Quiet Storm

Devin Miller and Thomas Ross want to do something no black person in Minnesota has done before: buy a major commercial radio station. But first they have to beat the FCC, an industry giant, and the trend toward broadcast consolidation.

THOMAS ROSS CARRIES a yellow packet filled with folders with him everywhere, and he's always ready to hand one to a politician, financier, or other VIP. Ross once ran for state representative for District 61B on Minneapolis's South Side. He lost, but the tenets of persuasive campaigning are still with him.

Today Ross has joined with the Rev. Devin Miller, who is perhaps known best for organizing a diversity-hiring campaign targeting the Cub Foods in St. Paul's Midway area. The two men have formed Kandu Communications, a company they say is backed by local sports figures and entertainers with deep pockets, for the sole purpose of accomplishing something no person of color has ever done in Minnesota: They want to buy, own, and operate a major urban radio station.

Their current plan to accomplish this is to stop the sale of Nationwide Communications' KMJZ ("Smooth Jazz" 104.1 FM) and KSGS ("Solid Gold Soul" 950 AM) to multinational Jacor Communications, an industry monster that owns 189 radio stations from Los Angeles to San Jose. Jacor has about as many formats as it does stations, ranging from hard rock to talk to sports. There's no word on whether it would keep the stations' current formats.

Kandu has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block the sale to Jacor, which is due to take place by the second quarter of this year. The petition is based on the commission's diversity rule, under which minority communities are supposed to get equal opportunity for fair representation on the broadcast spectrum. Since Minnesota does not have a single major black-owned station (Minneapolis's KMOJ FM is a nonprofit transmitting on a scant 125 watts), Ross argues, the rule applies here more than anywhere. And an impressive number of politicians seem to agree: Ross's list of supporters includes Gov. Arne Carlson, Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and the city councils of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Eden Prairie.

Ross's push for a commercial black-owned station first made headlines in 1995, when he led a campaign demanding that Minnesota Public Radio give up its recently purchased classical-music frequency. At the time, Ross and state Rep. Mike Osskopp (R-Lake City) argued that MPR had illegally used public funds to acquire 99.5 FM. They proposed that the public-broadcasting giant sell the frequency to Kandu or face a cut in its state appropriation. But MPR denied any improprieties and rallied listeners to fend off the proposal.

Though ultimately unsuccessful, that bid helped Ross make contacts and, he says, put the issue of radio ownership by people of color on Minnesota's public agenda. Now, he says, it's time for corporate America to step up. "It's economics, number one," he says.

An African American radio station, Ross argues, "will support an entertainment industry that is known around the world as one of the top cities for new music. It'll be the catalyst to cultivate an already successful entertainment community. And because a lot of urban music comes from black Americans, we will be on the forefront for not only Minnesota, but the rest of the world."

However, media experts caution that enthusiasm--even if coupled with the support of financial heavy hitters--may not be enough. "Kandu's chances are probably slim to none," says Gail Mitchell, who has covered Ross's petition for the trade paper Inside Radio. The broadcast industry has been actively consolidating for years, she notes, and the FCC has no history of stopping acquisitions based on petitions like Kandu's. Perhaps not coincidentally, only 322 of the nation's 11,475 commercial stations are owned by minorities, and less than half that number are owned by blacks.

Yet Ross remains optimistic. After all, he insists, it's not just African Americans who are concerned about trends in media ownership. Ross argues that right now, Minnesotans are losing out in the radio wars because, "Of the current dials in the Twin Cities market, 11 are owned by non-Minnesota corporations. All those [profits] are leaving Minnesota. We want to make sure that a Minnesota corporation is in that market." His company, he says, is in it for the long haul: "We've been very patient. And we'll continue to be patient, because time is really a nonissue for us."

 
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