Listeners tuning into KMOJ-FM (89.9) in recent weeks would have noticed nothing out of the ordinary at first. The nonprofit radio station has been featuring a steady mix of contemporary R&B, old-school soul, and hip hop, with public-service announcements aimed primarily at Minneapolis's black community occasionally interrupting the music.
But close listeners would eventually notice something peculiar about "the people's station": no disc jockeys. What's more, KMOJ's signature public-affairs programming, which has provided a forum for the discussion of community issues for nearly three decades, has been conspicuously absent.
The radio station has been in flux since the first week of January, when it was evicted from its former headquarters on Girard Avenue North. The reason: KMOJ's landlord, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, determined that the office building was structurally unsound, and therefore unsafe.
KMOJ general manager Kelvin Quarles charges that the end of its rental agreement with the MPHA came out of the blue. He says that the station was aware that it would eventually need to find a new home, but had been assured by the municipal agency that it could remain in the Girard Avenue offices until at least May of this year. Then just prior to Christmas, according to Quarles, KMOJ was suddenly informed that it had to vacate the office immediately. "We weren't negligent in reference to making decisions," says Quarles, who joined the station two and a half years ago from Atlanta. "We were told one day that we had to move the next day. Anybody who's ever been in a rental situation understands how difficult that is."
Since then, most of the station's gear has been locked up in storage while Quarles and the KMOJ board of directors search for a new home. They're also contemplating legal action against MPHA. "At this point for me, it's not a matter of wanting to fight or make MPHA look bad," says Quarles. "We just want to make sure that we get the benefits that we're entitled to based on the abrupt move that we had to do."
The MPHA, however, tells an entirely different story—and its version of events is bolstered by numerous letters and emails between the two parties. According to agency officials, it first became known that the building on Girard Avenue was structurally unsound in 2005. As documented in correspondence with KMOJ, the foundation of the building rests on clay and is gradually sinking. "The building's basically falling in on itself," says Tom Streitz, the agency's deputy executive director. The housing agency officially notified KMOJ and the building's other tenants in August of 2005 that they would be required to move in the near future. MPHA officials say they worked diligently to help the station procure a new home, even offering design assistance on a couple of possible locations.
In October 2006, KMOJ sent a letter to the housing agency announcing that it had found a new home and would be out of the Girard Avenue space by the end of the year. Signed by then-board president Sarita Turner, the letter thanks MPHA for all of its assistance over the years. "Thank you so much for the time, energy, and support the MPHA staff members have provided to [KMOJ], not just in these most recent activities regarding the move but over the past years as well," she writes. The letter also asks for $20,000 to help with relocation costs. The MPHA agreed to that request and provided a check for $20,000 in October.
The acquisition of the new property, located on Lyndale Avenue North, eventually collapsed, however. Quarles says that after seeming to reach a purchase agreement with property owner Chou Thor, the deal fell through. "The gentleman just decided he didn't want to sell to us," he says. Quarles estimates that the nonprofit group is out almost $10,000 on the deal and is considering legal action. However, Chou Thor told the neighborhood paper North News earlier this month that KMOJ missed its closing date and that the building is no longer on the market.
According to the MPHA, it became clear near the end of last year that the building on Girard Avenue presented an immediate safety risk and needed to be evacuated. "Frankly, what it came down to is a health and safety issue," says Streitz. "We're not going to put people's lives at risk." KMOJ and the other tenants were then notified that they had to be out of the building by January 5. (The Girard Avenue property is slated to be demolished on February 8.)
Regardless of where the blame lies, KMOJ's eviction has fueled rampant rumors and speculation regarding the station's future. Veteran DJ and North Side activist Travis Lee, who worked at the station for years, says that KMOJ's board of directors has not been accountable to the public. "You could be picked in the NBA lottery quicker than you could get on that board," he says. "It's like a cult almost." Lee further complains that the station's current programming fails to live up to the organization's mission as a forum for the community. "No news, all music," he scoffs. "Might as well be B.E.T.... The issue is, nobody wants to touch KMOJ because it's black and it's the only thing we've got."
Indeed, the station's history is deeply intertwined with that of Minneapolis's black community. Founded in the late '70s, KMOJ was the flagship project of the Center for Communication and Development. Housed amid the former Glenwood-Lyndale housing project on the city's near North Side, KMOJ was the first station in town to predominantly feature R&B, hip-hop, and gospel music, as well as a host of public-affairs programs aimed at the surrounding neighborhood. From a measly 10th of a watt at its inception, the station eventually grew to its current strength of 1,000 watts. "KMOJ was basically birthed at public housing," says Streitz. "It's been a really long and great partnership."
Quarles is keeping information about the station tightly guarded. Calls to board and staff members were directed back to the station manager. Quarles insists that this is simply because too much misinformation has been circulating about KMOJ, including rumors of its demise. "Though I'm not really concerned about public opinion that much right now, the community does have a right to know what's happening and where we are," he says. "But at the same time I want to make sure that some of the inaccurate information that's been floating around out there gets corrected."
Quarles promises that the station is on sound footing and will eventually return to full programming. The plan is to first find temporary quarters for the station and then look to eventually purchase a permanent headquarters. "KMOJ needs to look for its own space," he says. "We need to purchase our own building, so we don't have to worry about being subservient to other organizations like this station's been for the last 30 years."