Smells Like Frank Chopp

Nirvana's bassist and a female trucker have wonky TVW on the broadcast vanguard.

Perched near where the Columbia River mouths off at the Pacific Ocean, Astoria, Ore., is a diamond in the not so rough. It's famed for being the town where Chunk rode his Huffy around in Goonies, and where the Governor of California and some character actor shot up an elementary-school playground in Kindergarten Cop. Recovering alcoholics bunking in missions wake up to million-dollar views, the local Moose Lodge is the place to be Saturday night, and Astoria's lone brew 'n' view shows the G-rated Cars. Drink it in, sonny, it always goes down smooth.

"Isn't Astoria great?" gushes Krist Novoselic, aka "DJ K-No" of Coast Community Radio (KMUN-FM 91.9), which is discernible by its white transmitter dish at 14th and Exchange streets on the outskirts of downtown, up the road from a since-burned-down theater where Clark Gable got his start in acting.

Once the bassist for the most important rock band of the '90s, Nirvana, Novoselic now lives across the Columbia from Astoria, in Southwest Washington's sparsely populated Wahkiakum County. On a recent Friday night, Novoselic sat on the jury of a battle of the bands at the county fair. The winner was an outfit from Seaside, Ore., called Pinkzilla. The losers, by and large, were "heshers from Longview," says Novoselic, now a balding, green-eyed 41.

Musically, Novoselic's most notable post-Cobain contribution has been the short-lived band Sweet 75. He hasn't hung up his ax entirely—"I have some things in the works, but I don't want to jinx them," he says—but unlike former bandmate/current Fighter of Foo Dave Grohl, he's not interested in whoring it up for MTV. Rather, Novoselic, who's long been rumored to have his sights set on public office, is a public-policy geek. Big time. He's on the board of directors for Olympia's TVW, a cable network he refers to as "the C-SPAN of Washington." Founded in 1993 by Denny Heck and included in most subscribers' cable packages, TVW's focus is to telecast and stream legislative hearings to Washingtonians, via TV and the Internet. When the Legislature is not in session, it programs policy-centric content from various points around the state.

"I actually watch TVW on my DSL line," says Novoselic, who reports that cable access is scarce in the border town sticks. "I helped write some testimony on an electoral reform bill and didn't want to drive two hours to watch the hearing. You can live out in the country, and [TVW] plugs you into the Legislature."

While he's held cursory interest in politics since his teenage years, the birth of Novoselic the wonk can be traced to when he founded the musician advocacy organization JAMPAC in Seattle in the mid-'90s to counteract then–city attorney Mark Sidran's draconian nightclub measures. These days, he's more infatuated with the nuts of the system—having published essays calling for instant runoff voting (IRV), which would, in effect, ditch primaries and limit the election-tilting capabilities of renegade candidates like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. (Novoselic is careful to note that TVW does not endorse IRV. In fact, TVW takes no stands on such issues; it just airs them.)

"People are cynical about democracy," says Novoselic, his 6-foot-6-inch frame draped in black shoes, black pants, and a black Western snap-up shirt he purchased in Nashville, Tenn. "But it's the best deal you're gonna get."

Ensconced in the DJ booth at KMUN, which is headquartered in a small hillside Victorian, Novoselic spins a two-hour set of eclectic comfort music featuring the likes of Belle & Sebastian, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and a remix of Madonna's "Like a Prayer." He started this twice-a-month unpaid gig some three years ago on the evening the U.S. invaded Iraq. Among the tracks he spun that night were Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" and Dylan's "Masters of War."

Novoselic calls TVW "the most comprehensive public-affairs television station in the country." This fall, TVW will move into a new, multimillion-dollar studio not far from the Capitol grounds—the result of a capital campaign helmed by TVW President Cindy Zehnder, a short-haul trucker cum union organizer cum statehouse clerk who took over for founder Denny Heck in 2003.

Arriving at Seattle Weekly's office between a fund-raising appointment and a Novoselic-facilitated meeting with KEXP-FM (90.3), Zehnder—clad in a Canadian tuxedo (i.e., head-to-toe denim)—says the gulf between rig hitching and broadcasting is not as wide as it seems.

"Every one of these jobs I've had are separate careers where I've had to learn entirely different sets of skills and make a fool of myself not knowing what I'm doing," she adds. "[REI executive] Sally Jewell has this great quote about how her favorite place to be is on the steep part of the learning curve. That sort of defines my life."

According to TVW founder and emeritus president Heck, his successor is an adroit climber.

"The biggest surprise since I left was when she got an option on that building across the street [from the station's current digs] that she exercised," says Heck. "That is a 10-times superior location to where we were looking before. She changed the direction of the capital campaign on a dime in a superintelligent way. After 12 years, the need to step forward on a technology platform and into a new facility was paramount. And she's done it masterfully."

One of those masterstrokes has been to start podcasting content over the Internet. Another was to bring on Northwest Cable News director of operations Larry Blackstock as a pro-bono consultant charged with the daunting task of branding a hard-to-market product.

"Rather than emphasize, 'We're in Olympia,' they need to emphasize the topic first and the people next," says Blackstock. "And now that they're moving into their own studio, their set can look a lot more professional and attractive to viewers. I think they have a pretty good chance of creating something new that other states are going to model."

Other states already are: TVW is widely considered, as Novoselic properly boasts, to be on the vanguard when it comes to the fledgling genre of state-by-state public-affairs networks. Paul Giguere, Zehnder's counterpart at CT-N, Connecticut's equivalent to TVW, says there are currently eight states—Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington—that provide high-quality gavel-to-gavel legislative coverage. He also feels that TVW is the undisputed leader of this pack.

"In terms of their distribution on cable and launching podcasting, I would say they're at the very top," says Giguere, who chairs the National Association of Public Affairs Networks. "I can tell you that TVW is the model that created our network. Cindy spends a lot of time with groups who are interested in replicating the TVW model in other states."

Yet a nettlesome hurdle remains: expanding viewership beyond the realm of Adam Kline groupies and meganerds.

"One of the things they face is getting carriage on cable systems," says David Kurpius, associate dean for undergraduate studies at Louisiana State University. "And on one cable system, they may be on Channel 30, when, on another, they may be on Channel 105. How do you market yourself when you can't say where you are?"

That's where the Web comes in.

"I think [TVW has] used their Web site effectively," notes Kurpius, who, like Giguere, considers TVW to be the cream of its crop. "They certainly aren't lying down on the job, but there are some factors that make it difficult to have a clear marketing strategy."

Zehnder's aware of this perceived deficiency, and has steered her station's out-of-session programming toward local PBS territory to broaden its reach, spotlighting farmers and backwoods bureaucrats on the network's "Faces & Places" series. Like Novoselic, she thinks Washington's spin on democracy, warts and all, is one helluva bargain.

"When I look back on my checkered past, in the end, I've been given the opportunity to freely engage the issues that I've wanted to," says Zehnder. "And here I've got a chance to take all the wonderful things about this state and share them with people."

mseely@seattleweekly.com

 
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