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Beacon Senior News

Community radio KAFM’s “Coach” retires

Oct 05, 2020 11:14AM ● By Melanie Wiseman

Jeff “Coach” Suldener has retired from several careers, but none with more hesitation than as program director at the Grand Valley’s KAFM Community Radio. His retirement date was originally April 1, 2018, but he finally bit the bullet on September 1, 2020—in his official capacity, anyway.

“I’ll still be a volunteer at least on the air, and at the most assisting the new director, as there’s a whole culture to learn here,” said Coach. “I want to make sure they have a good head start.” 

Becoming “Coach”

A Colorado native, Coach grew up in Aspen playing basketball and baseball. His high school baseball coach was a significant role model.

“I always knew I wanted to be a coach, and was told I’d make a good one, but I also knew it wouldn’t be a career which paid the bills,” said Coach, 64. 

Getting his teaching degree from the University of Northern Colorado complemented his coaching skills. As it turned out, his first real career after college wasn’t teaching. Always a big sports fan, Coach met the New York Mets’ broadcaster. They talked about careers and baseball, and one thing led to another. 

“After pulling a few strings, he got me into professional umpire school in Daytona, Florida,” said coach. “It’s like boot camp—brutal. They make it difficult and yell at you a lot.”

That weeded out about 30 percent of students, but Coach finished in the top of his class, guaranteeing him an invitation to spring training and an assignment to a minor league team. He spent 1979 umpiring for the Pioneer League, which now includes the Grand Junction Rockies. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to make the major leagues because I was only 5-foot-9 and they like very tall umpires,” he said. “So I headed back to Greeley where I umpired semi-pro and college baseball, and taught umpire training for the Greeley Parks and Rec Department.” 

In 1983, the Greeley school board approved a new soccer program and offered him a coaching position the next day. He also began his first-grade school teaching job. 

“All through my teaching/coaching career, I had to have three different personalities: One for the little kids during the day, one for the teens I was coaching, and one for the rest of my social life outside school,” he explained.

Soccer exploded in Colorado in the 1980s. His experience led him to coach Grand Junction High School’s boys’ and girls’ soccer teams in 1989 while teaching grade school at Nisley Elementary. He later transferred to coaching Central High School teams in 1996.

Once he relocated to Grand Junction, the name “Coach” stuck both on and off the field. 

“A few people call me by my first name—my sisters and a handful of family members,” he said. “But now even my brothers-in-law call me Coach.”

On to community radio

In 1999, seven years after a group of citizens sat down to discuss the possibility of creating a locally owned and programmed community radio station in Grand Junction, KAFM went on the air. Coach immediately became a member and offered to volunteer.

“The next thing I knew, I was on the air at night or on Sundays,” said Coach. “I really, really like music, and also didn’t like what commercial radio had become, playing the same songs over and over. KAFM is real radio, run by real DJs—all volunteers.”

Eventually, he became disillusioned by schools’ new high-stakes test scores, which he felt came at the expense of students’ real education. In 2006, he retired from teaching after 30 years. 

This allowed him to commit even more time to his newfound passion: local radio.

Many community radio stations become gathering places for one ideology. But according to Coach, KAFM has made everyone feel welcome since the beginning, the music is diverse, and volunteers don’t editorialize. As a nonprofit, member and volunteer-supported community radio station, KAFM fills a vital role in the Grand Valley as an accessible forum for music, arts, culture and information by and for the community.

“Staying away from politics has been a winning formula for us,” said Coach.

A local leader

Since 2004, Coach worked a few stints as program director until becoming full time in 2010. He oversaw the recruitment, training and management of over 100 on-air volunteers, two-thirds of whom were over 60. Volunteers set their own playlists for two- to three-hour music slots, while Coach ran the weekday community affairs segment.

“One of my favorite interviews was with the Grand Junction Rockies’ Pioneer League umpires,” said Coach. “I got a lot of good feedback where listeners learned things the casual baseball fan wouldn’t know about.”

KAFM has no commercials, relying on funding from membership drives, underwriting and grants. The station also focuses on local news and tries to showcase local music as much as possible.

“KAFM is live and local 18 hours a day, which is unheard of anymore,” said Coach. 

In addition to volunteering at the station, Coach says he’s looking forward to spending retirement biking, cross-country skiing and traveling, especially to see his beloved London-based Arsenal soccer team play in Europe. 

When asked if he’d consider going back to umpiring or coaching, Coach laughed and said he’ll enjoy the games from the stands from now on.

Listen to KAFM 88.1 in Grand Junction and Fruita, and 96.9 in Palisade.

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