Station Break

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

Furthermore, adds McKay, personality conflicts and halting communication with the public aren't specific to KMOJ. "Community radio tends to attract, well, strong personalities," he says with euphemistic precision. "It takes people with big egos to do radio. People tend to get very territorial and protective."

For his part, Ron Edwards asserts that the station has lost the faith of its constituency. Noting that a number of former projects residents have since landed in shelters, Edwards reasons grandly, "The license that belongs to KMOJ should be passed immediately to the homeless community."


Christopher Henderson

Despite squabbles that seem to appear about as regularly as leap years, KMOJ has shaped the face of black music and black broadcasting in Minnesota as no other single institution has. "Our biggest challenge has been not to be defined as just 'the station,'" Zulu says. "Having folks understand that the station is part of an institution, a community-based institution; that it has responsibilities that are even greater than the radio, to address issues that confront us, to teach, educate, train."

That's not just the sort of empty talk drafted into official documentation when it's time to lasso grants. In addition to Tuesday morning's Public Policy Forum, held in conjunction with Insight News at Lucille's Kitchen each week and simulcast on KMOJ, the CCD is active in a number of community job fairs and employment initiatives.

KMOJ's training mission and employment projects meet in the station's seemingly inexhaustible supply of DJs. "There's a lot of talent out there that's been nurtured and is now ready to be discovered," says black music programmer Pete Rhodes, president of WRNB Cable Radio.

In a way, much of that talent already has been discovered. Off the top of his head, Walter Banks fluidly rattles off stories of KMOJ trainees who have moved on to professional stations in other towns. Dorian Flowers in North Carolina, Kim Jeffries in Atlanta, Donovan Johnson in St. Louis, Chili Charles in Gary, Kevin Fleming in Los Angeles, Broadway Joe in Texas, Jacqueline Underwood in St. Louis. In going down this list, Banks sounds like a teacher proudly recalling his most successful pupils.

Even more prominent are those musicians affiliated with the station who have moved up the music-industry ladder. James Harris, a.k.a. Jimmy Jam, was an early DJ on KMOJ, as was Terry Lewis. Banks grew up on the north side, playing football with Jam and Lewis and Prince, friendships he has since maintained.

"Jimmy and Terry have helped the radio station in a lot of different ways," he insists, "a lot of ways that community people don't know." When the station lost its transmitter, for instance, the famous alums quietly funded the purchase of another. And one day in 1989, Prince was given the run of the station for several hours. (Rumor has it that the station's transmitter tilts ever so slightly toward The Artist's Chanhassen estate.) For KMOJ such support has been a kind of payback for having played these musicians' work before anyone outside the community knew who they were--back when they were still entertaining at the Northside Funfest, a black response to the largely white Aquatennial downtown.

Since these days around two decades ago, black music has become more popular than ever. But in the Twin Cities at least, black announcers are not. Scan Q-Bear's list of successful KMOJ alums again and count how many of them found work in their hometown. "There's little or no room for African Americans in radio broadcasting," Travis Lee asserts, a sentiment echoed by many of his peers.

"Stations judge a manager or announcer based on their race rather than skills, talents, and abilities," contends former KMOJ station manager Thornton Jones. Could a black DJ work for a country station, he wonders? Not, apparently, in Minnesota. Like many of KMOJ's former volunteers, Jones no longer works in radio.

Just as the narrow-minded radio industry doubts the crossover appeal of black radio talent, black music itself has enjoyed more support on MTV than in the local clubs and on pop stations. It's still a challenge to convince advertisers that white listeners tune in to music made by black people--despite overwhelming evidence that this is the case. As Jones says, "There are simply more people buying this kind of music than there are black people."

KMOJ's ratings are strong for a noncommercial station, as is its measure of listener loyalty (the amount of time listeners stay tuned in compared to their total radio listening time). The latest Arbitron ratings show KMOJ with a 1.3 share in the metro area, with cumulative listenership--the number of people tuning in for five minutes at some point over a week--at 75,000. By comparison, noncommercial stations KUOM-AM (770) and KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7) have cume numbers of 18,900 and 40,000. KUOM draws a 0.6 share; KFAI's share was unavailable.

In addition to its two regular hip-hop shows--Smoke and Delite on Friday night and Disco T and Yvette on Saturdays--many other DJs, including drive-time host Mike Mike and Otis the Entertaining Artis, integrate large amounts of rap into their playlists. Though KFAI and KUOM offer a few hours of hip hop a week, and KDWB-FM (101.3) plays a few tested hits, KMOJ remains the only place in the Twin Cities where you can regularly hear the nation's most popular music.

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