Today is the first day of the fall membership drive at the little radio station where I direct most of my time and energy these days.
KFAI Fresh Air Radio is in its 37th year and has, over the decades, been home to some of the most unusual, creative, soulful, earnest, nonsensical, transcendent and impractical radio programs ever made. There is a history buried under the worn-out carpet and hidden behind the dusty racks of obsolete technology, fondly recalled by old-timers when they sift through a program names graveyard that includes provocative titles like Little City in Space, Ideal Cafe Jukebox, Frogucci, Root of All Evil, Radio Rumpus Room, Musica Mundana, One Bubble Off Plumb and Indian Uprising. And lest you think those out-of-the-mainstream days are gone, consider some of the current programs like Strictly Butter, Fubar Omniverse, Rocket Ship Ska Trip, and Crap From The Past.
Experts say the radio business is personality-driven but there are only a few personality types permitted in commercial broadcasting, all fitting a certain vocal quality standard and each of them turning out to be a slightly different flavor of loudmouth. On KFAI you can hear shouters, sweet talkers, mumblers, whisperers and people who sit quietly in front of the microphone waiting for the sound of a needle to drop. Yes, there are still turntables. And people who walk in off the street can wind up with a show someday if they demonstrate persistence and creativity. Try that at KSTP and let me know how it works out. Twelve languages are heard on the station, and no, there are no translations. When there is an Oromo, Somali, Eritrean or Hmong program on the air you either already get it, or you sit back and enjoy the sound of the words as a form of music, which, of course, it is.
Every show host works for love and freedom of expression. Even staff members who do shows are “off the clock” when they’re on the air. The rest of the time staff supports the volunteers, who struggle mightily against the tendency of all things electronic to eventually short out, break down or freeze up. In this way the place continues to run in spite of all odds and completely against the accepted theories of what radio stations should do. Among programmers there is a passionate devotion to that oddball listener who can’t find what she wants anywhere else and doesn’t even know what that is until she hears it. And because there is very little money for traditional marketing, the audience recruitment strategy relies heavily on chance. We fill the bird feeder with seed and hope customers will wander past and have their heads turned by an exotic flavor.
As you might imagine, that approach requires a zen-like patience interspersed with moments of panic..
So I invite you to tune in, stream the audio at your desk or download the app for your smart phone and give us a chance. Fair warning, though – with most radio stations, you’ll be able to get the gist of what they’re trying to do in about ten minutes. Commercial formats are designed to transparent and easily digested. But if you really want to figure out what’s going on at KFAI, it would help to set aside a few years.
When has investing extra time in a project proven to be worth it?