Shortly before 9 a.m. one day last week, moderators for the nationally syndicated radio program “Democracy Now” were talking to a writer for Rolling Stone magazine about recent events in Syria and the Middle East. Hosts of upcoming local programs were trickling in to set up in one of the studios in KFAI Radio’s warren of small rooms above a coffee shop on the West Bank. Coming up would be a news show about the black community, some punk rock, then an hour of Latin music.
But first, a word from our sponsors, please.
It was membership week at KFAI, which needed a good haul of donations more than ever. The 37-year-old community station is nearly $100,000 in debt and facing some tough decisions in order to survive in a world where global radio stations are just a click away on the Internet.
On any given day, you can punch up KFAI (90.3 in Minneapolis, 106.7 in St. Paul) and hear everything from Eritrean community news to “Balkan Jamboree” to “Crap From the Past.” It’s the station that has a little something for everyone, but quite a bit of nothing for others.
That’s the beauty, as well as the problem, for KFAI, which means it’s inevitable that it must change, probably a lot, in order to remain on the air.
KFAI has long lived off the notion that it’s “a different radio station every hour, but that’s not really a good thing in the radio world,” said Ron Thums, interim general manager. “The ‘P’ word — predictable — is considered anathema at KFAI. But it’s a matter of habit that if you find something you love at a certain time on Tuesday, you want to find that again on Thursday.”
Added Thums: “It’s not that radio is dying; it’s not. The magic of radio is still there, and it touches us in a primal way.”
Bill Cottman started out by sitting in during his mother-in-law Patricia Edwards Walton’s “Mostly Jazz” show in 1996 and became host when she died in 2003. He has since shared hosting duties for the Saturday morning show at times with his daughter and granddaughter — it’s that kind of place.
Few listeners are as dedicated as Cottman, but he acknowledges the dizzying array of niche programs is a marketing challenge.
“We’re a station you are not going to like half the time,” Cottman said. “It’s hard to put that on a T-shirt.”
It seems change is inevitable. The station has been a bit of a miracle for many years, running 87 programs per week with the sole determination of more than 400 volunteers.
Patti Walsh, president of the board of directors for KFAI, said those volunteers form the base of her optimism. Walsh started volunteering in 1986 and has “seen it all.”
“The spirit here has always been a little scrappy,” said Walsh. “Our challenge has been to market our diversity.”
Thums said those principles of inclusion, diversity and a healthy skepticism toward mainstream everything “makes room for a cast of characters.”
Some of them think that “to run a deficit is not as problematic” as it really is, and they harbor a sentimentality about running on fumes. Yet Thums marvels at people who will show up to work for free, sometimes for years.
KFAI is searching for a new general manager and a program director, and all of the new ideas that might bring. When they are on board, “the schedule will be reassessed,” Thums said.
“If you want to see conservatives in action, try implementing change at a progressive organization” said Thums. “It is absolutely guaranteed that some people will not be happy. People are always unhappy with change, so it’s hard to imagine that any change coming will not upset people.”
The station has already trimmed the full-time staff from six to four. “We’ve cut as much as we can cut,” said Thums. “We are running right at the ragged edge.”
He said several things have conspired to make the budget more difficult to meet the past year or so. The recent recession made underwriting harder to secure. Competition has increased, and the availability of alternative news sources online has increased.
“The Internet has been a double-edged sword,” said Thums.
The tight times have motivated some listeners, especially from the African communities that value KFAI’s African public-affairs programming, which has become among the station’s most popular.
A couple of weeks ago, hosts for the Oromo and Ethiopian programs led pledge drives that caused some dedicated listeners to drive down to the station with cash. In four hours, they had 60 pledges, Thums said.
Thums and Walsh were uplifted this week as the results of the membership drive were tallied. They made $85,000, and 1,000 new members, despite the gloom and doom rumors.
But more expenses loom: They need new audio equipment, which will run close to $100,000.
There is a middle ground between Bohemian poverty chic and becoming too corporate or mainstream, they say.
“It’s not like we have to sell ourselves out,” said Thums, who added: “It’s easier to celebrate the number of years somebody has been on air than it is to ask whether a program has served its purpose or if it’s time to freshen it up. ”
Asked what makes KFAI special, Cottman talked about seeing young people walk in the front door with a CD of music they want to air.
“You might have a 50 percent chance someone will listen to you, and maybe 25 percent chance to get your idea or music on the air,” Cottman said. Yet, “if we don’t make some radical changes, I’m very pessimistic. If we make radical changes, we stand a chance.”
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