Station Break

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

Cherryhomes refers any additional questions to Chuck Lutz, project coordinator for the Near Northside Implementation Project. Lutz did not respond to numerous calls from City Pages. Bill Paterson, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, insists that KMOJ has a future in the neighborhood, and that his agency plans to continue its current relationship with the station. "The building that they're in now is paid for and supported by MPHA," he says. "We own the building. We charge no rent and we pay all the utilities. We have been gracious partners with KMOJ."

Paterson then painstakingly answers all the questions floating around about the station. "Is KMOJ going to be a part of the redevelopment? Yes. Is there any doubt about that? No. Will they remain in the community? Yes. Do we know exactly what plot of land or building? No, because we're not at that point yet. Will we arrive at that point? Yes. Will KMOJ be there? Yes."

Though the principal players in the deal argue that the center's relocation is a sure thing, no one cares to get down to specifics about the process. This despite what would seem to be an ominous, if shadowy, deadline. Zulu is no less vague. "We will have a new facility," he says. "Will it be a two-story brick rambler? We don't have that degree of detail. Will we share that space with another similar institution? Again, that has not yet been decided."

But it will be decided, he insists, by representatives of the black community. "We are determined to control our own images, and also to control the means by which those images are spread, such as technology," Zulu says, that first-person plural pointedly encompassing far more than just the CCD management. "We must focus on having the information--and being able to control and interpret that information--rather than having others interpreting the information for us, and having them tell us that that is reality."

One thing that might be inferred from this statement is that Zulu feels no compulsion to detail the station's plans with the mainstream media. Yet some of the questions about the crucial decisions in KMOJ's future come from within the African-American community, and from KMOJ's own volunteers. One dissenting voice belongs to KMOJ announcer and community activist Travis Lee.

"Does the board have a plan?" Lee says. "No one knows." He draws comparison to Minneapolis's other prominent community station. "When KFAI decided to move, they had a fundraiser, they let the community know what was happening, and they moved," he says. "The board needs to let our community know what's happening here."

You might not know it to look at him, but Lee (a.k.a. Travitron) brought hip-hop radio to the Twin Cities, in the late Eighties, with The Hip Hop Shop on KMOJ. He has drifted away from that music, reporting that he hasn't always approved of the directions it's taken. And sometimes he feels the same way about KMOJ.

"There are some people who think that community radio is supposed to be ghetto radio," Lee sighs. "And the board may not be as, well, as functional as they think they are. I'm willing to be the one who says the emperor has no clothes on here, because the community needs to know."

It's an attitude Lee says he developed during a stint as engineer for all-purpose community agitator Ron Edwards, former host of the programs Street Talk and Black Focus. Edwards's experience highlights the way that KMOJ has previously allowed disorganization to run the station into a perilous state. According to Edwards, during one turbulent period in the late Eighties, KMOJ's license was in danger, causing him to step into a leadership position at the station. Later, in the early Nineties, a reconstituted board voted him out, an acrimonious decision that was carried over into an extended legal battle.

KMOJ's previous difficulties have extended to their transmitter. In 1994, sheriff's deputies seized the 152-foot antenna to cover part of a $25,000 court award to a dismissed employee. Though Minnesota Public Radio temporarily provided a 100-watt transmitter to bring the station back on the air, media reports at the time described a station in a state of advanced disrepair: All accounting records were absent, contracts needed restructuring, and the station was unable to compile W-2s for the IRS. In the midst of this crisis, board member (and now director) Ora Hokes failed to return phone calls for comment, and she canceled a press conference about the station's ability to remain on the air.

While no one maintains that KMOJ is at the brink of such chaos today, the closed culture that bred such dysfunction seemingly remains: Hokes failed to answer any of a half-dozen phone calls City Pagesmade to the station over several months.

KFAI general manager David McKay, a veteran of the Twin Cities community radio scene, asserts that KMOJ's management is currently serving the station well. "Vusi is the best thing to happen to KMOJ in the last ten or twelve years," he insists. Under Zulu, the two stations have moved away from what McKay calls "an unnecessary rivalry"--and toward a collaboration he says is a credit to a larger strategy of outreach programs that Zulu has implemented.

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