Station Break

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

No one could ever accuse KMOJ of presenting a one-dimensional impression of the Cities' African-American life--either on or off the air. The station has been rife with internal conflict since its inception; even contemporary accounts of its creation differ.

Some facts are agreed upon. When it went on the air on September 15, 1978, KMOJ was a limited endeavor, dedicated primarily to gospel music and activist talk programming. "The signal turned off at about five or six o'clock in the afternoon," Banks remembers, "and that was it for black radio in the Twin Cities."

Originally at a tenth of a watt, the signal barely covered the full housing project. "It was originally operated out of one of the houses," Banks continues. "Actually, two of the houses, but with an opening between the two, so there were offices on one side and storage on the other. The studio was on the top, where somebody's bedroom would be."

Christopher Henderson

Onetime station manager Ron Edwards credits KMOJ's existence to the organizing abilities of Carolyn Lofton, Carol Bruisegard, and Mildred O'Geasy, the three public-housing residents who, with the assistance of Joe Basch, a street minister from the Prince of Glory Lutheran Church, spent the better part of a decade securing a license for their neighborhood. "Those women," Edwards says, "were ambitious, aggressive, and visionary."

That vision was partly shaped by the grassroots spirit of their time. The Federal Communications Act of 1965 allowed for smaller community-oriented FM stations, and many neighborhood groups picked up on the activist potential such signals held. Its proposal bolstered by its proximity to public housing, the newly formed Center for Communication and Development opened in 1977, one year before the station reached the airwaves. Under the leadership of Jeanette Cotton, the station grew to ten, to a hundred, and finally to a thousand watts and, in the process, moved across the street to the Community Center.

"Jeanette Cotton held this station together with baling wire and masking tape," notes Edwards--a particularly chivalrous admission, since he's widely credited with having ousted Cotton from station management in 1987. But such are the shifting allegiances of KMOJ history.

"In order to understand KMOJ, you must understand the climate in which it was founded," explains Mahmoud El-Kati, a Macalester history professor now on the CCD board of directors, and a community organizer in the Sixties and Seventies. "In the Sixties north Minneapolis was a hotbed of political activism. Lots of new institutional efforts emerged. One of these was the Way."

Headquartered on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis, the Way sponsored black cultural activities--music, theater, even educational programs for prisoners. It relied on private sources and sought no federal funding. When KMOJ was in its nascent stages, Way activists--such as El-Kati, Zulu, and announcer Spike Moss--became involved in its governance and programming.

"We wanted to name the station umoja, after the Swahili word for unity," Mahmoud El-Kati recalls. "But, as you know, stations west of the Mississippi River must begin with a K. And so: kimoja, KMOJ."

It's a telling anecdote, exemplifying the way KMOJ has, over the years, tweaked a message from outside the mainstream to slip inside broadcast bureaucracy and regulations. Sometimes this approach has met with legal or judicial repercussions, sometimes merely with internal confusion. But the latest bureaucratic dictate handed down threatens to redefine the concepts of "outside" and "inside" for the African-American community in the near north side forever.

 

When the Hollman Consent Decree was announced in 1995, it was touted as an antidiscrimination measure. Public housing in the near north side had resulted in residential segregation, the decree held. Therefore, it was in everyone's best interest for poverty to be "deconcentrated," with public housing spread out to the suburbs. Since then, the often secretive way in which the redesign of the area has occurred--and the lack of low-income replacement housing elsewhere--has made many community residents suspicious of the process. Critics have argued that this is simply an attempt to displace poverty, to grab prime real estate near downtown for an upscale housing tract, or (the most conspiratorially minded suggest) to disperse racial communities that might otherwise organize politically.

Regardless of any shadowy reasons behind the implementation of the decree, its ramifications for KMOJ are quite concrete. "In two years this building will be demolished," Vusumuzi Zulu states. Slim, wiry, and goateed, Zulu speaks in the full, qualified, multiclaused sentences of a man who has no intention of seeing his words taken out of context. As late as December, preliminary sketches indicated that the Community Center would be spared--even as everything around it was demolished. Now, Zulu confirms: "The CCD will be relocated. We have yet to decide what is in our best interests for that facility to be. We will be maintained. We have been assured by all parties in writing that we will be a part of the new community."

That community lies within the ward of City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes. Shortly after the "master plan" for the near north side was passed by the council, a call to Cherryhomes found her restating the city's support of KMOJ. "There is indeed a commitment to relocate KMOJ," she insisted. "There has been a space shown on the master plan for them. It's not formalized yet because we're still working on the details."

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