The ambitious plan to save Twin Cities radio station KFAI

The crew at KFAI

The crew at KFAI Rajib Bahar

There are only two certainties in life: death and schedule changes at KFAI. Three years ago, the eclectic community radio underdog came shockingly close to the former—and that has led to a lot of the latter.

After an overdue internal review, steered by third-year general manager Leah Honsky and program director Dale Connelly, KFAI—Twin Cities Community Radio-FM, Fresh Air Radio, 90.3, 106.7,—launches a major revamp Monday, July 31, with a focus on the station’s chronic challenge: morning programming.

The current two-hour block of news and public affairs programs that begins at 8 a.m., anchored by the increasingly on-point Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, moves to noon, making room for six hours of music from sunrise to lunch. A mix of new and existing shows from 8 a.m. to noon will seek to further KFAI’s identity as a world-music leader.

But the biggest change is from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. The end has finally come for Morning Blend and its rotating crew of volunteer DJs. KFAI has long considered—and resisted—choosing a steady weekday host with real interview chops, but its decision-makers determined the move was finally necessary for the station to regain its presence in the community and maintain even a toehold in the competitive morning radio market.

In fact, they chose two. Barb Abney, well-known in town for her time with 89.3 the Current and Go 96.3, and Miss Brit, the current co-host of KFAI’s urban music and culture show, Soul Tools Radio, will anchor a mash-up of music, news, original features, and whatever else happens to work. The co-hosts will have input on a station-curated playlist that (one can hope) will draw from the best of KFAI’s limitless menu.

In addition, newer programs running later in the morning, such as Juhmondeh Tweh’s Afrique Nomad, will have a little more stylistic flexibility than KFAI listeners might be used to. “A different radio station every hour” was a catchy slogan but a clunky programming strategy. Becoming a slightly different station every 15 minutes may be a more inviting prospect for listeners, or at least encourage those who tune out to check back in sooner.

Until recently KFAI’s ratings were off the charts—literally. When the station didn’t even rank, research firms waived their fees. During an emergency restructure in 2014, sympathetic community radio consultants had a clear message: Hire an experienced radio person to move the needle, or risk getting the needle within a year.

A nationwide job posting caught the eye of a 15-year radio pro in Montana with Twin Cities family ties. Honsky had been an Uptowner herself while studying at Brown Institute and remembered the classic KFAI of the late ’90s. Her rise through commercial radio in her native Missoula was buzzkilled when local owners formed co-op agreements to become a Jack FM and an ESPN affiliate. (Sound familiar?) For a music fan and self-described radio nerd who had worked in programming, production, and promotion, a reclamation project in the nation’s 16th-largest market didn’t look so bad.

“My uncle owned KCAJ-FM in northern Minnesota,” says Honsky, who’s fast-talking and refreshingly candid. “During floods in Roseau and Grand Forks, they were so integral to the community. Even in Missoula we were locally owned and able to react to what the community needed. I realized that’s what really mattered in radio, and KFAI was the perfect place to do that in the middle of corporate radio hell.”

In addition to past staffers who remained as loyal volunteers, Honsky joined former MPR Morning Show host Connelly, now in his fourth year as program director. Those two bring more real radio awareness than any top two in Fresh Air’s 40 years. Together, they’ve been using their authority to create the ground-level power boost KFAI will need to survive and to compete not only with Radio K and the Current, but with the BBC Online or Spotify for that matter.

Community stations may not have acute ratings pressure, but even benevolent underwriters won’t pony up for a station with no listeners. Honsky’s second year was devoted to evaluating programs, energizing volunteers, and boosting metrics that help raise money, particularly time spent listening. Her research revealed what everyone knew but few dared say: The station, while known for its progressive politics, had a ghostly dearth of new blood and fresh ideas on air, especially in light of the Cities’ demographic changes.

The culture change within KFAI has been swift but methodical. Honsky and Connelly have used web exclusives to expand content and mentor new programmers. And when older programmers left, vacancies weren’t filled immediately, but instead staffed temporarily with miniseries and month-long residencies that served as trial runs for newcomers. That’s how singer-songwriter Nicholas David, a finalist on the third season of NBC’s The Voice, crafted his Tuesday-morning free-range rhythm and roots show East of Here, West of Now.

A major change in the station’s power structure made Honsky’s task easier before she even arrived. The once dominant program committee had been reshaped into a “content advisory committee” that merely offers recommendations to a program director and a decisive general manager. The GM and PD are also members of that small committee, streamlining the decision-making process.

Honsky has tried to wield her unusual power carefully. “I heard tons of horror stories about the last redesign [in 2010] when a lot of things changed, feelings were hurt, and people felt their voices were not listened to,” she says. To avoid a rerun of that drama, Connelly has been the off-air voice of the station’s sometimes contentious Wordpress forum, detailing and debating the revamp’s twists and turns with much consideration and a deft determination.

“Throughout the process I tried to keep an open mind,” Honsky says. “Some people wanted extreme things—to turn it into a total playground. Some didn’t want any change at all.”

The reboot may seem like a little of both. In contrast to the major morning overhaul, evening news and music is almost untouched. And KFAI’s traditionally strong p.m. drive of rockin’ R&B shows remains relatively stable, though the fiesta en el estudio vibe of LatinoAltROCK! moves from morning to the prized hora feliz, Friday at 4 p.m.

And it’s not just the music scheduling that’s changed. Somali educator and activist Abdirizak Bihi’s community discussion program, where guests from all backgrounds talk (in English) about anything from raising teenagers to preventing terror recruitment, moves to an expanded p.m. strip. In time, this evening public affairs block could grow into a genuine alternative to the human interest fluff and political soap opera of mainstream broadcast news.

Reliable performance data can be elusive for a station with such a complex mission, but Honsky’s starting to see some encouraging anecdotal evidence—though it’s the kind only a KFAI leader could love.

“When I first got here, we had some equipment issues—which we’ve fixed, thank God,” she says. “We’d go off the air and I wouldn’t get a single call.

“Last December our antenna was damaged in the storm and my inbox was full, the phone was ringing saying, ‘You’re off the air.’ It was great. I mean it sucked, but it was great people noticed.”