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The Grass Roots
Some community radio station activists in other parts of the country say there is another way to deal with federal funding crises: tell the feds to stick it.
This isn’t the first time the federal government has asked community stations to tighten their belts. In the mid-1990s, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution announced plans to eliminate all funding for public broadcasting. Big Bird testified before Congress, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting launched the “healthy station project.”
“We would go to a conference and be told if you want to survive, you need to pay attention to what the majority want to hear,” says Elizabeth Robinson, of KCSB 91.9 FM in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Her station and others rebelled, forming the Grassroots Radio Coalition. They wanted to distance themselves from National Public Radio stations, which they viewed as increasingly homogenized and mainstream. They also sought to distinguish themselves from community stations they thought buckled under government pressure. “If you want to hew to a mission that includes sharing information with one’s local community instead of just the interests of Clear Channel, you have to have a different value system,” Robinson says.
For such “grassroots” stations, the idea of paying DJs remains anathema.
“If I want to increase listenership we’d be country western or classic rock 24 hours a day,” says Jeff Flanders, of Grassroots member station KZMU 90.1 FM in Moab. “That’s not the goal. Public radio is about giving people access to play music they want, to utilize free speech, to educate on local issues. That’s why we exist.”
When national consultants came to Wisconsin community station WORT 89.9 FM in the mid-’90s, the station went the opposite direction from what consultants recommended, says Norm Stockwell, station staffer. WORT got rid of its manager in favor of an all-volunteer, cooperatively run station and a board of directors elected by volunteers. The result, he claims, was better connection with the community and therefore more community funding.
“The problem is people are looking at one model, the commercial model of homogenization and professional paid staff and thinking it’s the only model,” he says.
That’s easy for him to say. Stockwell’s radio station is in Madison—where the counterculture still rules. While talking to City Weekly, he was in the local food co-op picking out lettuce.
Maldonado, KRCL’s station manager, contends many of the grass-roots stations that have stuck with the traditional community radio model are in small or rural towns and can afford to stay small. “We could be that, too,” she says. “We could broadcast to 20 people, but what a waste. [Nowadays] people can broadcast in their living room if they want to.”
There is no government conspiracy against KRCL, she says. “We asked for the money.” The station’s board, not the feds, will decide what future direction KRCL takes. “We have an extremely powerful tool here. I really think KRCL is an agent of change. If we could get more people listening to us, we can make a difference for the better.”
KRCL’s spring radiothon is scheduled for March. The station has scaled back its donation goal and will ask for pledges only during weekends. It doesn’t make sense, station managers say, to have weekday DJs ask listeners for pledges to keep shows on the air—only to have those programs vanish the next month.