Those of us who work at non-commercial stations often assume that all listeners know that our kind of stations exist. Yet every few months I encounter new listeners pleasantly surprised by this novelty known as non-commercial radio. In an era of media concentration, alternative voices on the air are more important than ever.
By definition, non-commercial radio stations are ad-free and look to other sources of revenue to make ends meet. Most of these stations operate as non-profits and must abide by strict Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commercialism rules and Corporation for Public Boradcasting (CPB) filing rules. In other words, where commercial radio is controlled by demographic information and advertising interest, non-commercial radio is allowed to serve public interest.
In the Twin Cities, there are three kinds of non-commercial radio: public, college and community. In a sense, all non-commercial, non-profit stations can be considered public radio stations but there are clear differences between them.
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) has the biggest voice in the non-commercial realm and has a number of stations across the state. Their local flagship, KNOW (91.1FM), offers the usual National Public Radio (NPR) network fare of news and public affairs. MPR/NPR are great alternative radio sources for our community but little programming is locally produced and the stations do not depend on volunteer involvement. MPR, while a non-profit, is a multimillion-dollar corporation. Hardly grassroots but they do good work… and they carry "This American Life."
There are a handful of college radio stations in the area but only one can be heard metro-wide. Radio K (KUOM, 770AM) is the student-run, professionally managed radio station of the University of Minnesota. Radio K offers a blend of indie rock, hip-hop, world music and a heavy dose of local music daily from sun-up to sundown. If you are lucky and have a strong receiver, you may be able to pick up WMCN (91.1) from Macalester College in St. Paul or KVSC (88.1) from St. Cloud. College radio has always been one of the first places to look for new music and ideas. Unfortunately, for those not currently working toward their degree, it is difficult to get involved as a volunteer.
Community radio differs from public and college radio in that its core mission is to provide community representation on the airwaves. This is an ambitious goal considering the diversity of the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul have two community stations, KMOJ (89.9FM) and KFAI, Fresh Air Radio (90.3/106.7FM). Both stations started in the late 1970s when the FCC opened up frequencies for community-based, low-power stations.
KMOJ is based in North Minneapolis and strives to serve the area’s African-American population. KMOJ has been the local purveyor of "urban" music since its inception, long before it became a viable demographic niche.
KFAI is a bit more eclectic. KFAIs mission, in short, is to provide a voice for people not represented by the mainstream media. The inclusiveness of the mission is represented a program schedule that features adventurous blues, jazz, folk, alternative, hip hop, and world music shows along side arts, public affairs, news, and community programs. KFAI broadcasts shows in more than 12 languages and is the only station in town that offers programs for the Hmong, Khmer, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Oromo, Filipino and Ukrainian communities (among others).
Community Radio and Community Support
Community radio, and all non-commercial radio, depends on community support. A simple way to support non-commercial is by listening and spreading the word about your favorite stations and programs. The next step would be to become a member of the station(s) of your choice and support non-commercial radio financially. Depending on your time and availability, you can also contribute by becoming a volunteer. Do some investigating to see how you can keep independent media in our community strong.
The future of radio is always up for debate. What is clear is that commercial radio is unlikely to get better anytime soon. New government regulations have cleared the way for a handful of corporations to control most of the nation’s radio stations. This means that in the commercial band, a few people will be able to control what gets heard. Unless the rules change, this trend will only continue.
Recently there has been a nation-wide campaign for more low-power community stations. The campaign succeeded in creating new stations in areas with space on the dial. In the Twin Cities, no new stations were approved. Maybe in the future…
Community and other non-commercial radio stations have a future as long as there is an audience to support them. It is worth protecting the few community based radio resources we have. It is important that we all do what we can.
Sidebar: Local Stations
89.9FM – KMOJ
91.1FM – KNOW
90.3/106.7FM – KFAI
770AM – Radio K (KUOM)
93.1FM – FRTC
There are also thousands of internet radio stations with independent vision. Many are worth a listen…although you won’t be able to listen in you car. Yet.