Station Break

Can the Cities' oldest black radio station survive a date with the bulldozer?

Walter Banks is rolling through the neighborhood, driving east along Olson Memorial Highway in his Isuzu Trooper. One hand rests loosely on the steering wheel, the other props a cell phone to his ear. On the radio, the funky divas of Destiny's Child are insistently and repeatedly demanding, "Say My Name." Whoever is holding down the other end of this phone conversation seems just as vehement. Banks, a man who is paid to talk for a living, is limited to interjecting a few tentative "Yeah, buts" when possible, which isn't often. Finally, he clicks the phone shut. "We got cut off," he shrugs with a hint of a smile.

This call is from a listener to The Morning Show on KMOJ-FM (89.9), the community radio station that dubs itself "The Heart and Soul of the Cities." Walter "Q-Bear" Banks Jr. is the host of the morning broadcast and, as program director, one of the few paid (albeit modestly) staff members at the station. "Sometimes those calls go on all day," he tells me. Though a burly fellow, Banks has an easygoing demeanor that allows him to defuse hostile listeners with an easy comic turn. His skin is amiably creased along his forehead and his features congregate in the middle of his face, where they're outlined with a faint trace of a mustache.

Cruising down Olson, near the street where he lives, Banks points to Harvest Preparatory School and Sumner Library on the left, to the Summit Academy OIC and Phyllis Wheatley Center on the right--all landmarks of black north Minneapolis. He gestures to these places with his thick arms as if showing sites to a tourist--which may, in fact, be the way most white Minneapolitans relate to this corner of the city, marked by Olson to the north and the Walker's sculpture garden to the south.

Banks's employer is another such landmark, though the low-slung brick building that hosts the station amid what was formerly the Glenwood-Lyndale housing projects hardly catches a visitor's eye. In the late Seventies, as black self-determination rose from the remains of the civil-rights movement, this neighborhood gave birth to the Center for Communication and Development (CCD) and its flagship project, KMOJ. In the years since, the station has broadcast hip hop, R&B, gospel, and a host of public-affairs programs to the townhouses and projects in the scattered north-side blocks surrounding it--and to the metro beyond.

As the only station to program this kind of music regularly--and to solicit listener perspectives from within the community--KMOJ has occupied a unique position in black Minneapolis. Yet the neighborhood that supported such a project has, well, changed over the past few months. In fact, it's been bulldozed.

On January 27 developers announced that the Glenwood Community Center--KMOJ's home for well over a decade--would be knocked down as part of a wide-ranging and controversial redevelopment plan. Late last year the city had begun evacuating and demolishing the buildings within this marshy wedge as mandated by the 1995 Hollman Consent Decree, a ruling that ordered the dispersion of the area's public-housing residents in the name of decentralizing poverty.

There's probably never a good time to find out you're losing your home, but some bad times are worse than others. On January 20, exactly one week before the Community Center was sentenced to the wrecking ball, the Twin Cities received word that the first commercial FM R&B/hip-hop station in the market's history would soon begin broadcasting. In concert with a ten-year quest by Minneapolis Urban League employee and Kandu Communications president Thomas Ross, a coalition of African-American businessmen from Cincinnati known as Blue Chip Broadcasting announced its intention to bring "urban" radio to Minnesota. KARP-FM, as the ground-breaking station would be called, might begin broadcasting as soon as March. (That date soon slipped back to April; currently, the station is scheduled to hit the air in early May.) The local radio soundscape, where KMOJ had largely maintained a comfortable monopoly on R&B and hip-hop programming, was changing as irrevocably as the terrain that housed the station.

While the Glenwood Community Center seems destined to end up as dirt, what might happen to KMOJ is uncertain. Not just uncertain, in fact, but unknown. The scheduled date of the demolition is unknown. The potential relocation sites are unknown. The source of any funds to finance a new building or a move is unknown. And while the station manager confidently maintains that a plan for KMOJ's future is in the works, no one contacted for this story could offer even a sketch of what this might entail, and when it might be accomplished. Officials from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, city council members, and officers on the KMOJ board are either unable or unwilling to identify the station's future home.

Alarmed by the new threats to the station, members of the African-American community close to KMOJ filled this information vacuum with a flurry of speculation. Now that KMOJ's building is history, some murmured, how long until their transmitter would follow suit? This beacon, some claimed, would be relocated, or rebuilt, or scrapped entirely. Dates for the coming demolition fluctuated, from the end of the year to a more comfortable two years. Vague promises of relocation--reportedly made by council members, or by developers, or by other community or public entities--were variously invoked and denied. Neither the board of directors of the CCD nor station management would issue official public comment. And KMOJ's talk programs, prominently slated at six o'clock each evening and generally known for their fearless activist rhetoric, have skirted the subject as well.

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