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The Care & Feeding of Community Radio
nothing else, the recent fracas at Pacifica should remind us of the importance
of structure, of building a sound foundation that will allow free-spirited radio
to thrive. In 50 years of community radio, there have been as many station
structures as there have been stations. Most of these can be fit into six rough
The Benign Dictatorship.
Seattle's KRAB, by some measures the first modern community radio station, fit
this model for its first six years on the air. Lorenzo Milam founded the station
with a particular vision in mind, and he enforced that vision. Few objected,
because (a) he'd started the station, after all; (b) he kept it financially
afloat; and (c) he had a tolerant and diverse idea of what the station should
broadcast, and trusted good programmers to make their own decisions. He didn't
govern with a sledgehammer. There is no guarantee that the benign dictatorship
won't degenerate into our second category:
The Malign Dictatorship.
Milam left KRAB in 1968 and, after a few interim bosses, the station came under
the stewardship of Robert Friede, a wealthy junkie best known for having
allegedly killed his girlfriend back in New York. (He arrived in Seattle after
serving two years in an east coast prison.) If the benign dictator governs as a
Taoist sage, the malign dictator governs like Idi Amin. Like Milam, Friede had a
vision for the station and a sense of what makes good radio. Unlike Milam, he
was known for throwing temper tantrums, abusing and intimidating volunteers who
raised his ire. Relationships within the station frayed.
Friede was, nonetheless, a
believer in volunteer-driven radio, at least if you compare him to the more
predictable, sterile vision preferred by some on the station's governing
board. After Friede left, power shifted to that board, producing our third
The Monstrous Bureaucracy.
Typical features include: a preference for day-to-day governance by paid staff
over governance by volunteers; an over-reliance on grant money; and, often, a
preference for NPR-style “professional” programming rather than the more
lively sound traditionally associated with community radio. The Corporation for
Public Broadcasting has traditionally pushed this model, much of the National
Federation of Community Broadcasters has embraced it, and Pacifica is now firmly
wedded to it. (The latter's New York outlet, WBAI, is a partial exception,
thanks to its strong union.) Many would dispute that such stations are community
radio outlets at all; I list them here only because they contain at least some
shows that maintain the old spirit of the station, and are often embroiled in
conflicts between the current management and those listeners and volunteers who
want to push the station back to its roots.
It is possible, by the way, to
rescue a station from this fate. Both WORT in Madison, Wisconsin and KBOO in
Portland, Oregon, among others, have successfully fended off the bureaucracy
bug. WORT, in particular, exemplifies our next species:
The Benign Democracy.
These stations are governed by elected bodies; the voting community consists of
the volunteers, the listener-sponsors, or some combination thereof. Besides WORT,
this model can be found at WERU in rural Maine and KGNU in Boulder, among other
outlets. It is also in place at many unlicensed “micro” stations: North
Carolina's Free Radio Asheville, Florida's Free Radio Gainesville, etc.
Unfortunately, benign democracies often degenerate into members of category
The Malign Democracy.
This can be further divided into two subcategories. One is The Time-Brokered
Snoozefest. The other is The Civil War. In commercial radio, time-brokering
refers to the practice of selling pieces of one's programming schedule,
producing an operation that sounds like a gaggle of separate stations sharing
the same frequency. The equivalent in the community radio world is what some
call coalition radio, where there's one hour for the Spanish-speaking
Trotskyists and one for the left-handed triskaidekaphobes, but little sense that
anyone listens to anyone else's work—and little sense that tired shows will
ever be removed from the air. Sometimes, volunteer-based democracy can devolve
into this, with—to quote former Pacifica president Peter Franck—“a tacit,
very strong agreement among the staff. ‘You don't challenge me, I don't
challenge you. You don't challenge my lock on this half-hour, I won't
challenge your competence.' A mutual, unspoken agreement to protect each
other's turfs that keeps everything locked in place.”
As for civil wars, a recent
example (but not, alas, the only one) is KOOP in Austin, Texas, formerly a
shining model for radio's small-d democrats. The problem here, I stress, was
not an excess of democracy, but rather an excess of internal problems that
democracy was not sufficient to cure. It is the fear of malign democracies that
often prompts stations to take the bureaucratic or dictatorial route. After KRAB
went under, it was resurrected (after a fashion) as KSER, an outlet licensed not
to Seattle but to the slightly more northern city of Everett, Washington. I used
to be a volunteer at KSER. During my stay, it was governed on the benign
dictatorship model. My boss didn't dislike democracy, but he did have some
pragmatic fears of it: he often recounted to me a tale of a station where some
people were so attached to their time slots that, at one tense meeting, one
pulled a knife.
Let us conclude on a happier
The Anarchic Meritocracy.
This term was coined by Jim Dwyer, a colleague at my college station, Ann
Arbor's WCBN. (The call letters, by the way, stood for Campus Broadcasting
Network; we were not affiliated with Pat Robertson's CBN.) This is more an
ideal form than a living example, but one can find elements of it in various
stations, present and past. KDNA, a now-defunct outlet based in St. Louis, was
basically a benign dictatorship: Jeremy Lans- man owned the station, and as such
reserved the right to step in and, for example, ban the use of drugs on the
premises after a drug-related run-in with the cops. But the station was mostly
governed by a small group of people who were at the studios almost every day.
(Some lived in the KDNA building.) How did one become a part of this informal
collective? By being at the studios almost every day. How did one make one's
opinions count? By doing good radio.
Kind Radio, a micro station in
San Marcos, Texas, is another benign dictatorship in theory that tends towards
meritocratic anarchism in practice: station founders Joe Ptak and Zeal Stefanoff
set the schedule and ultimately call the shots, but they give programmers wide
latitude on the air, and they'd rather defuse conflicts by buying the
troublemakers some beer than by trying to organize a crackdown. Kind is a
community station in the most literal sense: it is an almost organic expression
of much of the San Marcos community, with order maintained through informal
checks and balances rather than a formal constitution.
At WCBN, we had two great
checks on any empire-builder's ambitions. One was the fact that most of the
volunteers were students, and thus would be gone in a matter of years. This
effective term limit was a pretty solid bulwark against “reformers” intent
on making the station more commercial, more NPRish, or more PC. The other check
was the presence of knowledgeable nonstudents—not college officials but
“townies.” These people didn't govern the organization (though some took
on administrative jobs). They served as elders, a living memory of the
station's traditions. This was especially useful whenever the university
attempted to assert more control over the station's structure or programming.
With other campus groups, the University could count on a new generation of
students unaware of the administration's goals and methods. Our nonstudents,
however, kept us apprised of the station's past battles. (Not surprisingly,
the administration's favorite demand was that we get rid of our nonstudent
A great community radio station
eschews bureaucracy, gives its volunteers wide latitude, and relies on its
listeners for most of its funds. Its shows are neither standardized into a
predictable “strip” sound nor rigidly balkanized from one another: instead,
a day's program sounds like an enormous conversation, where people comment on
each other's shows, the DJs mix musical genres, and the listeners feel like
they're part of the family. It is as diverse, messy, and alive as the
community it represents.
There is no easy formula for
creating such a station. The best guarantee I can think of is open entry—for
the government to stop reserving most of the nation's radio licenses for
corporate giants and NPR, and instead allow more small, locally-based operations
to enter the airwaves, to experiment with different forms, to find what works
for them, and, if need be, to let dissidents split off and start their own
As for Pacifica, the first and
most necessary demand must be to stop their march toward governance by a
centralized, self- selecting board, and devolve power back from the national
network to its five constituent stations. Community radio, after all, must be
rooted in actual communities. Z
Jesse Walker is the associate editor of Reason magazine and has been active in community radio for over ten years. He is writing a book about the free-radio tradition in America.