Every reader knows the pleasure of stumbling across a stranger who is reading her new favorite book. And every reader knows the tickle of wanting to call her favorite new author, keen to ask why, what did it mean. Tell me a story…and then tell it again.
For residents of the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area in Colorado—and for residents of online communities everywhere—those satisfactions have been granted. Every month, for almost five years now, these readers tune in to The KGNU (88.5 FM/1390 AM, Boulder) and Boulder Bookstore Radio Bookclub.
“It’s a simple idea that works really well,” says Maeve Conran, KGNU’s News Director and co-creator/co-host of the program. “People are interested in hearing from writers and hearing about books.”
“What I [also] get excited about,” Conran adds, “is that this is something that can be replicated. This is a model that could be tweaked in smaller communities.” A moveable feast.
What is a Radio Bookclub?
Inspired by previous collaborations between KGNU and the Boulder Bookstore, Conran and co-creator/co-host Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer for the Boulder Bookstore, set out to create regular programming that encouraged listeners to read along. In April of 2015, this partnership launched The KGNU and Boulder Bookstore Radio Bookclub.
In this design, at the end of every month, the hosts announce—on air and online—the club’s selection for the coming month; and, then, on the program’s next broadcast date, standardly the fourth Thursday of the month at 9AM, Conran and Kashkashian air a pre-recorded half-hour in-person interview with the author.
This programming, in August, 2016, was expanded. Having discovered that there was so much more to talk about and inspired by the success of the original show, Conran and Kashkashian added web content, Afterhours at the Radio Bookclub, a half-hour continuation of the author interview.
On air and in conversation, Conran’s enthusiasm is compelling. This, she emphasizes, is “a passion project for both of us….The two of us bring something different to the show. Arsen is into the structure of a book, how things are framed, and I’m interested in the themes as a reader’s perspective. The two perspectives balance very well.”
Collaboration Connects Communities
It is this partnership, this balanced collaboration, between two community institutions that, Conran believes, fuels the project’s energy and success.
Each month, the club’s book selection is prominently displayed in the Boulder Bookstore, under a KGNU sign that provides information about how to tune in and where to get the podcast.
In April of every year, in celebration of Independent Bookseller’s Day, the Boulder Bookstore hosts an in-store event, an author interview for a live audience, a gathering that Conran calls “the pinnacle” of the program’s design.
“This was born out of our partnership. People have developed an association between the two institutions,” says Conran. “The bookstore gets increased traffic. People come in and say I heard that interview and I want that book.”
“I was able to listen as I was driving to work,” writes one listener. “What a fabulous interview, and, for the second or third time, I am about to order a copy of the book you covered on this show.”
The program, Conran reports, often gets mentioned in membership drives.
And the collaboration continues to generate new community outreach plans.
“This year,” Conran says, “every month before the bookclub airs, I want to do a segment on a local bookclub…to create a community of bookclubs around the radio bookclub.”
A Moveable Feast
The program’s success—its ability to engage listeners and unite communities—has inspired Conran to encourage other stations—particularly smaller ones—to consider how the design can be adapted.
“There are partnerships to be had in communities. There are other ways to engage with libraries or independent bookstores,” Conran explains. “It’s been such a successful model, and it’s a great way for local radio stations, particularly ones with small budgets and small staffs, to create local content.”
Over the years, Conran has reached out to other Colorado stations and has presented at the Grassroots Radio Conference and at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
“I’d be absolutely happy,” Conran says, “to talk to any radio station that ever had any questions about how to take the first steps in something like this.”
Tell Me a Story
In its five years on the air, the Radio Bookclub has featured writers of almost every genre. While Coloradan writers have sometimes been emphasized, the club has also benefitted from both its location in a metropolitan center, a frequent stop on national book tours—(Conran notes, “Authors are always in studio. We’ve never done a phone interview.”)—and by Kashkashian’s publishing knowledge of book release dates, both factors that shape selection and scheduling.
Books have been personal, topical, heart-wrenching, hilarious. December’s program featured Kali Fajardo-Anstine whose short story collection Sabrina and Carina was inspired by her thirst for stories of Latinas of indigenous descent, while November considered Tiffany Quay Tyson’s Southern Gothic novel The Past Is Never in which a child’s mysterious disappearance haunts everyone left behind. And, even now, years later, Conran still laughs over an interview with Finn Murphy (The Long Haul), a long-haul, long-distance trucker whose stories about high end moves and life on the road ranged from “the stuff that we keep and then have to move to capitalism.”
Each episode balances exploration of personal themes, often set in the context of public issues, with analysis of character development, point of view, narrative structure. At the heart of every episode is the author’s reading of a short passage, a moment that deepens consideration of both message and method.
Conran vividly remembers the particular poignancy of two interviews with Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw, a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia, and Travel Light, Move Fast, a contemplation upon death and survival.
“She spoke so candidly about her experience growing up in a white supremacist family,” Conran recalls, “and she then brings that perspective to living in the US, to what’s happening here as white supremacy. I was just so taken by her honesty….Then, her latest book, about when her father died, she talks about that, at the end of the writing process, her son died. It was so raw.”
For their work on Fuller’s first Afterhours interview, Conran and Kashkashian won a 2018 Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) award.
The Power of Partnership
KGNU went on the air in 1978. For over 40 years, it has been dedicated to “connecting communities through the power of radio.” The Boulder Bookstore, founded in 1973, has an even longer history of community service.
For Conran, the excitement of their evolving partnership raises only one question: “Why didn’t we think of this 40 years ago?”
The KGNU and Boulder Bookstore Radio Bookclub airs the fourth Thursday of every month at 9AM. Programs are archived on the KGNU site.
The January discussion featured JP Gritton, author of Wyoming.
February’s selection (airing February 27) is You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane.
Maeve Conran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.