Natural Foods Merchandiser
Q&A: Nick and Helen Forster of eTown

Q&A: Nick and Helen Forster of eTown

Nick and Helen Forster founded eTown 20 years ago. The weekly radio broadcast blends live music and musician interviews with conversation about environmental and social issues. For Expo East, eTown will tape a live show at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m.  


Natural Foods Merchandiser: What prompted you to start eTown?

Nick: I was fortunate enough to be able to make my living playing music, touring the world and making records. Yet even with that success, I wanted more. I wanted to put my talents and skills toward what mattered most to me as a dad and as a citizen. I was lucky enough to find a partner (Helen) and a platform that enabled me to do just that. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like work when you do things you really believe in. I feel so fortunate to have been able to keep eTown going—and growing—for 20 years.

Helen: We started eTown in Boulder, Colo., 1991 when no one was talking about global warming or clean air or water. So we took a chance. There was a lot of apathy at that time. But it’s my firm belief that people are not apathetic because they’re lazy or evil. It’s because they feel overwhelmed about what’s going on around them and they feel powerless. eTown draws on a really diverse audience, reaching people of all ages and across all economic strata. We bring people together around music and then give them food for thought. We let them know we can all make a difference. We created a community on the airwaves so that no matter where people were, they could tune in and be part of the eTown family. They’d hear info they weren’t getting from mainstream media. Our goal is to inform, inspire and encourage listeners to get involved.

Nick: One of the challenges we all face as we become educated about bigger issues such as climate change is to find ways to do something about them. How do we fight apathy? The best way is to become engaged right where we are—in our communities. It’s important to express concerns locally.

NFM: When did these ideals first become  important to you?

Helen: At 19, I took an environmental studies class at the University of Minnesota. I didn’t even know what environmental studies meant. We read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and for the first time ever, I thought about where things come from, and realized water and clean air are not boundless commodities. I came away from that class knowing that every decision has an impact—even the decision to do nothing.

NFM: How does music contribute to overall well-being?

Nick: It’s really interesting. Music does two things simultaneously. For one, it affects people equally, regardless of race, education or politics—it’s equal-opportunity inspiration. For another, it engages consumers both emotionally and intellectually. It really does engage the head and heart equally. It’s very rare to find something that commands an entire group’s attention.

NFM: How do you weave such heavy topics into an enjoyable show format?

Helen: We discovered long ago that we don’t want to hit people over the head with our message. We’re not about gloom and doom. We’re about inspiration and promoting the power of the individual. The show is very fun, very hip, very entertaining. Nick and I come from performing backgrounds, so there’s a certain comfort level with the artists. And the music is always electrifying—it’ll draw you in.

NFM: How do you select your guest artists? Who seeks out whom?

Helen: We’ve been on the media circuit for 20 years. At first, music labels and management didn’t get eTown’s format of music with discussion and a sustainability theme. Now they often seek us out, because they see eTown as a wonderful opportunity to give their artists major exposure and an association with a program that has integrity and purpose. Also, their artists can feel comfortable talking about things that matter to them.

NFM: Why do eTown and Natural Products Expo make a good pair?

Nick: We brought eTown to Expo West for the first time in 1992, and continued at both West and East for many years. [Natural products industry veteran] Paul Repetto, who was on our board at the time, suggested it, and he was right. Paul knew that folks in the natural products industry appreciate good music and like to have fun, to learn and to act in ways that are consistent with their values. It turned out that eTown was a great way to combine these elements into one event that also was a great opportunity to showcase our sponsors.

Helen: It made sense to bring what we do to Expo attendees. We share the same goals and values. Collectively, we approach what we do with an eye on the bigger picture. We care about the world around us. We care about the environment we live in and the planet we hope to pass on to our children.

NFM: Why did you invite the musician Moby to the Baltimore taping?

Nick: Moby is a musical alchemist. He’s also a very vocal vegan and conscious about diet, so he was appropriate to bring to Expo East.

NFM: eTown’s sponsors are all natural products companies. Why is this?

Nick: Our first sponsor in Boulder was [natural grocer] Alfalfa’s, and our first national sponsors came from our inaugural trip to Expo West. We’ve been so lucky through the years to have relationships with some of the best brands in the industry.

Helen: Celestial Seasonings and Silk have been our partners for a long time. Now we also have Rudi’s Organic Bakery, New Belgium Brewing Co., Galaxy Nutritional Foods, Colorado Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, and Bohemian Foundation. We’re really excited to work with all of them because they’re clearly holding our values—they’re all companies that try hard to do the right thing and do business sustainably and with an environmental consciousness.

NFM: What’s your vision for the new eTown Hall in Boulder?

Helen: Phase one is done—we’ve been in the new offices for 10 months—and our hope is to open entirely during 2011 for eTown’s 20th anniversary. The overall vision for eTown Hall is twofold: Locally, it’ll serve as a community center—a place to hold cultural events, lecture series, concerts and masters classes with our visiting artists. Of course, we’ll do some eTown tapings there. Neighborhood and nonprofit organizations can use it to hold meetings and lectures. Regional and national artists can record CDs in the studios and host CD-release parties. I’m very interested in holding programs that help kids who don’t fit in—because I was one of those kids—to find their passions, whether it’s music or drama. And the hall had been a church, so we even hope people will still want to get married there.

On the national and international level, we see eTown as an important independent media voice. We’ve positioned the hall as a center for dispensing information through expanded forms of content, having civilized dialogue about the environmental and social issues we all face, and developing solutions. Today, it’s more important than ever to create a neutral, welcoming, open forum for discussion, debate and education surrounding these issues.

eTown will tape a live show at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m. See the full Expo East schedule here

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