KOTO News Director Julia Caulfield and reporter Matt Hoisch, jacked on sweets and the even sweeter return of the live festival broadcasts to the KOTO airwaves, kick things off last weekend. The KOTO live broadcast team launched into the second, traditional weekend of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Thursday, with programming continuing through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Cara Pallone)

For the second weekend in a row, KOTO community radio will be broadcasting the Telluride Bluegrass Festival live from Telluride Town Park. That wouldn’t necessarily be news if not for the fact that last summer, no thanks to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the non-commercial, nonprofit radio station’s lively — and live — festival programming was scuttled along with the rest of the summer’s festivals. But it’s back as of last weekend, the first of two consecutive weekends marking the blessed return of live music in the park.

Much like the festival itself, the broadcast is scaled back this time around — in the size of its team, the shorter festival days and fewer live interviews of onstage artists. And, in deference to Planet Bluegrass’s ticketed livestream of the musical festivities, the broadcast is on terrestrial radio, not its stream, making only listeners within the reach of the KOTO airwaves able to hear the music and set break banter. (The festival’s director, Craig Ferguson, is donating the proceeds of the livestream to KOTO and other local nonprofits.)

KOTO News Director Julia Caulfield is leading up the team. She considers herself fortunate for, well, everything — the return of live music, the resumption of in-person social contact, and for being able to send the festival into local homes and workplaces.

“I've said this a lot last weekend, but the energy is so palpable. Everyone is so pumped to be there,” Caulfield said. “Obviously, we're in the park all weekend but when you get to hear bits of the broadcast it's such a comforting sound. Getting to hear live music over the radio is something that I guess I didn't realize I missed so much. Turning your dial and hearing what's going on is just so cool. We're all very lucky that we get to be back and doing this.”

The broadcast day hews to the festival’s hours of 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. or so, whenever the last note is played, Thursday through Sunday. Each day, two hosts anchor the broadcast, and they are often joined by anyone else on the team — or guests — who feel the urge to drop by. Normally, artist interviews fill the set breaks, but with varying levels of comfort being respected as the country eases back into a semblance of normal, contact is being kept minimal.

Gone are the days when an antenna would be hammered into the turf, situated within line of sight of the studio on North Pine Street, and finicky, aging equipment was coaxed into performing all weekend long. Nowadays a device made by Comrex sends the audio from the park to the studio via the internet. Though streamlined and generally reliable, things can still go awry. KOTO Executive Director Cara Pallone, like Caulfield, is grateful to be back on the air, even while walking the tightrope of technical issues that can beleaguer broadcasting from the field.

“The technical issues stress me out for sure, but we are community radio at its purest, and you may hear a hiccup here or there,” she said. “But the staff and volunteers all care deeply, and we do our very best to deliver a quality sound. So, thank you, everyone, for loving KOTO unconditionally.”

Being chosen to be on the broadcast team is a coveted nod for KOTO DJs. Pallone describes the perks of being on-mic for festivals.

“A few of the things I love about the broadcast include the team, the music and the sugar snacks in the media tent,” Pallone said. “I also love hearing folks who can't be in the park say they're enjoying the broadcast — that's obviously the overall goal.”

Laura Shaunette is not only the president of KOTO’s governing body, the San Miguel Educational Fund, she’s a media whiz who has curated the bluegrass sets listeners on koto.org hear when they tune in. Digging through the vast archives of music at KOTO was fun but had its challenges.

“The biggest challenge is sound quality,” she said. “Sometimes I'll see a set in our archives that I can't wait to include, only to find out that it cuts out halfway through. Luckily, we have lots of great material to pick from.”

Shaunette is enjoying her first year on the team.

“I've always dreamed of being part of the KOTO festival stream team and let me tell you, they are a dream,” Shaunette said. “It's been a blast to riff with my co-hosts and to share in our communal re-emergence into the music festival scene. The energy is electric.”

Sharing the broadcast with the world, no matter its temporary limitations, is a bright point in each year of KOTO’s eclectic programing. (KOTO also traditionally broadcasts The Ride and Telluride Blues & Brews festivals.)

“The broadcast has become such a treasure to folks near and far, making the festival accessible and bringing people together in spirit,” Shaunette said. “Folks who live here, have visited or dream of visiting can all have a taste of the special energy that takes over Town Park.”

Pallone agrees.

“The broadcasts shine a light on KOTO,” she said. “We gain so many new listeners and fans around the world thanks to these broadcasts. We're grateful to our festival partners, for the opportunity, and I believe it's mutually beneficial because people hear the magic unfolding in Town Park and want a piece of it. Beyond the benefits to KOTO, the broadcasts unite us in a really special way. We're all dancing on the same big tarp.”

This weekend’s team includes Caulfield, Pallone, Shaunette, KOTO news reporter Matt Hoisch, and KOTO DJs Claybrook Penn and Suzanne Cheavens, with KOTO operations assistant Heidi Sarazen holding down the fort in the studio. Tune in at 91.7, 89.3. 89.5 and 105.3.