Station Break

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

All of which probably makes the arrival of a major station like KARP inevitable. The success of this endeavor, however, is hardly inevitable. Some industry watchers, such as Brian Lambert of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, have speculated that advertisers will have little interest in an "urban-identified" (read: black) audience.

"It's not a black radio station," objects Paul Landry, Chief Operating Officer of KARP. "It's an urban radio station."

If that initially seems like an odd claim for a station transmitting out of rural Glencoe, listen to Landry expand upon urban culture. "When you see a kid wearing his hat tilted and baggy pants--if you see him from the back, you're not going to know if he's black or white," he continues. "African-American street culture has already been integrated into youth culture. My understanding is that KARP is going to be targeted to the African-American community, but from an inclusive standpoint. Look at Nike--they became a multibillion-dollar company by focusing on urban culture.

"Our plan is to encourage collaboration and cooperation," Landry continues. "The radio audience is more sophisticated than they've been given credit for. Wherever you're living--urban culture transcends geography. I don't see 'whites vs. blacks' as either productive or representative of reality."

"We've not entered a market where there are no other urban properties," Ross Love, president of Blue Chip, says. "But there's no reason why the station should not be successful from a revenue standpoint."

While Tammy Oakley, radio buyer at Hayworth Marketing and Media in Minneapolis, endorses KARP's crossover programming, she reports that the station has yet to make much contact with the market. "There has not been a lot of buzz about it actually," Oakley says--a sentiment voiced by others in the industry.

One way to jump-start the new station would seem obvious: to draw from the most popular urban-music DJs already in town. So, is KARP interested in the talent at KMOJ?

"We're talking to an awful lot of candidates, both inside and outside of the market," Landry says simply. Laughing, he adds, "And I'm not even going to answer your next question."

 

If Walter Banks is worried about developments at KMOJ, he doesn't show it. Banks is an effortlessly charming public figure. He's presently commiserating with a waitress whose daughter has accumulated ungodly *69 phone charges as we settle in at the Denny's just past Minneapolis city limits in Golden Valley. You never wonder why she has chosen to open up to him.

Banks and his radio partner Simmons are two men who have obviously eaten a lot in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Ant orders the Meat Lover's Skillet with no pancakes. "I'm on that carbs diet," he explains. "I got a suit to fit into."

"It's not good for you," the waitress chirps. "My sister was on it. She started losing weight but now she's assing out."

After these preliminaries have been taken care of, Banks interjects some reminiscences into our breakfast. "When they laid the first brick down [at KMOJ], I helped push it into place," he boasts. He began by spinning gospel, which he sang semiprofessionally as a boy, and which remains his primary musical love. Since then, he has filled in at every time slot and format.

He stops short with a quizzical look on his face. Aretha's "The Weight" has begun to blast over a jukebox that's decidedly funky for a suburban Denny's. "Yeah, they're definitely grooving," Banks nods. "I wonder what's up with this music."

"They're probably trying to avoid their next lawsuit," Ant quips, a reference to Denny's ignoble track record of discrimination against black customers.

When that suit surfaced, the public predictably decried how little some racial situations had changed: The closed lunch counters of the Sixties had given way to the closed tables of the Nineties. But maybe that's only half the truth.

"No matter what they say," Macalester's Mahmoud El-Kati says, "history never repeats itself exactly." He recalls when it was necessary for the Way to carry out extensive protests just to get Earl Bowman, an African American, appointed as principal of Franklin Junior High. Thirty years later, the Minneapolis superintendent and the mayor are African Americans. And yet many of the same problems persist.

"In some ways there have been advances," El-Kati notes after some consideration. "But many of the institutions that arose to meet the challenge have since gone by the wayside."

It was this era of de facto segregation--and the necessary collaborations it created, the challenges it presented to struggle against--that nurtured KMOJ. Paradoxically, cultural shifts toward integration have historically often crippled black-owned businesses and community organizations alike. Newspapers, record labels, sports leagues--each bastion of black-owned media and entertainment was decimated by a hemorrhaging of talent that lured the brightest African-American reporters, performers, and athletes to higher-paying white competitors. Could it happen to KMOJ?

"I think Minnesota needs a real commercial radio station," Banks declares flatly. "Of course, the key word is commercial. Their job is to make money. The people who are bringing that station in are good at making money."

He pulls off his Timberwolves cap and rubs his shaved, stubbly head. "Our niche is community service," he continues. "Will the new station take some of our listeners? Sure. That's fine. But they can't fill our niche."

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