When Prince Siboniso Zulu came to Butte last summer to visit local radio station KBMF, it was clear from the beginning that the station would one day send its own emissary to the prince’s hometown of Nongoma, South Africa.
That’s according to KBMF music director Dark Sevier, who, along with Butte America Foundation board member Matt Boyle, Station Manager Clark Grant and foundation Secretary Suzanne Stefanac, will travel to Nongoma this week for a seven-week cultural and professional exchange.
The nonprofit Butte America Foundation operates the indie KBMF station, which broadcasts with a low-power signal at 102.5 FM.
Last summer, the station hosted Prince Siboniso Zulu (called Prince Sbo for short) and his two colleagues Nkokhelo Msomi and Mokai Malope for a trip during which they got to do everything from sit as grand marshals for the Fourth of July parade to meet Sen. Bernie Sanders as he campaigned for then-U.S. House candidate Rob Quist.
“They saw more of Butte than most of us do — above ground, underground (and) sideways,” said Sevier.
SUMMER OF ZULU
Butte’s summer of Zulu took place after the prince, who owns community radio station Nongoma-FM 88.3 in his hometown, began corresponding with KBMF. The prince was looking to connect with stations whose missions matched that of Nongoma-FM’s, the four KBMF representatives said, imbued with values like social justice, community education and non-mainstream programming.
“The premise was radio, but it became a lot more than radio,’’ said Grant, describing the Zulu’s visit. “Really I think it became about their spending a lot of time with the arts community in Butte and realizing the value of arts …. That the arts can be an actual force for community and economics.”
For Stefanac, the trip was about shared core human characteristics.
“I think in today’s political climate it was lovely to have people come from the opposite side of the world,” said Stefanac. “They were so smart and gracious and accommodating and funny and charming. It didn’t feel like there were any differences.”
Sevier, meanwhile, said Butte residents served as ambassadors just as much as the Zulus did for their community, noting that much of the news about the U.S. abroad has to do with strife and division.
“They were delightfully surprised at the community and the family and the generosity that they encountered when they were here,” said Sevier.
“The word family came up a lot,” Stefanac said. “We called them brothers.”
Stefanac, Grant and Sevier leave for their 10,119-mile journey to Nongoma Wednesday, while Boyle takes off Saturday, with the longest leg of the journey totaling about 12 hours.
Much like the Zulus' summer trip to Butte, sometimes called “the Festival City,” the four KBMF reps will be attending a series of festivals while in Nongoma, including the royal Reed Dance festival.
In addition, the KBMF crew plans to purchase the current head of the Zulu kingdom, King Goodwill Zwelithini, a cow as a gesture of friendship. They also have been working with Dr. Bruce Pedersen of Butte Veterinary Center, an underwriter of the station, to potentially one day deliver fertilized bovine embryos from Montana, though that gift is still in the idea stage.
The four will also work alongside the Nongoma-FM team and visit other community radio stations in South Africa. The four plan to document their journey with photos, audio, writing and video, including from a camera supplied by Los Angeles-based film director Joe Litzinger, whose been making a documentary about the Zulus’ visit to Butte.
To pay for the trip, the Butte America Foundation has been raising money on the KBMF’s website.
The foundation has also received a $15,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Half of those funds will cover travel expenses, and the other half will go toward creating a charitable program called Butte & Beyond, which will work with disadvantaged high school students from both Nongoma and Butte. According to the KBMF website, students in the program will learn the basics of local journalism through volunteer service at their local station and will be enrolled in a scholarship program that will provide information about applying to higher education.
Sevier said the scholarship fund is designed to help students take first steps toward college and will cover preliminary expenses like application fees.
“Part of the mission of the (Nongoma) radio station is to get correct information to people in rural areas that don’t know the process of what is required between high school and college,” said Sevier.
“It will serve kids right here in Butte, too,” added Grant.
But the journey for at least one of the KBMF crew might not end in South Africa.
Sevier said that Prince Sbo has a goal of connecting with other like-minded community radio stations throughout the world. The prince is looking to visit a station in Russia next, Sevier said, and the prince has tentatively invited Sevier to go along with him.
“This is the beginning of a network, of a global radio network,” Sevier said. “When we started this radio station in town, we were exploring what it would take to create a Montana community radio network and then in the midst of that discussion it became global.”
While radio may seem like a thing of the past to those who have long ago ditched their stereos for digital music and podcasts, Boyle, Sevier, Grant and Stefanac said that in some parts of the world radio stations are still the main source of information and therefore have a meaningful impact on the communities they serve.
“One of the things that resonates between the two radio stations is that we’re both founded on missions of social justice,” Stefanac said.