A Real Rock 'n' Roll Radio Station... for Your Pledge of Just $10 a Month?

Paul Demko, Diablo Cody, and Dylan Hicks offer three takes on MPR's new baby

Perhaps the closest precedent to what MPR is attempting is Seattle's KEXP-FM (90.3, 91.7), where former Rev-105 program director Kevin Cole hosts an eclectic afternoon drive-time show. That station initially started as a 10-watt blip on the airwaves in 1972, but has grown to cover all of Puget Sound and now brings in more than $2 million in revenue annually.

The Current will undoubtedly grow much more quickly, and that has some of MPR's smaller siblings on the public-radio dial concerned. MPR has a long history of bullying less financially robust nonprofit stations. In the early '70s, many public broadcasters grew exasperated by the monopolization of government dollars by MPR and Twin Cities Public Television. Kevin Barnes, marketing director for jazz station KBEM-FM (88.5), recalls that there was a widespread perception that those two entities represented the entirety of nonprofit broadcasting in the state. "They really were the only entities that were being funded," Barnes says. In 1971, in order to better market their stations, several small public broadcasters across the state joined forces to form the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations, or AMPERS.

MPR also ardently fought the creation of KFAI in the mid-'70s, arguing that the low-power station--formed by a group of volunteer activists and based out of Walker Community Church--would somehow interfere with the larger station's ability to broadcast. After five years of fighting, KFAI was finally granted a broadcast license by the Federal Communications Commission in 1978. In more recent memory, MPR joined its commercial counterparts in lobbying fiercely against a federal proposal to open up the FM dial to low-power stations. The nonprofit radio conglomerate argued that the new stations would interfere with its existing signals. Ultimately the FCC scuttled the low-power FM proposal.

Diana Watters

"MPR is very powerful and they do a great job," says Barnes. "But they've always been very aggressive business-wise. They don't like competitors."

"They have this long track record of essentially trying to be all of public radio for the state," echoes Andy Marlow, station manager at Radio K. "They've really encouraged and promoted that idea, and anybody who calls themselves public radio and is not part of MPR, they don't particularly appreciate."

This track record led to a lot of grumbling when MPR announced the purchase of WCAL, a member of the AMPERS network. Some public radio stations, such as KFAI, even wrote letters to the FCC opposing the sale. "It was important to present our view, but also to have some sense of solidarity with our sister station," says Janis Lane-Ewart, KFAI's executive director.

In reaction to MPR's daunting presence, smaller public radio stations are taking steps to ensure their financial survival. In 2003, AMPERS, which now has 12 member stations, secured a three-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to hire an employee to oversee statewide underwriting efforts. In its first year, the initiative brought in more than $100,000 in sponsorships from such clients as the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco and UCare Minnesota, a nonprofit health care provider.

In addition, in November AMPERS rebranded itself Independent Public Radio, to better distinguish its member stations from MPR.

Some independent public radio stations have already been struggling financially. In December, for instance, KBEM learned that it was losing a $400,000 annual contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to provide traffic updates, potentially crippling the tiny jazz station. But a $25,000 grant from Clear Channel Communications and $125,000 raised in an emergency fund drive have put the station back on firm financial footing for now.

The nonprofit station that is most likely to feel the impact of the Current--both in terms of finances and listeners--is Radio K. The Current and the K share a baseline indie-pop aesthetic, and many staff members at the MPR startup have roots in Radio K. Nelson, the Current's program director, was a co-founder of the U of M station, while Thorn Skroch, now a DJ at the Current, served as Radio K's first program director. Both were on the student-run station's advisory committee up until the launch of the new MPR station. DJ Mark Wheat, once a volunteer programmer at KFAI, was also pinched from Radio K.

"It really kind of blindsided me that they were doing something that closely parallels what we do," says Radio K's Andy Marlow. But he insists that the college station will survive, noting that previous alternative-rock stations such as Rev-105 and the Edge were also expected to cause problems for Radio K. "They're both gone and we're still here," says Marlow. "So there is no lack of optimism over here."

Radio K is also taking steps to become more commercially viable. The station is in the process of getting permission from Minneapolis to move its antennae to a 22-story apartment building in the city. That would expand the reach of the station's FM signal from two to six kilometers. The station also has plans to install a translator in Falcon Heights that would provide FM coverage to the U of M's St. Paul campus. The station hopes to have the improvements in place by spring.

MPR officials maintain that the Current and Radio K serve different audiences. "Radio K is of the students, by the students, for the students," says Lutman. "It's a wonderful training ground." She further argues that the Current won't exclusively draw listeners away from other stations, but will also attract people who had stopped listening to radio altogether or switched to cable providers such as XM. "I'm the mother of two college-age students, neither of whom listen to the radio at all," Lutman notes. "They don't need to. They have every other device. If our station makes them curious to even turn on their car radio, that would be a huge win to me."

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