IN THESE BLEAK radio days of relentless consolidation and chronic mediocrity, good news comes around about as often as the Harmonic Convergence. In the five years since the UM's cable radio operation, WMMR, took over the 770 AM frequency, Radio K has matured into one of the better college stations in the country. Despite Radio K's AM signal and FCC regulations requiring it to abandon that signal at sundown, the station's broad programming philosophy has garnered it a regular listening audience of 25,000.
That number may skyrocket within a year: According to program director Mike Helget, Radio K could soon make a jump over to FM. "I can't really disclose how or when," says Helget. "But there's a good chance we'll have a signal on after sundown by next year."
Just as the station prepares to take on that radical reconfiguration, Radio K is going through some other jarring adjustments. The 35-year-old Helget is preparing for graduation, and last week station founder and longtime "programming coach" Jim Musil left town to begin work as the general manager at the University of Colorado's student station.
"Musil was a great mentor," says Helget. "He had a long-term vision of what the station should be." Though Musil's transition may ultimately change Radio K's easygoing culture, a visit to Radio K's offices on the top floor of the Rarig Center on the West Bank finds the staff in typically low-key form. Helget, who sits in a small cubicle in the station's cramped front office, has never fit the part of the college-radio tyrant. (You know the type: the indie-rock taxonomist who glowers through nonprescription eyewear at the philistine world as he prays for some horn-rimmed coed to come along and engage him in a discussion on the differences between Arcwelder, the Archers of Loaf, and Joan of Arc. There are college-radio horror stories: timorous freshmen cowering before McCarthy-esque inquisitions, as station managers, looking to weed out the unhip, dangle the covers of ultraobscure records and ask the uninitiated to identify them.)
With his departed hairline and Rolling Stones T-shirt, Helget doesn't seem likely to perpetrate such slacker elitism. Instead Radio K, in its sound and on-air tone, projects a kind of market-friendly populism. "Minneapolis is the 16th largest radio market in the country," says Helget. "There's a huge potential audience, and we don't want to alienate any potential listeners."
With a peak of nearly 40,000 listeners before the advent of REV 105, Radio K, under Musil's leadership, has come far. Musil grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he used to sneak onto the boards of South Dakota Tech's tiny radio station. Upon arriving at the UM in 1988, he immediately cut out of his campus tour to take a look at the minuscule WMMR, a cable radio service which at the time had a listenership of barely 100. In 1992, as he was nearing completion of a bachelor's degree in studio art, Musil learned that the university was going to be selling its AM frequency, KUOM (then a classical music station). Musil hastily authored a 60-page proposal that won WMMR's small student staff the right to shoulder the burden of running the comparatively huge AM station. Today Radio K includes 40 student DJs, all of whom volunteer at the station (alumni include CP contributors Christina Schmitt and Simon Peter Groebner), and operates on a $75,000-a-semester budget, a small portion of which comes from commercials.
"I researched a lot of stations," said Musil a few days before leaving for Colorado. "This one ended up pretty unique." That uniqueness hasn't come from bludgeoning listeners with hip dogma, experimental skronk, or slick hosts. Specialty programs like Radio K International (world music), Rude Radio (ska), Cosmic Slop ('70s schlock), and Off the Record (local) have collected loyal listeners. And an average hour might feature a mix that incorporates hip hop by Black Eyed Peas, local punk from the Dillinger 4, Icelandic techno from Gus Gus, and the Frenchie crooning of Françoise Hardy. Last spring critical luminary Greil Marcus visited the Twin Cities, tuned in for an hour, and later described Radio K in his Artforum column as "the best college radio station imaginable."
In an age when the banal philosophy of most commercial radio seems like the realization of Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio," K has more in common with Jonathan Richman--not only the Richman of "Roadrunner" (where he's "in love with the power of the AM"), but the Richman of "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste," too.
Musil's passion for Radio K didn't come from a love for "modern girls and modern rock 'n' roll" so much as the excitement of watching the former learn about the latter. "You get to watch these kids come into college very shy and see them blossom over time." says Musil. "I remember one guy--I won't mention his name--who was hooked on coke and crystal meth, and he's always telling me that he'd still be on drugs if he wasn't in here doing radio." "The power of the AM," indeed.
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