment the modest music library, to play for listeners — whatever they want.

The variety of music on KBCS comes from "expert citizen volunteers," says general manager Steve Ramsey, whose office is in an adjacent trailer.

"No staff person decides what the playlists are or what music should be played," he said. "These choices are made individually by each program host."

The result is a curious sink trap that ranges from Native American hip-hop to an all-female "Womanotes" broadcast. (No, Ramsey said, there is not a corresponding "Testostasounds" show. Yet.) And as usual with such operations, one trade-off is a range of on-air polish from those ready for pro to those who'll make you grateful you're not playing a game that requires you to take a drink every time they say "um."

The DJs — only some of whom are students — take six weeks of training that "instructs people in the art of producing radio from A to Z," Ramsey said.

The trainings include an overview of federal and station regulations and instructions on how to operate the equipment. Ramsey estimated the station has trained close to 5,000 people over the last 31 years.

Annette Squetimkin-Anquoe took the course and since September has hosted "Sounds from the Four Directions" in the wee hours of 3 a.m-5 a.m. Tuesdays. The Native American-themed show features music of tribes from all regions of the country, as well as some hip-hop.

"I'm seeing it more as an educational effort for people that usually don't get exposed to this type of music," said Squetimkin-Anquoe, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes whose day job is with the Seattle Indian Health Board. "I usually play a lot of powwow music, and some contemporary, to make a blend of past and present."

She said she doesn't know exactly who's listening — particularly at that hour — but that most of the calls she gets are from other local Native Americans.

Ramsey said reflecting the area's cultural diversity is a big part of KBCS' mission. As for the listenership: "Our numbers aren't huge. We share most of our audience with who you might expect — [public radio] KUOW, KPLU and KEXP to a lesser extent. Our cumulative audience is somewhere around 50,000 during the course of a week."

And during one afternoon visit to the station, about 30 people were listening online at kbcs.fm.

More than 14,000 Hawaiians live in the Seattle-Bellevue area, and plenty of them hear the "Hawaii Radio Connection" noon-2 p.m. on Saturdays, said Stephen Gomes, one of its nine rotating hosts.

If the most you know about Hawaiian music consists of Don "Tiny Bubbles" Ho, Gomes says, "I can't remember the last time we played Don Ho."

Gomes and his colleagues spin Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole (known for his beautifully simple rendition of "Over the Rainbow") and other artists more familiar to islanders than mainlanders. The common denominator of it all, he said: "Earthy. You have instruments that people can make, basically."

Born in Kauai and working days for the IRS, Gomes, 44, is one of the KBCS volunteers with professional experience in news and sports radio; but he's pleased with the niche he's found.

"For a guy like me, I don't have the kind of talent to make it big in this market," he said. "People will pick up on the accent and maybe it'll distract from the quality of the broadcast."

Although there are no medieval residents in this area, Derek Blackwell has enjoyed a run of more than two years with his Sunday evening "Mostly Medieval" program.

Asked what instruments turn up in his playlists, Blackwell gave an answer that would make Donald Rumsfeld proud: "In medieval music, there are more unknowns than knowns.

"I think for the better part of medieval music, when people hear it they don't realize what it is they're hearing," he said.

For that matter, Blackwell added, "None of the music I air is in a language anyone can understand, so sometimes I try to give translations."

Blackwell, who declined to give his age or occupation, said he's been collecting early-music recordings for about 15 years.

"It's music that very few people know about, and I decided more people really should hear it," he said. "Even a lot of early-music performers that I talk to haven't heard a lot of the recordings of medieval music."

If many of the DJs work pro bono at KBCS to spread their culture or interests, another percentage consists of people who have reached a point in their lives when they just finally want to take a crack at radio.

Sharol Hofstedt, 44, is a freelance legal word processor who keeps vampire hours to do her "Burnin' the Candle" show at 3 a.m. every other Wednesday — a hodgepodge that includes PJ Harvey, some jazz, French café music and Brazilian hip-hop.

"I have always liked listening to radio personalities where it sounds like the DJ is playing whatever he or she likes," Hofstedt said. Far from being a drag at that hour, she added, "3 a.m. gives me latitude to play what I like, and I'm giving myself a huge education."

With just five shows and a couple of fill-in shifts under her belt, Hofstedt is one of another group at KBCS: those hoping it'll be a stepping stone.

"It feels like something worthwhile to be doing," she said. "I don't know where this will lead. But I would like to have a career. I'd like to get paid for it sometime."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published June 8, 2006, was corrected June 8, 2006. In a previous version of this story, a photo caption gave an incorrect frequency for radio station KBCS-FM. The correct frequency is 91.3.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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