FARGO — A recent Friday morning broadcast of Travis Hopkins’ radio show feels a little like a party. Guests file into the small studio, setting off an occasional scramble for seats.
But there's a purpose.
Hopkins invited singer-songwriter Dariann Leigh to drive in from Karlstad, Minnesota, to talk about her new song, “10,000 Miles,” written for her boyfriend coming home from active service. Hopkins also invited a pair from a local veterans group to sit in to talk about an upcoming fundraiser, and he asked Leigh to perform the song for them.
It’s a modest but meaningful connection, and it reflects the community building and spotlight on homegrown talent that Hopkins puts into "This Side of Country," a radio show dedicated to local and regional independent country music that airs 10 a.m. to noon weekdays on 95.9 FM KRFF Radio Free Fargo.
Hopkins, 46, began the show earlier this year after seeing an opportunity to connect local artists with audiences and each other. He rounds out the shows with music from a few country legends, such as Johnny Cash or Tanya Tucker, but he devotes as much airtime as possible to local country singers through their recordings and frequent in-studio performances.
And, he’s finding a lot of them to work with. Hopkins estimates he’s had two or three musicians perform in the studio a week, on average.
“It’s amazing how much talent there is in the Midwest and in country music, and I wanted to be part of launching these artists,” Hopkins says.
The grind of a hungry musician trying to score that next gig or make that next connection is one he knows well.
Learning the ropes
Born and raised in Jamestown, North Dakota, Hopkins attended McNally-Smith School of Music in St. Paul to study drumming and singing.
“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, moving there in the late '90s. He gigged in bands and did a little acting, appearing in 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 City’s Hard Rock Cafe.
After 9/11 took the wind out of New York’s nightlife, Hopkins spent some time in Las Vegas networking and surveying the landscape of professional club owners, promoters and performers. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s, doing a little more acting and scoring a gig in the house band for former Skid Row drummer Phil Varone’s comedy show.
But by 2009, he was ready to come back home where his family needed him, he says.
“I was essentially an only child, raised by my mother and grandmother,” Hopkins says. “Everyone was getting a little older and needed a little more help, so I went back to Jamestown. It was a nice break from entertainment, to help out with family.”
After a decade working in major entertainment capitals and now looking to remain 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 credits them for introducing him to local airwaves.
“I learned so much working with that station and that group,” he says.
‘A renaissance man’
After 10 years or so on local commercial radio, Hopkins found a home on Radio Free Fargo. It’s a venue that would give him a little more freedom, says Radio Free Fargo station manager Mark Borchert.
“We gave him a show and turned him loose,” Borchert says, adding that the station benefits from Hopkins’ big skill set, not only as host but as a marketing and sales coordinator. “Travis is really a renaissance man. He has always had his fingers in so many different projects.”
Radio Free Fargo is a community-driven radio station with a focus on local music, Borchert says, but they felt as though they weren’t doing enough to represent local country artists. At the beginning of this year, they decided to give a local country show a shot with Hopkins as host and producer.
Reaction was mixed at first, Borchert admits, given that same lack of representation likely rubbed against 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 those artists are just as excited.
“The feedback from artists has been phenomenal. Most local musicians are blown away that they can come into our studio, play a couple of songs and get interviewed for an entire show,” Borchert says.
Hopkins likes to extend that vibe even further, bringing on guests like Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and sharing the host chair when possible. He also puts a high priority on equal time for female musicians, yet another aspect that artists respect and appreciate.
While Hopkins might be the one at the mic, he’s quick to say the show’s success is a natural outgrowth of the strong artist community around him.
“There’s such a large artist market here,” he says. “We’re speaking up and saying we support those who support us.”