Walter Banks is rolling through the neighborhood, driving east along Olson Memorial Highway in his Isuzu Trooper. One hand rests loosely on the steering wheel, the other props a cell phone to his ear. On the radio, the funky divas of Destiny's Child are insistently and repeatedly demanding, "Say My Name." Whoever is holding down the other end of this phone conversation seems just as vehement. Banks, a man who is paid to talk for a living, is limited to interjecting a few tentative "Yeah, buts" when possible, which isn't often. Finally, he clicks the phone shut. "We got cut off," he shrugs with a hint of a smile.
This call is from a listener to The Morning Show on KMOJ-FM (89.9), the community radio station that dubs itself "The Heart and Soul of the Cities." Walter "Q-Bear" Banks Jr. is the host of the morning broadcast and, as program director, one of the few paid (albeit modestly) staff members at the station. "Sometimes those calls go on all day," he tells me. Though a burly fellow, Banks has an easygoing demeanor that allows him to defuse hostile listeners with an easy comic turn. His skin is amiably creased along his forehead and his features congregate in the middle of his face, where they're outlined with a faint trace of a mustache.
Cruising down Olson, near the street where he lives, Banks points to Harvest Preparatory School and Sumner Library on the left, to the Summit Academy OIC and Phyllis Wheatley Center on the right--all landmarks of black north Minneapolis. He gestures to these places with his thick arms as if showing sites to a tourist--which may, in fact, be the way most white Minneapolitans relate to this corner of the city, marked by Olson to the north and the Walker's sculpture garden to the south.
Banks's employer is another such landmark, though the low-slung brick building that hosts the station amid what was formerly the Glenwood-Lyndale housing projects hardly catches a visitor's eye. In the late Seventies, as black self-determination rose from the remains of the civil-rights movement, this neighborhood gave birth to the Center for Communication and Development (CCD) and its flagship project, KMOJ. In the years since, the station has broadcast hip hop, R&B, gospel, and a host of public-affairs programs to the townhouses and projects in the scattered north-side blocks surrounding it--and to the metro beyond.
As the only station to program this kind of music regularly--and to solicit listener perspectives from within the community--KMOJ has occupied a unique position in black Minneapolis. Yet the neighborhood that supported such a project has, well, changed over the past few months. In fact, it's been bulldozed.
On January 27 developers announced that the Glenwood Community Center--KMOJ's home for well over a decade--would be knocked down as part of a wide-ranging and controversial redevelopment plan. Late last year the city had begun evacuating and demolishing the buildings within this marshy wedge as mandated by the 1995 Hollman Consent Decree, a ruling that ordered the dispersion of the area's public-housing residents in the name of decentralizing poverty.
There's probably never a good time to find out you're losing your home, but some bad times are worse than others. On January 20, exactly one week before the Community Center was sentenced to the wrecking ball, the Twin Cities received word that the first commercial FM R&B/hip-hop station in the market's history would soon begin broadcasting. In concert with a ten-year quest by Minneapolis Urban League employee and Kandu Communications president Thomas Ross, a coalition of African-American businessmen from Cincinnati known as Blue Chip Broadcasting announced its intention to bring "urban" radio to Minnesota. KARP-FM, as the ground-breaking station would be called, might begin broadcasting as soon as March. (That date soon slipped back to April; currently, the station is scheduled to hit the air in early May.) The local radio soundscape, where KMOJ had largely maintained a comfortable monopoly on R&B and hip-hop programming, was changing as irrevocably as the terrain that housed the station.
While the Glenwood Community Center seems destined to end up as dirt, what might happen to KMOJ is uncertain. Not just uncertain, in fact, but unknown. The scheduled date of the demolition is unknown. The potential relocation sites are unknown. The source of any funds to finance a new building or a move is unknown. And while the station manager confidently maintains that a plan for KMOJ's future is in the works, no one contacted for this story could offer even a sketch of what this might entail, and when it might be accomplished. Officials from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, city council members, and officers on the KMOJ board are either unable or unwilling to identify the station's future home.
Alarmed by the new threats to the station, members of the African-American community close to KMOJ filled this information vacuum with a flurry of speculation. Now that KMOJ's building is history, some murmured, how long until their transmitter would follow suit? This beacon, some claimed, would be relocated, or rebuilt, or scrapped entirely. Dates for the coming demolition fluctuated, from the end of the year to a more comfortable two years. Vague promises of relocation--reportedly made by council members, or by developers, or by other community or public entities--were variously invoked and denied. Neither the board of directors of the CCD nor station management would issue official public comment. And KMOJ's talk programs, prominently slated at six o'clock each evening and generally known for their fearless activist rhetoric, have skirted the subject as well.
Throughout all the contradictory crosstalk, however, one sentiment has flourished. Even the station's harshest critics want KMOJ to survive. In conversations, one vague but all-important question repeatedly surfaces: "How can KMOJ best serve the community?" Along with that line of inquiry come more specific questions about what purpose an African-American community station serves, and maybe what the phrase African-American community has come to mean as well.
Without dismissing them outright, Banks smiles at such broad topics. "The African-American community that exists in that neighborhood exists throughout the city," he explains. "KMOJ is a mecca, and if it didn't continue to exist, it would be missed."
Then he glances to his left, at the mound of rubble across the highway from KMOJ, ruins of what constituted, until recently, the Sumner-Olson Housing Projects.
"Yeah, there'll be some changes," he nods, matter-of-factly. His voice drops a notch as he glances toward the Center, to the station's transmitter, and to the condemned Glenwood-Lyndale projects on his right. "Things are really going to change around here soon."
"That man came to America hoping to find a better life, not to be shot," a female caller declares with somber finality.
"That man" is Amadou Diallo. Unsurprisingly, the only subject of discussion on the KMOJ morning show this February Monday is the acquittal of four New York City police officers last Friday afternoon in the controversial shooting of the West African immigrant. Out East, the Rev. Al Sharpton is calling for full-scale African-American boycotts. But on the near north side of Minneapolis, this particular broadcast forum is demonstrating that African-American unity doesn't necessarily mean unanimity.
The woman caller on the line isn't arguing with the court decision per se, but with the statements of a few listeners before her. These callers, also women, have already defended the police, saying that they're only doing their jobs.
The next caller brings it all back home. Identifying himself as Will, he argues that a de facto racial curfew already exists in downtown Minneapolis. He has been in largely black crowds downtown, he contends, that have been dispersed without reason by the police, and he, for one, is not having it anymore. "If my mom tells me to go home, I'll go home," he insists. "Other than that..." He trails off defiantly.
Next he touches upon the fear that was part of growing up black in a racially divided Minneapolis. "Remember, Q, what our parents used to tell us, when we went to the Capri [theater]? 'Don't go past Broadway, they'll crack your skull.'"
Q-Bear nods in the studio. He and his morning-show partner, Big Ant, have already publicly discussed their visit last Sunday to South Beach. At bar close, 14 police cars greeted the exiting, predominantly black clientele--either looking to keep the peace or looking for trouble, depending on your perspective.
"In the very near future," announces Q-Bear in measured tones, "there may well be martial law." KMOJ cuts to a jaunty station ID. Q-Bear flashes a peace sign through the booth window.
Hardly has R. Kelly begun keening on the air when Big Ant is back on the phone. "I feel you. I feel you. Right. Right." He rolls his eyes. Younger than Q-Bear, his hair threatening to bush out into a proper Afro, Anthony Simmons has the countenance of a man who speaks his mind, and a reputation for doing just that. "That dude was fired up," he laughs. His off-air voice is more plainspoken than his professionally lubed radio delivery. "He was going on about, 'I feel you, Big Ant. They armed, we gotta be armed, you feel me?' Then he started talking about AK-47s and I'm like, 'Uh, ain't they illegal?'"
It's the sort of grassroots African-American dialogue you're unlikely to hear elsewhere in the Twin Cities media. On-air communication between announcers and listeners (or between listeners and listeners) isn't always so explicitly politicized. Yet talk of some sort or another seems all but constant on the station. Tune into KMOJ during one of the time slots reserved for music, and you're just as likely to hear a Patrick Henry High student shouting out to her friends on the south side as you are the latest Beanie Sigel joint. On Saturdays music director J.R. Maddox hosts "Rush It Or Flush It," where he premieres new tracks and listeners call in to expound upon the music's merit, or its intrinsic wackness. It's not uncommon to hear listener dedications to friends and family in the county lockup. And drive-time DJ Mike Mike allows listeners to call in from their jobs to exclaim, "I'm blazin' while I'm paper-chasin'!"
Most of these radio gimmicks have long been mainstreamed by commercial stations. But there's an intimate looseness to KMOJ's call-in format that serves a community-consolidating purpose. This, according to station manager Vusumuzi Zulu, addresses two of the major problems facing the Twin Cities black community: "One, the issue of definition, of other folks still trying to define who we are, and what is in our best interest. Two, the attempt to marginalize our communities into strict, stereotypical views, like our communities are one-dimensional, rather than multidimensional."
No one could ever accuse KMOJ of presenting a one-dimensional impression of the Cities' African-American life--either on or off the air. The station has been rife with internal conflict since its inception; even contemporary accounts of its creation differ.
Some facts are agreed upon. When it went on the air on September 15, 1978, KMOJ was a limited endeavor, dedicated primarily to gospel music and activist talk programming. "The signal turned off at about five or six o'clock in the afternoon," Banks remembers, "and that was it for black radio in the Twin Cities."
Originally at a tenth of a watt, the signal barely covered the full housing project. "It was originally operated out of one of the houses," Banks continues. "Actually, two of the houses, but with an opening between the two, so there were offices on one side and storage on the other. The studio was on the top, where somebody's bedroom would be."
Onetime station manager Ron Edwards credits KMOJ's existence to the organizing abilities of Carolyn Lofton, Carol Bruisegard, and Mildred O'Geasy, the three public-housing residents who, with the assistance of Joe Basch, a street minister from the Prince of Glory Lutheran Church, spent the better part of a decade securing a license for their neighborhood. "Those women," Edwards says, "were ambitious, aggressive, and visionary."
That vision was partly shaped by the grassroots spirit of their time. The Federal Communications Act of 1965 allowed for smaller community-oriented FM stations, and many neighborhood groups picked up on the activist potential such signals held. Its proposal bolstered by its proximity to public housing, the newly formed Center for Communication and Development opened in 1977, one year before the station reached the airwaves. Under the leadership of Jeanette Cotton, the station grew to ten, to a hundred, and finally to a thousand watts and, in the process, moved across the street to the Community Center.
"Jeanette Cotton held this station together with baling wire and masking tape," notes Edwards--a particularly chivalrous admission, since he's widely credited with having ousted Cotton from station management in 1987. But such are the shifting allegiances of KMOJ history.
"In order to understand KMOJ, you must understand the climate in which it was founded," explains Mahmoud El-Kati, a Macalester history professor now on the CCD board of directors, and a community organizer in the Sixties and Seventies. "In the Sixties north Minneapolis was a hotbed of political activism. Lots of new institutional efforts emerged. One of these was the Way."
Headquartered on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis, the Way sponsored black cultural activities--music, theater, even educational programs for prisoners. It relied on private sources and sought no federal funding. When KMOJ was in its nascent stages, Way activists--such as El-Kati, Zulu, and announcer Spike Moss--became involved in its governance and programming.
"We wanted to name the station umoja, after the Swahili word for unity," Mahmoud El-Kati recalls. "But, as you know, stations west of the Mississippi River must begin with a K. And so: kimoja, KMOJ."
It's a telling anecdote, exemplifying the way KMOJ has, over the years, tweaked a message from outside the mainstream to slip inside broadcast bureaucracy and regulations. Sometimes this approach has met with legal or judicial repercussions, sometimes merely with internal confusion. But the latest bureaucratic dictate handed down threatens to redefine the concepts of "outside" and "inside" for the African-American community in the near north side forever.
When the Hollman Consent Decree was announced in 1995, it was touted as an antidiscrimination measure. Public housing in the near north side had resulted in residential segregation, the decree held. Therefore, it was in everyone's best interest for poverty to be "deconcentrated," with public housing spread out to the suburbs. Since then, the often secretive way in which the redesign of the area has occurred--and the lack of low-income replacement housing elsewhere--has made many community residents suspicious of the process. Critics have argued that this is simply an attempt to displace poverty, to grab prime real estate near downtown for an upscale housing tract, or (the most conspiratorially minded suggest) to disperse racial communities that might otherwise organize politically.
Regardless of any shadowy reasons behind the implementation of the decree, its ramifications for KMOJ are quite concrete. "In two years this building will be demolished," Vusumuzi Zulu states. Slim, wiry, and goateed, Zulu speaks in the full, qualified, multiclaused sentences of a man who has no intention of seeing his words taken out of context. As late as December, preliminary sketches indicated that the Community Center would be spared--even as everything around it was demolished. Now, Zulu confirms: "The CCD will be relocated. We have yet to decide what is in our best interests for that facility to be. We will be maintained. We have been assured by all parties in writing that we will be a part of the new community."
That community lies within the ward of City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes. Shortly after the "master plan" for the near north side was passed by the council, a call to Cherryhomes found her restating the city's support of KMOJ. "There is indeed a commitment to relocate KMOJ," she insisted. "There has been a space shown on the master plan for them. It's not formalized yet because we're still working on the details."
Cherryhomes refers any additional questions to Chuck Lutz, project coordinator for the Near Northside Implementation Project. Lutz did not respond to numerous calls from City Pages. Bill Paterson, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, insists that KMOJ has a future in the neighborhood, and that his agency plans to continue its current relationship with the station. "The building that they're in now is paid for and supported by MPHA," he says. "We own the building. We charge no rent and we pay all the utilities. We have been gracious partners with KMOJ."
Paterson then painstakingly answers all the questions floating around about the station. "Is KMOJ going to be a part of the redevelopment? Yes. Is there any doubt about that? No. Will they remain in the community? Yes. Do we know exactly what plot of land or building? No, because we're not at that point yet. Will we arrive at that point? Yes. Will KMOJ be there? Yes."
Though the principal players in the deal argue that the center's relocation is a sure thing, no one cares to get down to specifics about the process. This despite what would seem to be an ominous, if shadowy, deadline. Zulu is no less vague. "We will have a new facility," he says. "Will it be a two-story brick rambler? We don't have that degree of detail. Will we share that space with another similar institution? Again, that has not yet been decided."
But it will be decided, he insists, by representatives of the black community. "We are determined to control our own images, and also to control the means by which those images are spread, such as technology," Zulu says, that first-person plural pointedly encompassing far more than just the CCD management. "We must focus on having the information--and being able to control and interpret that information--rather than having others interpreting the information for us, and having them tell us that that is reality."
One thing that might be inferred from this statement is that Zulu feels no compulsion to detail the station's plans with the mainstream media. Yet some of the questions about the crucial decisions in KMOJ's future come from within the African-American community, and from KMOJ's own volunteers. One dissenting voice belongs to KMOJ announcer and community activist Travis Lee.
"Does the board have a plan?" Lee says. "No one knows." He draws comparison to Minneapolis's other prominent community station. "When KFAI decided to move, they had a fundraiser, they let the community know what was happening, and they moved," he says. "The board needs to let our community know what's happening here."
You might not know it to look at him, but Lee (a.k.a. Travitron) brought hip-hop radio to the Twin Cities, in the late Eighties, with The Hip Hop Shop on KMOJ. He has drifted away from that music, reporting that he hasn't always approved of the directions it's taken. And sometimes he feels the same way about KMOJ.
"There are some people who think that community radio is supposed to be ghetto radio," Lee sighs. "And the board may not be as, well, as functional as they think they are. I'm willing to be the one who says the emperor has no clothes on here, because the community needs to know."
It's an attitude Lee says he developed during a stint as engineer for all-purpose community agitator Ron Edwards, former host of the programs Street Talk and Black Focus. Edwards's experience highlights the way that KMOJ has previously allowed disorganization to run the station into a perilous state. According to Edwards, during one turbulent period in the late Eighties, KMOJ's license was in danger, causing him to step into a leadership position at the station. Later, in the early Nineties, a reconstituted board voted him out, an acrimonious decision that was carried over into an extended legal battle.
KMOJ's previous difficulties have extended to their transmitter. In 1994, sheriff's deputies seized the 152-foot antenna to cover part of a $25,000 court award to a dismissed employee. Though Minnesota Public Radio temporarily provided a 100-watt transmitter to bring the station back on the air, media reports at the time described a station in a state of advanced disrepair: All accounting records were absent, contracts needed restructuring, and the station was unable to compile W-2s for the IRS. In the midst of this crisis, board member (and now director) Ora Hokes failed to return phone calls for comment, and she canceled a press conference about the station's ability to remain on the air.
While no one maintains that KMOJ is at the brink of such chaos today, the closed culture that bred such dysfunction seemingly remains: Hokes failed to answer any of a half-dozen phone calls City Pages made to the station over several months.
KFAI general manager David McKay, a veteran of the Twin Cities community radio scene, asserts that KMOJ's management is currently serving the station well. "Vusi is the best thing to happen to KMOJ in the last ten or twelve years," he insists. Under Zulu, the two stations have moved away from what McKay calls "an unnecessary rivalry"--and toward a collaboration he says is a credit to a larger strategy of outreach programs that Zulu has implemented.
Furthermore, adds McKay, personality conflicts and halting communication with the public aren't specific to KMOJ. "Community radio tends to attract, well, strong personalities," he says with euphemistic precision. "It takes people with big egos to do radio. People tend to get very territorial and protective."
For his part, Ron Edwards asserts that the station has lost the faith of its constituency. Noting that a number of former projects residents have since landed in shelters, Edwards reasons grandly, "The license that belongs to KMOJ should be passed immediately to the homeless community."
Despite squabbles that seem to appear about as regularly as leap years, KMOJ has shaped the face of black music and black broadcasting in Minnesota as no other single institution has. "Our biggest challenge has been not to be defined as just 'the station,'" Zulu says. "Having folks understand that the station is part of an institution, a community-based institution; that it has responsibilities that are even greater than the radio, to address issues that confront us, to teach, educate, train."
That's not just the sort of empty talk drafted into official documentation when it's time to lasso grants. In addition to Tuesday morning's Public Policy Forum, held in conjunction with Insight News at Lucille's Kitchen each week and simulcast on KMOJ, the CCD is active in a number of community job fairs and employment initiatives.
KMOJ's training mission and employment projects meet in the station's seemingly inexhaustible supply of DJs. "There's a lot of talent out there that's been nurtured and is now ready to be discovered," says black music programmer Pete Rhodes, president of WRNB Cable Radio.
In a way, much of that talent already has been discovered. Off the top of his head, Walter Banks fluidly rattles off stories of KMOJ trainees who have moved on to professional stations in other towns. Dorian Flowers in North Carolina, Kim Jeffries in Atlanta, Donovan Johnson in St. Louis, Chili Charles in Gary, Kevin Fleming in Los Angeles, Broadway Joe in Texas, Jacqueline Underwood in St. Louis. In going down this list, Banks sounds like a teacher proudly recalling his most successful pupils.
Even more prominent are those musicians affiliated with the station who have moved up the music-industry ladder. James Harris, a.k.a. Jimmy Jam, was an early DJ on KMOJ, as was Terry Lewis. Banks grew up on the north side, playing football with Jam and Lewis and Prince, friendships he has since maintained.
"Jimmy and Terry have helped the radio station in a lot of different ways," he insists, "a lot of ways that community people don't know." When the station lost its transmitter, for instance, the famous alums quietly funded the purchase of another. And one day in 1989, Prince was given the run of the station for several hours. (Rumor has it that the station's transmitter tilts ever so slightly toward The Artist's Chanhassen estate.) For KMOJ such support has been a kind of payback for having played these musicians' work before anyone outside the community knew who they were--back when they were still entertaining at the Northside Funfest, a black response to the largely white Aquatennial downtown.
Since these days around two decades ago, black music has become more popular than ever. But in the Twin Cities at least, black announcers are not. Scan Q-Bear's list of successful KMOJ alums again and count how many of them found work in their hometown. "There's little or no room for African Americans in radio broadcasting," Travis Lee asserts, a sentiment echoed by many of his peers.
"Stations judge a manager or announcer based on their race rather than skills, talents, and abilities," contends former KMOJ station manager Thornton Jones. Could a black DJ work for a country station, he wonders? Not, apparently, in Minnesota. Like many of KMOJ's former volunteers, Jones no longer works in radio.
Just as the narrow-minded radio industry doubts the crossover appeal of black radio talent, black music itself has enjoyed more support on MTV than in the local clubs and on pop stations. It's still a challenge to convince advertisers that white listeners tune in to music made by black people--despite overwhelming evidence that this is the case. As Jones says, "There are simply more people buying this kind of music than there are black people."
KMOJ's ratings are strong for a noncommercial station, as is its measure of listener loyalty (the amount of time listeners stay tuned in compared to their total radio listening time). The latest Arbitron ratings show KMOJ with a 1.3 share in the metro area, with cumulative listenership--the number of people tuning in for five minutes at some point over a week--at 75,000. By comparison, noncommercial stations KUOM-AM (770) and KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7) have cume numbers of 18,900 and 40,000. KUOM draws a 0.6 share; KFAI's share was unavailable.
In addition to its two regular hip-hop shows--Smoke and Delite on Friday night and Disco T and Yvette on Saturdays--many other DJs, including drive-time host Mike Mike and Otis the Entertaining Artis, integrate large amounts of rap into their playlists. Though KFAI and KUOM offer a few hours of hip hop a week, and KDWB-FM (101.3) plays a few tested hits, KMOJ remains the only place in the Twin Cities where you can regularly hear the nation's most popular music.
All of which probably makes the arrival of a major station like KARP inevitable. The success of this endeavor, however, is hardly inevitable. Some industry watchers, such as Brian Lambert of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, have speculated that advertisers will have little interest in an "urban-identified" (read: black) audience.
"It's not a black radio station," objects Paul Landry, Chief Operating Officer of KARP. "It's an urban radio station."
If that initially seems like an odd claim for a station transmitting out of rural Glencoe, listen to Landry expand upon urban culture. "When you see a kid wearing his hat tilted and baggy pants--if you see him from the back, you're not going to know if he's black or white," he continues. "African-American street culture has already been integrated into youth culture. My understanding is that KARP is going to be targeted to the African-American community, but from an inclusive standpoint. Look at Nike--they became a multibillion-dollar company by focusing on urban culture.
"Our plan is to encourage collaboration and cooperation," Landry continues. "The radio audience is more sophisticated than they've been given credit for. Wherever you're living--urban culture transcends geography. I don't see 'whites vs. blacks' as either productive or representative of reality."
"We've not entered a market where there are no other urban properties," Ross Love, president of Blue Chip, says. "But there's no reason why the station should not be successful from a revenue standpoint."
While Tammy Oakley, radio buyer at Hayworth Marketing and Media in Minneapolis, endorses KARP's crossover programming, she reports that the station has yet to make much contact with the market. "There has not been a lot of buzz about it actually," Oakley says--a sentiment voiced by others in the industry.
One way to jump-start the new station would seem obvious: to draw from the most popular urban-music DJs already in town. So, is KARP interested in the talent at KMOJ?
"We're talking to an awful lot of candidates, both inside and outside of the market," Landry says simply. Laughing, he adds, "And I'm not even going to answer your next question."
If Walter Banks is worried about developments at KMOJ, he doesn't show it. Banks is an effortlessly charming public figure. He's presently commiserating with a waitress whose daughter has accumulated ungodly *69 phone charges as we settle in at the Denny's just past Minneapolis city limits in Golden Valley. You never wonder why she has chosen to open up to him.
Banks and his radio partner Simmons are two men who have obviously eaten a lot in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Ant orders the Meat Lover's Skillet with no pancakes. "I'm on that carbs diet," he explains. "I got a suit to fit into."
"It's not good for you," the waitress chirps. "My sister was on it. She started losing weight but now she's assing out."
After these preliminaries have been taken care of, Banks interjects some reminiscences into our breakfast. "When they laid the first brick down [at KMOJ], I helped push it into place," he boasts. He began by spinning gospel, which he sang semiprofessionally as a boy, and which remains his primary musical love. Since then, he has filled in at every time slot and format.
He stops short with a quizzical look on his face. Aretha's "The Weight" has begun to blast over a jukebox that's decidedly funky for a suburban Denny's. "Yeah, they're definitely grooving," Banks nods. "I wonder what's up with this music."
"They're probably trying to avoid their next lawsuit," Ant quips, a reference to Denny's ignoble track record of discrimination against black customers.
When that suit surfaced, the public predictably decried how little some racial situations had changed: The closed lunch counters of the Sixties had given way to the closed tables of the Nineties. But maybe that's only half the truth.
"No matter what they say," Macalester's Mahmoud El-Kati says, "history never repeats itself exactly." He recalls when it was necessary for the Way to carry out extensive protests just to get Earl Bowman, an African American, appointed as principal of Franklin Junior High. Thirty years later, the Minneapolis superintendent and the mayor are African Americans. And yet many of the same problems persist.
"In some ways there have been advances," El-Kati notes after some consideration. "But many of the institutions that arose to meet the challenge have since gone by the wayside."
It was this era of de facto segregation--and the necessary collaborations it created, the challenges it presented to struggle against--that nurtured KMOJ. Paradoxically, cultural shifts toward integration have historically often crippled black-owned businesses and community organizations alike. Newspapers, record labels, sports leagues--each bastion of black-owned media and entertainment was decimated by a hemorrhaging of talent that lured the brightest African-American reporters, performers, and athletes to higher-paying white competitors. Could it happen to KMOJ?
"I think Minnesota needs a real commercial radio station," Banks declares flatly. "Of course, the key word is commercial. Their job is to make money. The people who are bringing that station in are good at making money."
He pulls off his Timberwolves cap and rubs his shaved, stubbly head. "Our niche is community service," he continues. "Will the new station take some of our listeners? Sure. That's fine. But they can't fill our niche."
Whatever happens to this niche, redevelopment will soon come to take KMOJ's building. Over the past few months, this corner of the near north side has begun to be scraped down to the dirt. If the 30-foot mounds of twisted stone and debris resemble the results of wide-scale carpet bombing, the swingless swingsets that rust in skeletal abandon nearby suggest a neutron blast that has vaporized all signs of life. It was here, among these squat brick buildings, splashed with lime-green or pale-peach siding, that KMOJ was born.
A drive past the site on a sunny afternoon in late March sees a construction shovel picking carelessly through the rubble across the street from KMOJ. The new Craig Mack tune that KMOJ's Mike Mike has taken to playing booms from the car speakers--an appropriate choice. "Just when you thought it was safe..." Mack raps with a comically foreboding tone. Then comes a Sinatra sample from "High Hopes": "Oops, there goes another rubber-tree plant."
At 1913 Plymouth Ave. N., former home of the Way headquarters, there is now a police station. At 430 Bryant Ave. N., former home of the Prince of Glory Church, which first sponsored black Minneapolis's quest for its own radio voice, there is now the Lao Evangelical Lutheran Church. And at 501 Bryant Ave. N., the soon-to-be former home of KMOJ, there's a station counting down toward an unknown future.
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