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Why Twin Cities Radio Needs KFAI

Toki Wright (left) with Shade 45's Sway Calloway.

Toki Wright (left) with Shade 45's Sway Calloway.

Toki Wright is a rapper, community organizer, educator, and host of Soul Tools Radio on KFAI. He and collaborator Big Cats released Pangaea earlier this year.

In late November, Minnesota Public Radio ran a story declaring "KFAI could run out of money next year." The word was out.

It's true that if the community-run station (90.3 FM in Minneapolis and 106.7 FM in St. Paul) doesn't meet its more than $100,000 deficit it is in danger of closing its doors in 2015. What exactly would be lost?

Rather than hiding under the radio console as a depressing theme song is cued up, this is an opportunity to tell KFAI's unique story. It's the story of radio waves providing a lifeline. It's a story of our community's diverse and underrepresented voices that can't afford to not be heard.

Stand on the corner of Cedar and Riverside in south Minneapolis and observe the surroundings. You'll experience the layers of sound blanketing the city from all directions.

At the LRT station nearby, downtown commuters weave through crowds of sports fans, homeless families searching for shelter, and club-goers. Listen in the other direction to hear punk rock blasting from a half opened door at Triple Rock Social Club mixing with a variety of immigrant voices drifting down from the colorful Riverside Plaza.

Soul Tools Radio crew with guest Martin Dosh.

Soul Tools Radio crew with guest Martin Dosh.

On the fringes of the swarms of twentysomethings buzzing through the U of M campus nearby, you'll find KFAI radio. The station is nestled discreetly between two vibrant cafés reflecting the aforementioned variety of sounds back onto the world.

Since 1978, KFAI has been a meeting ground for the range of identities making up the Twin Cities. Its mission is to "broadcast information, arts and entertainment programming for an audience of diverse racial, social and economic backgrounds... by providing a voice for people ignored or misrepresented by mainstream media."

With a focus on social justice and bridging the gap between communities, KFAI has a fairly open door policy for those with a genuine interest in sharing information.

"We're a volunteer-run station. We train anybody from the ground up. If they want to produce in radio they can volunteer here to learn," says Program Director Miguel Vargas.

With 87 on-air shows in 18 languages, 15 web programs, and over 450 volunteers, the station is reaching out to all sorts of audiences. KFAI is not just a radio station, it's a meeting ground for cultural dialogue that avoids the commercial stations' force-feeding of corporate content.

A few examples: "Fresh Fruit" has been on the air since 1978, making it the longest running Queer radio show in the country. "Radio Pocho," hosted by Vargas, and Latino Alt Rock are among programs geared towards a balanced Latino constituency including those with folkloric and academic interests, an older Chicano West Side audience, and younger listeners. There's "Hmong FM," "Versed Radio," "Oromo Community Radio," and the award-winning news program "Democracy Now."

Saturday night's Soul Tools Radio, hosted by Miss Brit, Reggie Reg, and myself, is another example of how community dialogue -- focusing on communities of color that are greatly underrepresented in Minnesota media -- can be interwoven with great music.

"KFAI is moving forward," says Miss Brit. "I'm optimistic about the future despite current challenges because of opportunities like Fresh Air Institute and International Women's Day. Both have allowed me to add diversity and inclusion into the station. It allows the community to control their own narratives in contrast to other forms of media that don't give specific communities a voice."

How are this year's woes are more significant than those of the past? This can be answered in a few parts.

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"The financial situation is part of multiple factors," says KFAI Radio Board President Mary Bensman. "Just think in your own household if you have less income and more expenses."

To cover costs, KFAI has pledge drives, membership, and underwriting much like other community-based stations. As a non-profit, KFAI also relies on money from grants and endowments from the likes of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of Minnesota, and the McKnight Foundation, but not all funds are guaranteed. "In 2008 we got a grant from the Bush Foundation. We haven't been getting the kind of grants to sustain," she says.

The other half of the answer focuses on how all forms of media are changing as technology advances. As the older traditional radio listeners dwindle, potential new listeners have grown up with podcasts and computer algorithms used in music services like Pandora. KFAI has stepped up to meet this challenge by revamping its website, embracing social media, internet broadcasting, and a mobile app.

"We hear in the industry that radio is having a hard time competing with the internet," Vargas says. "But when you invite people into the studio, and they tell their stories, they are always bitten by the bug. You can hear that when you listen. The best way to keep us alive is to get more people involved."

As KFAI looks into the future, it has taken major steps to get healthy. The extremely small paid staff has been cut from six to four. Droves of volunteers keep steping up to participate in fundraising efforts and daily operations.

"The focus going forward is going to be on attracting foundation money, donors, increasing membership, improving the programming, and increasing underwriting with better product," says Bensman.

Martin Dosh (left) on-air with Soul Tools Radio.

Martin Dosh (left) on-air with Soul Tools Radio.

With help, the station can update technology for data collection. Currently, KFAI's technology track listeners is outdated, which increases the challenge of justifying support from underwriters. If the station can't show a sizeable portion of its audience, it can give the illusion that people aren't listening.

In short, KFAI has no plans of closing its doors. "It's a family," she says. "People love and care about it and they do it all for free. We're going to be okay, but we've got to rally."

To learn more about how you can donate, volunteer, or support KFAI in other ways contact 612-341-3144, or visit the station's website. The station's annual meeting is Thursday, December 4. Info.

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