He never made it to the moon, but somehow, Richard Dabney landed here.
Meet the rocket scientist who brought rock ‘n’ roll back to Chadron: a guy who grew so frustrated with the straight-lined logic and pencil-pushing bosses at NASA, he gave up a career as an aerospace engineer and moved a thousand miles to the Nebraska Pandhandle to start a radio station.
This college town in the middle of ranching country draws many artists and academics from far-flung places.
“I’m the only one who came here to do radio,” Dabney says.
He grew up in Kentucky and had never visited Nebraska before he learned a slice of FM signal across this semi-arid expanse of the Great Plains was among 288 permits being auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission in 2004.
Chadron boasted a low cost of living, little crime, a college, an airport and — most importantly — no rock on the airwaves since KPNY went Christian.
So Dabney paid $3,500 for the FCC permit, $50,000 for equipment and another $35,000 to build a 199-foot tower in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, before transmitting his first tune — he thinks it was Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” — on 93.7 KVAR in 2008.
The Alleycat now broadcasts commercial-free rock from east of Gordon along U.S. 20 to Harrison in the west, as far south as Alliance and as far north as Hermosa, South Dakota, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Repeaters carry the same songs with a bit more clarity on 88.7 in Chadron and 88.1 in Crawford.
And Dabney, 57, haunts the bar at the historic Old Main Street Inn, sipping glass mugs of beer and hunting for ghosts using an iPad app that converts magnetic fields into words.
He’s a quirky figure in this city of less than 6,000: a pilot, patron of the local music scene and a proud promoter of a place he’d never heard of until 12 years ago.
“I don’t know how you can miss him,” says close friend Ed Hughes, a local author who writes under the name Poe Ballantine.
Dabney is tall, with long, curly, gray hair, aviator-framed glasses, and a collection of brightly colored shirts and several leather jackets.
His conversations — even with strangers — tend to veer quickly and wildly off course.
“The listener nevertheless might be spellbound, and might find himself two hours later walking dazed into the sunlight and wondering if it was all true,” Hughes says.
The night he met with a reporter, Dabney’s obsession was his ghost app.
He’s found that hunting for paranormal phenomena provides a unique window into the histories of Chadron and surrounding towns, revealing intimate stories about the fur traders, soldiers and other folks who once settled these parts.
“Chadron, you know, has a Wild West history, and so we think maybe that is part of why there are such interesting things and places and buildings,” says Rossella Tesch, director at the local library, who hosts a pair of haunted walks with Dabney every July during Fur Trade Days.
She’s also an Alleycat listener, tuning in most days on her way home to Gordon.
“It’s good rock — old rock. Something to keep me alert.”
Most days, Dabney’s station plays anything from The Kinks to Death Cab for Cutie on random rotation, with occasional live shows broadcast from the Bean Broker coffee shop or other venues around town.
For a while, Chadron State College students could DJ from campus, but the studio went dark after an instructor left the school.
So there’s no DJ, although sometimes, you can catch the owner’s recorded voice during station identification.
And the random shuffle has a perk: It introduces people to tunes they might never hear on their curated smartphone playlists or the algorithm-chosen rhythms on Pandora or Spotify radio.
“They change their view of the world, their view of themselves, their view of life.”
Dabney joined NASA for the paycheck. Radio was his first love, and remains his truest passion: “It still seems like magic.”
His mother bought him his first radio when he was 5. Now he keeps 200 antique radios in his cluttered home, along with nearly 5,000 vinyl records and 1,500 CDs.
“There’s magic in music, and there’s magic in the way it comes through the airwaves,” he said. “If there’s no magic in the music, we don’t play it.
“That’s a way of adding a little bit of something to western civilization.”