Indra Raj is an arts administrator, educator, and advocate who strongly believes in creating access to quality arts education for all. Indra currently promotes the arts and education through media, as a podcast producer, digital storyteller, and her role as the Music Director for KGNU Community Radio in Boulder, CO.
Lisa Kettyle, NFCB Program Director, interviewed Indra Raj for NFCB’s May 2022 newsletter. The interview is edited for brevity.
Lisa: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Indra: I’m the music director at KGNU, after almost 15 years of experience in working primarily with music, education, and nonprofits in arts administration roles. My experience working with community members in arts situations helped me start what I was doing with KGNU and get to know the volunteer community at our station really quickly. Beyond that, I’m a musician myself. I also love music.
L: How long have you been with KGNU?
I: I joined KGNU in February of 2017, so just over five years. It’s been a wild ride. I came to the organization with no radio experience. But in the spirit of community radio, they felt they could trust me to learn what I needed to learn. I’m still learning. Even though I’m in the music department, if I want to produce a news story, or if I’m interested in something that I think I can help out with, there’s always space for that. Five years is a long time, but it also feels like, in some ways I just got started, because there are so many things that I could get into.
L: How do you approach programming for the station?
I: I try to be really equitable about that. [KGNU is] lucky because we have such a rich history of programming behind us. We’ve been on the air since 1978, and the music director who came before me was there for almost a decade or more. He did a really great job at creating a music schedule that I could easily walk into and not need to make a lot of changes. We have over 30 different music shows. Every weekday are freeform eclectic shows all over the genre map, every style, every era, every part of the world, making connections between all of those things. In the evenings, and on weekends, we have specialty programming, where we focus in on genres. We find DJs who are experts or have great interest in those areas to do those shows. We’ve got everything from classical music, to jazz, to blues to DIY, electronic music, old-time country. Our bluegrass show is super popular. We have a great hip-hop show that some say is the longest-running in America. We really want to give voice to all of these fantastic styles and parts of the music world, even if they’re not really that popular, per se. Like, cutting edge avant-garde modern composition is not everybody’s cup of tea, but we like to make space for that in our programming because we know there are people who appreciate that and there should have a space to listen to the music they like on the radio, too.
As for DJ’s, right now we’re close to 150 active DJs. The dedication and love and respect for what KGNU is, and what it’s given them, is palpable. When I’m bringing in new DJs, I’m looking for people who want to learn, who are interested in what it is that KGNU does. If someone walks in saying, “I have this great show, it’s all about me and my perspective, and blah, blah, blah,” that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for people who can fit into all the different things KGNU has to offer, to really align with our mission of representing artists who are underserved by other parts of the radio dial, who you don’t hear on the radio. We encourage our DJs to be creative in how they approach their music choices.
L: What’s the process for onboarding DJs?
I: It’s a process that’s evolved over the years, and ebbs and flows with the demands of the time. Covid definitely threw us for a loop in terms of our training program because it was strictly in person before the pandemic. You don’t want to let two years go by without bringing anyone new into the station. We ask them to attend one of our volunteer orientations. Those happen every other month. You can sign up easily online. Lately, we’ve been holding those sessions on Zoom. It’s hard to let go of the in-person part of it, but sometimes we find we get more participation on Zoom. Sometimes it’s hard to travel to our main office and we have community members all over the Front Range. It allows people to get involved from their homes if they want and get that information. It’s an hour session: the who, what, why of KGNU, and the things that you can do to get involved. One of those things is to participate in one of our DJ trainings, which are ongoing. We have a volunteer orientation a few weeks after that. I’ve been holding a Virtual DJ training, which is the first step to getting started on your DJ training journey. Once those first initial stages of the training happen, we work individually with people where they’re at to help them get through the different steps of the process. For some people, that takes a lot less time than others. And we’re okay with that. We want to make sure that every person has the support they need to get on the air if they want to.
L: If someone was new in a role like yours, what’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I: You are in a leadership position, but there are so many people who have come before you who are who you’re working with. Talk to them, learn from them, hear about what was working for them and what wasn’t, and see how the wheels turn. That’s a good opportunity to take your fresh pair of eyes and make changes if you think you need them or refine things if you think you need to, or just strengthen areas that are already doing really well. The only way you can do that is by listening to the people who have come before you.
L: What are you most excited about this year that the station is doing?
I: I’m excited to feel like we’re emerging out of the pandemic. For music, that means a lot more live music opportunities that are back on the table, in terms of connecting our community members. Being able to actually have live events ourselves, being able to welcome artists into the station to perform on the air. That’s really exciting.
Another thing that has been years in the working and been derailed by many things, is getting our digital library off the ground. Our goal is to have everything in our library so that people can search for what they want and play it.
L: What are you listening to right now?
I: Sometimes feel a responsibility as music director to be neutral about the styles of music that I like, but I’m a person, I’m allowed to have music that I like myself too. I’m really into kind of darker indie music with a sort of electronic bent. There’s a new album by Daniel Ross, he’s one of the members of Grizzly Bear. I love his songwriting style, and his point of view when it comes to writing music. There’s this artist Matthew Tavares, he’s a former member of BadBadNotGood. Over the pandemic, he’s just been pumping out music on his Bandcamp page and it’s really in my wheelhouse.
Otherwise. I have to say KGNU has really broadened my horizons, especially in the international music scene. I’m way more aware and appreciative of all these different world music styles. That is something that I appreciate a lot. I also feel like there’s so much great R&B and soul out there these days.
L: What do you wish people knew about your station?
I: I wish people knew it existed. I mean, I’m not saying people don’t know we exist. We have a great listener community, but I do think community radio has to fight the good fight in terms of visibility out there. Commercial radio stations have a lot more advertising to get people into the fold with them. One of the most glorious things about community radio is that it’s an opportunity to learn something new when you get involved. A lot of us think you do all your learning in grade school, in college, and then you’re just an adult. No, I think the way we stay happy and grow is through finding ways to learn throughout our adult lives, and community radio offers that opportunity for you to do that. Whether you want to learn to become a DJ, you want to learn to produce a news piece, you want to see behind the scenes, how things are run, and volunteer in that capacity, you want to answer phones during a fund drive, all of these things allow you to learn more about your community and what’s important to people. When I was younger, I wish I’d known that there was a way that I could be on the radio too.