KBEK — The little radio station that could

On Sunday, Feb. 22, from 6 to 7 p.m., I’ll be playing an hour long live set on our “live and local” radio station, KBEK, out of Braham, Minnesota.

I’m happy and honored to do so, having been a fan of KBEK for many years.

We moved to Bogus Brook Township in Mille Lacs County in 1997, and shortly thereafter I discovered this little station with a big signal, stretching from St. Cloud to Hinckley, and from the Mille Lacs Reservation to the northern suburbs. The music was fun, “Songs from the Best Times of Your Life” — basically 50s through 80s Top 40.

A couple years later I was teaching Mass Communications at Cambridge Campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and I contacted the station to give my students a tour. The founders, John Godfrey and Colleen McKinney, were happy to do so. The “studio” was in a house in rural Kanabec County, somewhere south of Mora. The station staff, appropriately, seemed like an extended family.

John told us the story of the station — that it was always his dream to run a radio station, and that by a stroke of good fortune, and plenty of persistence, he got a license for 95.5 FM. In those days, it was something of a miracle for a mom and pop operation to land such a coup, since Clear Channel and other multinationals were scooping up every license as it came up for sale. John was rightly proud of the achievement.

Sadly, John passed away a few years later from cancer, but Colleen and the gang muddled through and pressed on, and the station grew and changed. They stuck with the old “Best Times of Your Life” and “Live and Local” themes, but DJs branched out a lot more, and KBEK became like The Current — Minnesota Public Radio’s station in the Twin Cities — minus hipsters and rap. More like KFAI in Minneapolis, but geared toward a rural salt-of-the-earth crowd.

You never knew what you’d hear if you tuned into 95.5. Depending on the mood and personality of the DJ, it could be anything from Sinatra to heavy metal, classic country to 80s Top 40. Mixed in were plenty of obscure cuts from the British Invasion, Motown, the Bebop era, Americana — you name it. It was always fun to tune in because you never knew what you were going to get, but always knew it would be interesting.

A couple different times the station went off the air — most recently in 2014, when it appeared it was over after a good run. As Mark Twain might’ve said, though, the rumors of KBEK’s death were greatly exaggerated, and a few months later they were back on the air with a new studio in Braham, the same “live and local” and “best times” themes, and the same eclectic (sometimes bizarrely so) mix of music spanning genres and eras. Weekday evenings you’ll hear a jazz show, the Happy Trucker (music that doesn’t suck), and shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s. On Saturdays (like today) you can hear Jay Byrd playing everything from Willie Nelson and the Beatles to the Scorpions and AC/DC.

Which brings us to Sunday, when they’ve launched a live studio show with local musicians. I sent in a few CDs a couple weeks ago and got an email this week saying they had a cancellation for this coming Sunday. I was happy to help out on short notice, and I’m looking forward to being part of the Little Radio Station that Could.

Just heard from my friend Razz Russell who will join me on fiddle, which will make it a little less lonely in Studio J (named for Jaybird, who, it turns out, is one of the new owners). Hope you have a chance to tune in this Sunday. If not, check them out online any time. Just Google “KBEK” and you’ll find the stream.

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