Occasionally, an off-hand joke blossoms into full-bore global relations.

When the first request arrived from Prince Siboniso Zulu, KBMF-LP 102.5 music director Dark Sevier can be forgiven for assuming it was a gag or, worse, a hoax. After all, as a retired comedian, Dark had often responded to Nigerian princes, drawing out the exchanges and gradually exposing the initiators as online con artists.

Armed with this hard-won skepticism, Dark remained polite, answering the prince's early questions with a mix of misdirection and whimsy. Butte practices a vow of silence during the winter months, he wrote. Secret rituals are performed whenever the sacred Berkeley Pit freezes over. Traditionally, Butte emissaries to Nongoma would travel with a live elk.

Prince Sbo, as KBMF came to know him, took Dark's confabulations in stride. "I personally accept reality and dare not question it," he graciously replied, "but people are not all the same. If you remain firm in what you believe, then that's good."

Thankfully for Butte, Prince Sbo held steady. As the number and frequency of exchanges accelerated, reality began to shine through. The prince is indeed of the Zulu royal family, a gentleman with a degree in economics and an entrepreneur who recently launched Nongoma 88.3 FM, a radio station in the hometown of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu in South Africa's kwaZulu-Natal province. "The most powerful King in the continent of Africa," Prince Sbo proudly notes.

Nongoma FM 88.3 broadcasts a 1000-watt terrestrial signal, reaching 72,000 listeners, some as far away as Swaziland. "Your station setup looks state of the art," wrote Dark. "Ours is cobbled together from the thrift store and parts made from cereal box toys."

It's true that KBMF-LP 102.5's setup is much simpler than Nongoma's. In FCC parlance, LP stands for "low power," in this case a mere 100 watts, the same as that too-revealing bulb in the bathroom and one-tenth the Nongoma signal. Still, with the transmitter antennae set atop Uptown's Carpenters' Union Hall, KBMF's terrestrial signal reaches all of Butte and most of Silver Bow County.

KBMF-LP launches in Butte

KBMF was the brainchild of Clark Grant. After a few years working with public media in Missoula, a trip to Butte convinced the radio aficionado that the Mining City might be the perfect haven for a new non-commercial station. The FCC had just announced that, for the first time in twelve years, there would be a very brief window during which applications for low-power community radio stations would be accepted.

Clark shared his idea with Ann Szalda-Petree, who heads up Missoula Community Radio. Because the submission required that the new station partner with a non-profit organization, she introduced Clark to Amanda Curtis. Together, they founded the Butte America Foundation (BAmF). A year later, KBMF-LP 102.5 officially launched. To date, more than 100 local citizens have trained as volunteer DJs, and more than 60 are in regular rotation within the station's ever-evolving 24-hour program schedule.

KBMF programming is all over the map, literally. Unlike most commercial stations that dictate playlists, KBMF-LP DJs air whatever strikes their fancy. Individual shows highlight musical genres as diverse as blues, rock, hiphop, jazz, electronica, and heavy metal as well as music from all around the world. Additionally, there are educational programs and talk shows in support of KBMF's primary mission — the fostering of social justice. One proof of local success is the Community Enrichment Award recently given to KBMF by Matt Vincent and the Butte Chamber of Commerce.

Thinking globally, streaming programming over the internet allows for a much wider and more diverse audience. It also provides exact statistics about how many are listening and from which countries. Hundreds of far-flung KBMF fans are regularly checking in from all over North America, Europe, Australia, China, and now South Africa. Only a few short weeks after Prince Sbo's first text, South African listeners now make up nearly 10% of KBMF's streaming listenership.

Prince Sbo chooses KBMF

This kind of cross-pollination is exactly what Prince Sbo hoped for when he first began searching the internet for radio streams that suggested the potential for a "happy new relationship," one that might leverage community radio's strengths — entertainment, education, and the ability to broaden the worldview of its listeners. When he happened upon KBMF, he said, "I liked the sound of it. The music you play, we can relate." And so it was that Prince Sbo chose KBMF as Nongoma FM's first global partner.

Nongoma and Butte may be on opposite sides of the globe, but the two share a surprising number of synergies. Both are situated in cultural hubs surrounded by mining and agriculture. In discussing tourism, Prince Sbo was particularly interested in Butte's summer music festivals and the tens of thousands of visitors they attract. He compared these to Nongoma's popular annual Reed Dance.

Mirroring Butte's own history of strong labor unions, an ongoing strike by the local Communication Workers Union means that Nongoma 88.3 FM is temporarily unable to stream its programming. And then there are the slogans. KBMF's tongue-in-cheek motto "America's Most Radio" reads well against Nongoma FM's waggish "We Play, You Listen." Perhaps most remarkably, King kaBhekuzulu officially oversaw the launch of Nongoma FM on June 1, 2015, the very day that KBMF's transmitter first went live.

Of course there are differences. While music is a universal language, only 30% of Nongoma FM's voice programming is in English, with the rest broadcast in IsiZulu. KBMF features "DJs" while Nongoma FM hires "presenters."

Prince Sbo was surprised to learn that KBMF must continually look to the community for financial support, relying on donations, pledge drives, modest grants, and the donated efforts of volunteer DJs. This is not to say that Nongoma FM is without financial challenges, but thanks to the goodwill of the king, funding for the South African station allows for some staff and, possibly in the near future, a trip to Butte, America.

Growing the new relationship

What's next for the sister stations? Definitely more program sharing. Until Nongoma FM streaming is back online, KBMF is airing podcasts sent by the South African staff. After the weekly Clark & Dark Show first aired in Nongoma (Thursdays, 11 p.m. to midnight in Butte, 7 to 8 a.m. in Nongoma), Prince Sbo wrote, "Good morning! We really appreciate the special programme and the Royal Family was shocked and supportive of the initiative. You have put us on the map."

It's a big map, but it turns out that both Prince Sbo and Clark view it in much the same way. Even before KBMF launched, Clark and Ann had begun talking about creating a network that links Montana community stations, particularly those with a Native American listenership, eventually drawing in other like-minded stations from around the world. Prince Sbo's outreach not only matched Clark's vision, it jump-started it, turning our hometowns into neighboring villages. Now the two stations are discussing how to best work together in reaching out to other stations all in the name of sharing, learning, and newfound friendships.

"In my experience," Clark reflects, "public-access radio is an organizing point for all types of people — moms, punks, music freaks, and journalists. Rich and poor can all come together."

"People in rural areas don't often have a voice," says Prince Sbo. "Community broadcasting becomes that voice and allows communities to be actively involved in their own development."

There are plans afoot for Prince Sbo and one or more of his staff to make the 10,000-mile expedition to Butte, perhaps before the first of the year. Butte citizens may have to forgo our wintry vow of silence in honor of their visit. In turn, KBMF staff members are saving their copper pennies in hopes of making a return visit to Nongoma. It's unlikely the Butte emissaries will feel obligated to transport an elk.

BSB Chief Executive Matt Vincent is scheduled to address the people of Nongoma during the Clark & Dark Show Thursday, Oct. 13, at 11 p.m. (8 a.m. in South Africa).

Suzanne Stefanac's KBMF show radio.free.zorca airs Saturdays 4 to 6 p.m. with music from around the world and is occasionally broadcast in Nongoma. Stream KBMF, check out the program listings, and donate at butteamericaradio.org.

Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/KBMF102.5.

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