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KVMR’s Baker wins Elza Kilroy Award

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Nevada City Chamber honors his years of community service

 Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate


Steve Baker, KVMR community radio’s longtime program director, has been awarded the 2018 Elza Kilroy Award for community service for his dedication to keeping Nevada City’s listeners informed and entertained.


“I am totally surprised and honored,” Baker said. “I’ve always felt a sense of family and community with KVMR. I’m winning this award as a result of the efforts of the entire station.”


The annual award, given by the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, was established in 1969 to honor “a citizen whose efforts help makes Nevada City a better community,” said Cathy Whittlesey, the chamber’s executive director.


Baker is beloved by the staff and volunteer broadcasters for his management skill in “herding cats, dealing with impassioned volunteers who are not employees, keeping them moving in the right direction,” he said.

Listeners appreciate Baker for his ability during fundraising drives to come “on mic” at the end of a membership show and pitch with so much emotion and impact that the phones seem to start ringing out of nowhere. For this, he is known around the station as the “hammer.”


During his reign, he has succeeded in moving the station “in a more community-oriented vein and away from the ‘me and my record collection format.’ I’ve been able to get broadcasters to understand how important it is to get fire, weather and other breaking news to our listeners. ”


In fact, staying on top of breaking news, especially wildfires and perilous weather, is one of the station’s strengths and has made it Nevada County’s official emergency media. Having a broadcaster in the booth 24/7 enables it to keep listeners informed. The station partners with yuba.net, especially during dangerous wildfires like the Camp Fire, to break in with up-to-date information. Last year, Pascal Fusshoeller, editor and co-founder of yuba.net, won the Kilroy award for her local news website.


“It shows the importance of media in Nevada County life,” he said.


Baker has lived in Nevada City since 1990, first as a volunteer to help the station raise money during a financial crisis and then in 1993 as a broadcaster doing a morning news show with the legendary Chamba Lane and later with Michael Keene and Alison Miller, who are both still on the air and whom he describes as his “mentors.” 


He got a morning show in 1995, which he still helms on Monday’s from 7 to 10 a.m. In 1998, he was named program director and during his era he has won three community radio awards for his morning show, a Fourth of July parade with the late Utah Phillips and a post 9/11 special with Molly Fiske.


Baker, 68, was born in Moline, Illinois, and grew up in various cities in the Midwest where his father worked for J.C. Penney, then Sears, first selling shoes and then in management.


“I grew up loving radio,” he said. “I had a make-believe radio show that I programmed. I made up DJ names, call letters. It was a 50,000-watt station. What I’m doing now is what was in my head back then.”


But before finally casting his lot with radio, Baker made a long detour into the world of comedy.


He graduated from the University of Iowa and was working at the Quad City Times in Davenport, Iowa, covering the police beat and education and finally as a rock critic.


In 1975, though, he left his job at the paper and headed off to Europe for the summer with a group of friends.



“When I came back there was this comedy troupe. I thought they were pretty funny. They asked me to be their manager. It was cold in Iowa, so I moved to San Francisco,” he said.


“We went there in search of fame, fortune and middle age. So far, we’re one for three.”


The troupe was called Ducks Breath. Baker spent over 20 years with them as their manager. They enjoyed a significant amount of success in the early to mid-1980s – lots of clubs, a considerable amount of touring, book deals, a contract with Rounder records.

And they were the house comedy group for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” giving them national exposure. They did a daily comedy routine called Ducks Breath Homemade Radio.


“We achieved pretty good fame in the world we were in,” he said.


It was enough to live on. But it didn’t last forever.


In 1990, seeking a more rural place to put a Ducks Breath office and a side mail order business, Baker moved into the New York Hotel in Nevada City.

“I looked at four or five other towns, but there was something special about this place. It has a great sense of the arts, a real sense of community that you can’t find in a lot of other places,” he said.


“We’re probably the only town of 3,500 people who have built a $4 million radio station with local contributions.” 

In fact, during KVMR’s fundraising to build that new home, a group of Baker’s longtime college friends pooled their money and named a studio control board. It i s inscribed:

“Friends of Steve Baker.”


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KVMR’s Program Director Steve Baker sits behind the desk in his notoriously cluttered office 


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Steve behind the mic in the KVMR studio

Photo by Michael Young