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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Friday 11 November @ 00:36:29
Inside the workings of community supported radio station KFAI
by Nancy Sartor
Someone once said, “You can’t be all things to all people,” but for more than 27 years, KFAI radio has proven that you can be almost all things to all people. With a music and public affairs lineup that includes programs in 13 different languages, and with nearly 400 volunteers who donate their time to the station, KFAI lives up to its on-air moniker “people-powered community radio.” In this land of Blandinavians and the ever-present hotdish, KFAI is the garlic in the gumbo, the cumin on the kabob, the habanero in the hot sauce—it satiates our audio appetite.
and building any business is no easy feat, but in a world where powerful corporate
conglomerates continue to dominate media markets—buying up radio stations
faster than Wal-Mart shoppers at an electronics sale—it’s especially
challenging to maintain independence.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there are 13,557 radio
stations operating in the United States. Just under half of all broadcast media
are commercial stations and less than 20 percent are educational or public.
The Center for Public Integrity reports that Clear Channel Communications, Inc.
owns 1,200 radio stations in the United States. Viacom, Inc. owns 185; Salem
Broadcasting Corp. owns 92 and Walt Disney Co. owns 71. All of those companies
are players in the Twin Cities broadcast market, too. Clear Channel leads the
corporate pack, with seven radio stations in the metro area. Combined, those
four companies own about 30 percent of the entire broadcast market within a
40-mile radius of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But commercial radio isn’t the only game in town. Minnesotans have a long
history of supporting public radio as well. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) operates
37 stations in the state and in surrounding areas, including Wisconsin, North
and South Dakota, Michigan, Iowa and Idaho. They also own a station in southern
California. Some say MPR is as powerful as National Public Radio, if not more
MPR president Bill Kling leads his nonprofit empire, which has an annual operating
budget for FY’06 of nearly $57 million. By comparison, KFAI’s annual
operating budget is approximately $750,000, according to the station’s
executive director, Janice Lane-Ewart. About 40 percent of that comes from listener-members
(of which there are 4,400) and the rest from local, state and federal sources.
KFAI operates as a 501c(3) nonprofit and its radio license is granted to Fresh
For the last two years, Lane-Ewart has represented the AMPERS group (Association
of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations, which recently re-branded themselves
as IPR: Independent Public Radio) at the state’s annual legislative session.
“Each year a representative from AMPERS/IPR testifies before appropriate
state committees to remind them of the value of community radio and the service
that’s provided across the state,” she said. “Without the
advocacy, we would have had our funds cut. There’s been years when it’s
been slated to be cut 20 to 50 percent.”
state money is granted to public radio stations, Lane-Ewart says it is allocated
to MPR, the IPR stations (of which there are 12, including KBEM, KMOJ and KUOM
locally) and public television. Most recently MPR was awarded $380,000 in state
funding for capital projects that extend its signal. By comparison, IPR received
$313,080 last year, which it divided equally among its twelve members so that
each received $26,090.
Grants from other entities, like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB),
also make up part of KFAI’s annual budget. For the last few years, conservative
leadership of the CPB board has squawked about what it perceives as left-leaning
programming on public radio and television. But controversy over former CPB
head Kenneth Tomlinson led to his resignation from the board after he came under
fire from a U.S. Senate panel for his decision to secretly monitor public television
and radio programs (the full Senate report is slated for release Nov. 15). Cheryl
Halpern, form chair of the CBP board’s audit and finance committee and
according to the Washington Post, a leading Republican donor, has replaced Tomlinson
as board chair.
Ann Alquist has been KFAI’s news director since 2001. She recalled some
of the financial challenges the station faced when the country’s political
tide turned in 2000. “A couple years after Janice started her job here
at KFAI, the state legislature started handing down all these cuts. George Bush
got elected president, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting went through
its own administrative changes, electing Ken Tomlinson. We started to see public
broadcasting being criticized for being ‘too left’ or ‘too
biased.’ We’re [KFAI] small, so I don’t think there was a
lot of paranoia about us being targeted, but there has been a real concern about
the longevity of funding for the organization. Janice has made changes to stabilize
KFAI’s revenue streams.”
These changes included reviving the station’s dormant fundraising, marketing
and outreach committees. They, along with five other committees (executive,
finance, programming, governance and training) are comprised of board members,
listener members and staff liaisons who meet monthly to strategize about the
Last year KFAI’s board of directors also established two planned giving
programs: the Endowment Fund to maintain the station’s long-term broadcasting
presence and the Donor Advised Fund for short-term stability.
addition to its ongoing quest for funding, Lane-Ewart says KFAI’s biggest
challenge is increasing its signal to garner more listeners. Right now the station
operates on 125 watts in Minneapolis and 172 watts in St. Paul. In lay terms,
that means the signal reaches listeners who are about eight miles outside Minneapolis
and about 12 miles from St. Paul, meaning generally the Twin Cities and its
Lane-Ewart says there are a few ways KFAI can increase its signal: to apply
for another translator when the FCC gives the green light to broadcasters, to
purchase an existing radio station and to reach people via the internet.
“There’s very little room left in the radio spectrum,” she
said, “so when the FCC opens up applications for more stations or for
existing stations to add to their signals, there’s great competition.”
Indeed. The FCC’s website says it received about 30,000 inquires last
year from parties interested in starting radio broadcasts. And in many parts
of the country, the FCC reports that there is no room to operate or increase
frequencies without interfering with other stations. It says expansion of AM
or FM radio bands is unlikely to occur in the near future.
Lane-Ewart anticipates that the FCC will take applications next spring and if
it does, KFAI will file to increase its signal. She noted that the competition
among broadcasters for limited frequencies is fierce, and says that by virtue
of their financial resources, Christian broadcasting stations often file hundreds
of applications, increasing their chances of obtaining a coveted FCC license
and creating a strong presence in the market.
She also said that KFAI is part of an ad hoc IPR committee that is investigating
whether other radio stations throughout Minnesota might be interested in joining
IPR to promote public educational radio.
extensive and diverse programming sets it apart from other public radio stations,
not only in Minnesota, but nationally. With only six full- and part-time staff
members, volunteers literally run the station.
About 200 volunteers are involved with programming—hosting, producing
and engineering shows—which are structured in blocks for continuity. During
the week, for example, public affairs programming is scheduled from 11 a.m.
to noon; world music from 1 to 3 p.m. and blues from 3 to 6 p.m. Volunteer Coordinator
Pam Hill Kroyer says organizing programs this way creates familiarity for listeners,
but adds that some community radio stations offer a “free form”
programming style that is more random.
Don Olson has been a programmer at KFAI since 1980. His “Northern Sun
News” show, which airs Fridays at 11:30 a.m., focuses on alternative perspectives
on social and political issues. “Conversations with Al McFarlane”
brings issues and events in the Black community to listeners every Monday at
There are also health programs (“Health Notes” and “The Inner
Journey”), arts and culture programs (“Catalyst,” “Spoken
Word,” “Write on Radio” and “Art Matters) and news (KFAI’s
evening news, “Democracy Now,” “Independent Native News,”
“Free Speech Radio News,” “Latino USA” and “Counterspin”).
“Fresh Fruit,” Thursdays at 7 p.m., is the longest running GLBT
show in the country—on air for 23 years. “Disabled and Proud,”
which offers insights and discussions about disability culture, airs Tuesday
evenings at 7 p.m.
English, there are a dozen different language programs on KFAI that include
French, Spanish, Hindi, Vietnamese, Hmong, Somali and Ethiopian. The station
prides itself on the diversity of its programming, adhering to its mission to
“broadcast information, arts and entertainment” for an audience
of “diverse racial, social and economic backgrounds,” and providing
a voice for those underrepresented or misrepresented by mainstream media.
That representation extends to the evening news broadcast, which airs Monday
through Thursday at 6 p.m. News director Ann Alquist leads a team of volunteers
whose primary focus is local stories. The number of reporters Alquist works
with varies. The in-house internship program she created draws students from
Hamline University and the University of Minnesota twice a year for 12 weeks.
Other news volunteers are asked to commit to an 8-week probationary period,
one day a week.
“The news department is many things, and training is part of what we do,”
said Alquist. “My vision is to create a national model of how citizens
can empower themselves to create information and have access to ethical journalistic
practices and standards.”
The editorial standards she created for the station in 2003 emphasize the need
to keep the focus local. “Localism is where citizen journalists make an
impact,” she said. “They’re most effective when they can go
to an event like a rally or a school board meeting and talk to people and interact
with them one on one. That is the hallmark of good journalism—not being
cooped up in a booth doing phone interviews with someone 1,000 miles away.”
She added that while journalism schools offer classroom instruction, there is
often little experiential or practical learning, and that internships at mainstream
media organizations often lead to students “cutting tape or photocopying
for the editor” instead of honing their journalistic skills.
to Alquist, about 40 percent of KFAI listeners say they also listen to MPR,
but she adds that KFAI is not a news and information station. “I’m
just one person with a half hour news show, four days a week. That is nothing
compared to the 24-hours a day, seven days a week news and information programming
on 91.1.” Still, it is the local emphasis that distinguishes KFAI’s
Last year the station won a Minnesota Associated Press Broadcasters’ Award,
finishing first in the feature category for a report by volunteer Monica Malo
on Hispanic purchasing power. Malo, who interned with KFAI in the fall of 2003,
continued reporting for the news department through the summer of 2004, covering
the Twin Cities Spanish speaking populations and providing reports in English
and Spanish to the public affairs program “Centro.”
Alquist recalled attending the awards ceremony. “There were a lot of students
and broadcast professionals there. A young woman from Chicago studying broadcast
journalism came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Did your station win that
award about Hispanic purchasing power?’ I said we did and she said, ‘I’m
Puerto Rican and I think you were the only station that got a journalism award
for reporting on Hispanics and I think that’s great.’ She was kind
of emotional about it—kind of weepy—and then I got weepy, too!”
But reporting on diversity and maintaining a diverse news department are two
different things. Alquist remembers a Senegalese woman who volunteered and did
“wonderful reporting about how scary the American health care system is
for African women in the Twin Cities.” She would like to see more diversity
in her department, but says that in terms of experience, KFAI news has a broad
range of reporters. “Some people are total novices, some are developing
but competent and some are phenomenal producers.”
Benno Groeneveld, a former reporter for the Business Journal, has volunteered
his time at KFAI for more than 11 years because he likes the freedom the experience
offers. Having savvy journalists on the news team is a bonus for Alquist, who
can pair less experienced volunteers with seasoned reporters.
The fact that volunteers run the station is a testament to the power of community.
Volunteer Coordinator Pam Hill Kroyer has watched the number of volunteers at
KFAI grow from more than 100 in 2000, to nearly 400 today. If she includes volunteers
who come only for the biannual pledge drives, it’s closer to 500.
Hill Kroyer says most of the people who come to KFAI to volunteer are listeners,
and that the number one reason people cite for volunteering is because they
want to be part of a community. “People come to volunteer because they
want to be part of something that is community based. Others want to give back
to KFAI because they’ve been listeners and some come to gain experience.”
have a number of opportunities at KFAI. Some do administrative work, like answer
phones, coordinate mailings and organize the music library. Others learn technical
skills, such as program engineering through the station’s board certification
For those who dream of having an on-air presence, Hill Kroyer emphasizes the
need for patience and perseverance. Although some programmers have been with
KFAI for years, Hill Kroyer says there is a “natural cycle” that
creates opportunities for new shows.
“I tell people who are interested in doing a show that it could be six
months to a year to even a couple of years before you get a time slot. What
people should do is stay and persevere. The best thing a volunteer can do is
to stay connected and be open to the possibilities.”
That’s what volunteer Glen Powell did. He came to KFAI in 2003 to work
a table at the annual fall record sale. Later he became board certified, and
engineered the evening news once a week. When Jennifer Dunham asked him to sub
for her on Saturday’s “Groove Garden,” Powell not only filled
in, he recorded a promo that aired two weeks before the show. Positive feedback
from his appearance on “Groove Garden” landed him another subbing
gig, and when a time slot became available for a new show, Powell was ready.
His show “Jet Set Planet” now airs Friday mornings at 2 a.m.—hardly
prime time, but a weekly gig nonetheless. “It may not be an attractive
time slot for the average 9 to 5 working person,” said Hill Kroyer, “but
if you really want to do it, jack up your sleeping schedule or figure it out
because your passion will get you there. It did with Glen.”
those who miss the eclectic array of overnight music programming, archives are
available on KFAI’s website (KFAI.org)
for two weeks. Many programmers also post playlists.
The time commitment from volunteers varies, but Hill Kroyer says most people
come to the station once a week for a couple of hours. Like Alquist, she champions
the fact that KFAI remains committed to all things local. “Localism is
our greatest asset. We’re here in the Twin Cities broadcasting about things
in the Twin Cities. We are fulfilling multiple roles in this community that
would not be filled if we were not here.” ||
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