FARGO — A recent Friday morning broadcast from Travis Hopkins’ radio show feels a bit like a party. Guests file into the small studio, triggering an occasional rush for seats.
But there is a goal.
Hopkins invited singer-songwriter Dariann Leigh over from Karlstad, Minnesota to talk about her new song, “10,000 Miles,” written for her boyfriend returning from active duty. Hopkins also invited a pair from a local veterans group to sit down to talk about an upcoming fundraiser, and he asked Leigh to perform the song for them.
It’s a small but meaningful connection, and it reflects the community building and spotlighting of local talent that Hopkins puts on “This Side of Country,” a radio show dedicated to airing local and regional independent country music. 10 a.m. to noon weekdays on 95.9 FM. KRFF Radio Free Fargo.
The show is also broadcast live on radiofreefargo.org and interviews can be accessed via a podcast.
Hopkins, 46, started the show earlier this year after seeing an opportunity to connect local artists with audiences and each other. He supplements the shows with music from a few country legends, such as Johnny Cash or Tanya Tucker, but he dedicates as much airtime as possible to local country singers through their recordings and frequent studio performances.
And, he finds plenty to work with. Hopkins estimates that he played two or three musicians in the studio per week, on average.
“It’s amazing how much talent there is in the Midwest and in country music, and I wanted to be a part of launching those artists,” Hopkins said.
The grind of a hungry musician trying to score that next gig or make that next connection is one he knows well.
Born and raised in Jamestown, North Dakota, Hopkins attended the McNally-Smith School of Music in St. Paul to study drums and vocals.
“I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band for a long time,” he says.
Hopkins then set his sights on New York City and settled there in the late 90s. He played in bands and performed a bit, appearing on an episode of the quirky Comedy Central show “Strangers With Candy “alongside Will Ferrell. He also dipped his toe into the business side of show business, coordinating live music for New York’s Hard Rock Cafe.
After the September 11 attacks rocked New York nightlife, Hopkins spent time in Las Vegas networking and studying the landscape of professional club owners, promoters, and entertainers. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s, playing some more and scoring a gig in the house band for former Skid Row drummer Phil Varone’s comedy show.
But in 2009 he was ready to go home to where his family needed him, he says.
“I was basically an only child, raised by my mom and my grandmother,” Hopkins says. “Everyone was getting a bit older and needed a bit more help, so I moved back to Jamestown. It was a nice fun break, to help out with the family.”
After a decade of working in major entertainment capitals and now looking to stay closer to home, radio seemed a natural fit for Hopkins. In the fall of 2010, he joined classic rock station 107.9 FM The Fox and thanks them for bringing him to the local airwaves.
“I learned so much working with this station and this band,” he says.
After about 10 years in local commercial radio, Hopkins found a home on Radio Free Fargo. It’s a place that would give him a little more freedom, says Mark Borchert, station manager of Radio Free Fargo.
“We gave him a show and let him go,” Borchert said, adding that the station benefits from Hopkins’ great skill set, not just as a host, but as a marketing and sales coordinator. “Travis is truly a renaissance man. He’s always had his fingers in so many different projects.
Radio Free Fargo is a community radio station focused on local music, Borchert says, but they felt they weren’t doing enough to represent local country artists. Early this year, they decided to give a local country show a try with Hopkins as host and producer.
The reaction was mixed at first, admits Borchert, given that the same lack of representation likely rubbed shoulders with audience expectations. But that’s changing, he adds, as listeners gain a new understanding of the many local country artists working in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
And these artists are just as excited.
“The feedback from artists has been phenomenal. Most local musicians are blown away to be able to come into our studio, play a few songs, and be interviewed for a whole show,” says Borchert.
Hopkins likes to extend that vibe even further, bringing guests like Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and sharing the host chair when possible. It also places a high priority on equal time for female musicians, another aspect artists respect and value.
While Hopkins may be the one on the mic, he’s quick to say that the show’s success is a natural consequence of the strong community of artists around it.
“There’s such a big artists’ market here,” he says. “We speak up and say we support those who support us.”