The story of eTown. An interview with Nick Forester, CEO of eTown.
In 1991, Nick Forester picked up the phone, called all the public radio stations he knew, and said, “Hey, this is Nick from Hot Rize, and boy, do I have a great idea for you.”
“I thought I was kind of a big dang deal; in reality, I was a nobody, and they quickly saw through my disguise and said, ‘no, thank you. We are not interested in your program,’” said Nick Forester, CEO of eTown, a staple of the Colorado music scene for three decades and an essential voice in media.
Nick’s wife, Helen, would not let him give up. She suggested they take the risk and self-produce the eTown radio show. Helen said to Nick, “Let’s just do it anyway. Let’s just make a show, and somebody will pick it up. Even if we have to pay for our own distribution, it’s a really good idea, and we should just do it.”
With his wife’s encouragement and partnership, they booked the Boulder Theatre, hired a recording truck, and hired many musicians. Nick came up with what he thought would make a suitable format for the show. Helen wrote the script. Nick swears the first episode wasn’t perfect and quickly made it to the cutting floor. He says it featured the Subdudes and had so many beautiful elements.
In only a few weeks, Nick got a call back from public radio (they finally said yes), and eTown was airing on 40 stations. One could say that Nick and Helen pioneered the model of a nonprofit, nationally syndicated, self-produced, self-published radio broadcast/podcast, multimedia, and event production company.
Nick and Helen Forester were the hosts, the people on stage, the producers, the researchers, the scriptwriters, and the music directors. Nick booked all the music, did the editing, put up the posters, picked up the artists at the airport, did all the stuff, raised all the money, sold all the advertising, and wrote grants.
“I knew the music part, so obviously, that took a lot of my time. My focus was finding the artists, airing the artists, choosing the finale, playing in the house band, learning their songs, supporting the artists to make sure they felt good and were well-represented on the show,” says Nick. “But along the way, the real purpose was, ‘Hey, we’re all connected. The music, in a way, was the Trojan horse for this whole other message.”
Nick’s relationships with the Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize and Helen, former owner-producer of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and prominent actress, knew many talented Colorado musicians. So they concocted the formula of one well-known artist, one less-known, often Colorado artist, and an inspiring organization doing good for the planet.
Having a national audience helped many up-and-coming artists and organizations get noticed. They would see an uptick in donations or a nice bump in record sales around the country after being on eTown. Many Colorado artists broke their careers on eTown.
Nick and Helen found their true independence in 2008 when they purchased the former Church of the Nazarene at 16th and Spruce Streets, a block from the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. They converted it into a state-of-the-art multi-purpose, solar-powered multimedia center, eTown Hall. eTown is notably the greenest music and media center in Colorado. Much effort and care went into planning every detail of this iconic Colorado venue.
“We built eTown hall. We raised the money to build an eTown hall. It was just a small crew. It’s a big impact, and it’s a big, big production,” says Nick. “Now there’s about seven of us working on the show, and the most we’ve ever had was maybe nine or ten.” No matter what evolves, the team remains tight-knit, efficient, and nimble.
In 2020, eTown airs on over 300 stations worldwide with a Sustainable Message eTown is one of the first to dedicate airtime to spotlighting organizations working to make the country (and the world) a better place for ALL with its lifetime achievement Award, presented to folks from all over the world who are helping to make their communities a better place.
“I don’t think we had a very clear idea of how we were going to do it, but I was very clear from the very beginning about eTown. I didn’t want to be in the music business. I wanted to be in the change the world business,” says Nick. “We were using music to try to build an audience and then hopefully entertain and engage that audience on behalf of bigger issues. That was our goal.”
eTown focused on climate change in the very beginning. Nick and Helen have three daughters. The oldest was 13 when they started. They wanted to use their voice to make a difference for the girls and their future while bringing awareness to significant environmental issues. “That was the main driving force behind starting eTown. I did not know the science, I did not know journalism, I didn’t even really know the radio host part,” says Nick.
They closed the doors in early March of 2020. First, they had some shows pre-recorded that they aired, then they switched to the new model. They recorded interviews with artists remotely and played songs from people’s records. They also invited artists to collaborate virtually and produce the equivalent of what we used to use as their finale.
“We’ve done a bunch of those shows, and they still feel kind of like eTown. There was no applause. There was no audience. But it’s still me having conversations with the artists. And, there’s a lot of music and, we have some interviews, we talk about some different things, but it’s very different, it’s a very different animal, and It’s not really my strong suit anymore,” says Nick. “I did an interview with Willie Nelson last week, and at the end of it, I was like, ‘You know what? That was not a great interview. I would have done better if I was standing next to him or sitting in a chair next to him as I’m used to for 30 years.’ Having that kind of connection and having the energy from the audience and having us have a conversation. I found that I was defaulting to just a more kind of typical radio interview and kind of like a little bit heartbreaking to tell you the truth.”
But he has had some pretty beautiful moments too. Like collaborating with Brandi Carlisle and Rufus Wainwright. Margo Price and Swamp Dog from Los Angeles. Lake Street Dive and Shaky Graves. “There are moments where the conversation works well, and I feel some of that same connection and camaraderie that I used to feel on stage,” says Nick. “I’d say that the pandemic has really changed the way I feel about eTown and about eTown shows. I haven’t been on stage in over a year, so that’s something that hasn’t been true since I was 18 years old, which is just weird. So that’s the one aspect of it. The other is it’s a lot of work. I mean, it’s just a huge amount of work to make an eTown show. Helen and I have done this for 30 years, and I don’t think either of us is really excited about getting back on that treadmill.”
“I’m not saying, therefore, eTown is over to do another show, or it’s the end of an era. I just say it’s going to have to be different. Whatever we do moving forward is going to have to be different. Every time we did an eTown show in the old model, it was kind of like putting on a little festival too. We had to have artists flying in and an airport, transport and hotels and catering and logistics, and backline and rehearsal. There was all of the scriptwriting and research plus all of the post-production and editing and remixing and assembling and distribution and station relations,” says Nick. “And, and then all the money stuff, you know, keeping the whole thing going. It was a huge job every single time we did a show. And I’m just interested in being a little freer at this point.”
Nick is ready to dive into a personal growth stage. Based on where he is in his life, he is aiming more toward being a musician, a songwriter, a student, and a creative person who can make things on behalf of his artistry rather than simply supporting someone else’s.
Nick has spent time taking piano lessons just to improve during the pandemic. He learned the jazz standard, All the Things You Are, which he has always been intrigued by. He is rediscovering his sense of curiosity and discipline that he remembers having as a teenager when discovery amazed and delighted his spirit. He did a series called “Teach Me One Thing,” when musicians taught him various skills quickly.
“Sarah Jarosz was telling me about sourdough starter, and Mike Gordon from Phish was telling me about some sort of repetitive practicing exercise, musical exercise. Steve Martin taught me how to shuffle a deck of cards, and Billy Strings taught me a Doc Watson lick. I just was calling people up and saying, ‘Teach me One Thing.’”
Nick just started a project with Fort Collins Roots called Del Shamen. In one language, it means “Bringer of Joy;” in another, it means “Fallen-Away Holy Man.” Del Shamen is a blend of the O.G.’s of Colorado Music, Jock Bartley (Firefall), Steve Amedee (The Subdudes), John Magnie (The Subdudes), Eric Thorin (30db and more), and Nick Forster (Hot Rize / eTown). They played their only gigs in the Holiday Twin Drive-in and The Mishawaka Amphitheater in 2020.
In the era of COVID, podcasts and syndicated shows are on-trend, and many people have expanded into the space. Nick has some words of wisdom after his time building up eTown.
Nick says: Ask yourself, ‘What am I almost uniquely good at?’ Because there’s so much content out there, and there’s so much competition.
Your skills with your values, that’s a home run; then you’re not working at that point; you’re living. You can combine your skills with your values and somehow manifest that in the world. That’s a great gift. Lower your overhead in whatever ways you can. If you really want to be creative, it’s hard to be creative when you’ve got a big house payment, a big car payment, and big student loans. Suddenly, you got to really think about money all the time. So if there’s a way to lower your overhead, that will free up the bandwidth for some creativity. The last thing I would say is don’t let your own thinking limit the scale of your ambition. So many times, we talk ourselves out of things before we even start. Because we’ve got these self-limiting beliefs, don’t talk yourself out of this before you even start because it’s just not how life works. There’s a huge amount of energy in the universe for people who are thoughtful and humble. “
Virtual Celebration & Induction
To celebrate eTown’s devotion to Colorado Music and 30 years of broadcast, a big ol’ (Covid-safe) birthday bash coincides with an induction to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.
Tune into the free virtual 30th birthday party and Colorado Hall of Fame Induction on April 22, 2021.
Stream via eTown.org/30 at 6:30 pm MST.
The event features the induction and music, and conversation with artists, including:
City and Colour
The War and Treaty
And an interview guest, Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, and visits with some of their former guests speaking about the issues that eTown has long promoted: sustainability, energy efficiency, climate change, and social responsibility.
The celebration will remain available for post-event enjoyment on eTown.org.
In Memory of a Loss
One of their team members, Suzanne Fountain, a volunteer house manager, was tragically killed and nine others in a shooting in Boulder at King Soopers last month. eTown posted via social media that they were stunned and mourned all ten people’s deaths on March 22, 2021, especially Suzanne.
If you have been affected by the Boulder King Soopers Shootings, there are resources throughout the city to support anyone grieving this incident. The Boulder County Crisis Fund is taking donations to support those directly affected and the needs of the Boulder community to heal, which is organized by the Community Foundation serving Boulder County in partnership with the City of Boulder, Rose Community Foundation, Together Colorado (a faith coalition including Westview Church, Congregation Har Hashem, Congregation Bonai Shalom, First Congregational Church, and Boulder Mennonite Church), and the Colorado Healing Fund.
If you have messages of hope and support, you can call and leave a voicemail at the following number: