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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s been quite a journey’: KPND in Sandpoint is celebrating its 40th anniversary

When Mount St. Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history dramatically altered life and rock formations in Skamania County.

The next day, a rock radio station subtly changed the soundscape in Sandpoint. KPND, which commenced as a tiny, 1,000-watt class A outlet, served the community as the first FM station in Sandpoint.

Dylan Benefield, a KPND lifer, was 5 years old when his parents, Kim and Helen Benefield, introduced KPND 95.3 to locals.

“This is what I know,” Benefield said while calling from KPND’s Sandpoint studio. “I’m a third-generation broadcaster who remembers what it was like playing vinyl and running carts when I was 12 years old at KPND.”

These days, Benefield, 44, is the owner and general manager of the station, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. “What’s cool is that the actual anniversary is today (May 19), and it happens to be my dad’s birthday,” Benefield said. “I’d celebrate, but I have so much to do.”

It’s about as easy to catch Benefield as it is to nail down the rock stars who visit and perform at the station’s studio. It took a few texts to set up a time with the father of two sons who attend Sandpoint High School.

“Dylan is on what we call ‘Dylan time,’ ” KPND program director/evening host Marie McCallister cracked.

Benefield and his staff have been preparing for KPND’s “Rock of Ages” weekend, which will mark the 40th anniversary throughout Memorial Day weekend.

At 5 p.m. Friday, the AAA (adult album alternative) station will kick off its special programming with the music of 2020. KPND, which is part of the Blue Sky Broadcasting network, which also includes 106.7 the Point, K102 Country, KSPT 1400 AM and KBFI 1450 AM, will play the sonic highlights of each year of its existence until reaching 1980.

“It’s a lot of fun looking back since it’s been so great playing the music so many people enjoy, and so many talented musicians have visited the studio,” music director and midday host Diane Michaels said.

Michaels, who has been with KPND since 2004, and McCallister, who signed on eight years ago, have witnessed some memorable shows and had the opportunity to meet a number of gifted recording artists.

“It’s been fun not only watching guys like Matt Nathanson and Eric Hutchinson, but also becoming friends with them,” McCallister said. “Matt is very nice, and he’s so funny.”

It’s a healthy drive for recording artists to trek from Spokane, where the musicians typically travel from since that’s where their shows are normally slated, to Sandpoint. It’s usually an 80-minute ride to cover the 70 miles for what is typically a 15-minute set in the KPND studio.

But grizzled road warriors such as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Alejandro Escovedo have had no problem making the journey.

“I remember how great it was when Alejandro drove in,” Michaels said. “He had a nine-piece band. There were two microphones and everybody was gathered round, and it was so hot by the time they were finished with their set. But it was fun and so memorable.”

Unlike many radio stations under the umbrella of a corporate monolith, KPND has no problem tossing in an emerging recording artist with the familiar.

Last week, Michaels slipped in Car Seat Headrest’s quirky-but-catchy single “Hollywood.”

“I really like that song,” Michaels said. “I get calls when I play something good that’s from out of left field. People ask what song I just played when something new comes on. I don’t get calls like that when I play Coldplay.”

Singer-songwriter Bob Schneider, who is popular enough to be elected mayor of the capital of Texas, isn’t so well-known outside Austin’s city limits. However, the cerebral singer-songwriter has an audience in Sandpoint and Spokane thanks to KPND.

“When Bob came up here and performed (in 2017), he said, ‘Nobody knows me,’ ” Michaels said. “But then during his set, people screamed out obscure songs that they heard on KPND. The recording artists love the reception they get when they perform at our events. They get to know the area, and we get to know them, so we all have some stories to tell.”

Benefield, KPND’s general manager since 2005, has more than a few tales after his years working at the station and setting up shows for Sandpoint events as a teenager. Benefield had quite an experience with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis after putting together the stage for the jazz legend.

“Wynton and his brothers came up to us before their set and said, ‘We need to play basketball,’ ” Benefield recalled. “I was like, ‘What?’ But they were looking for some exercise after being on a bus for hours. So we got paid to play a pickup game against them. I think they won.”

While working stage front security for B.B. King during the ’90s, the blues legend told Benefield to protect him during his performance at a Sandpoint festival. “B.B. told us, ‘I need a couple of dudes up front to knock the people back if they come up,’ ” Benefield recalled. “Make sure nobody jumps onstage. I had a great time. I’ve been part of some really cool shows over the years watching guys like Michael Franti. I miss going out to shows.”

McCallister echoes Benefield’s words when it comes to the pandemic that has created a hiatus for touring musicians. It’s not surprising since KPND sponsors a number of shows in Spokane. “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to concerts returning,” McCallister said. “I love driving into Spokane to see shows. I also love to give away tickets and introduce fans to their favorite musicians. We’re all about giving fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience with these (meet-and-greets). We can’t see the musicians, now but we can play them.”

Expect a stronger signal from KPND in about three months. The station, which transmits at 100,000 watts from the Hoodoo Mountains, will be emitting its signal from Post Falls by the end of the summer. KPND is loud and clear particularly in the South Hill and in north Spokane. However, reception is not ideal in the Valley. However, that will change soon.

“We’re going to be in a great spot in Post Falls,” Benefield said. “You’re not going to be able to miss us in Spokane. Our evolution is a great story since it’s so unusual. Little class A, 1,000-watt stations rarely become 100,000-watt class C stations. It’s been quite a journey. We’ll be able to serve the Spokane community in a better fashion. We can’t wait until the Knitting Factory and the First Interstate Center (for the Arts) open up again so we can help the venues sell tickets and we can connect with the community at these live shows.”

Radio is typically a life for transients. Benefield is the exception since he’s lived in Sandpoint his entire life. However, much of the KPND staff bounced around before joining the station. Formats change, new PDs are hired, and folks lose jobs. But life at KPND has been remarkably stable.

Afternoon drive DJ Uncle Larry has been with KPND for the last eight years. McCallister, 61, who moved to Spokane from Southern California, has bounced around the country as a DJ but is settled in the area due to family. Michaels, who led the typical carpetbagger existence of a DJ, stopped in Sandpoint in 2004 but never dreamed she would still be around.

“When I arrived here, I was married,” Michaels, 65, said. “I was sold on the area when I first saw Lake Pend Oreille. I didn’t know a soul. What I did realize is that where we live is beautiful. I’ve worked in radio since 1975, but if this station changed formats to hip-hop tomorrow, I would want to stay.

“I’m looking out my window now where I live 13 miles south of Sandpoint, and it’s just amazing. It’s beautiful in Sandpoint, and it’s a short drive to Spokane for shows and other things. There is no place like this area, and then there are the people. The listeners are like family. I can’t imagine being anyplace else. I can’t imagine working for another radio station.”

KPND, which was born a day after a devastating natural disaster, continues to broadcast during another type of disaster. “We just keep rolling on,” Benefield said. “I live two blocks from the station. The staff continues to come in for their shifts, and we continue playing music people love. A lot of things have changed over the years, but that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”