The Care & Feeding of Community Radio
by Jesse Walker
Z, April 1999

[Note: This is my original manuscript, before it was edited by the folks
at Z; it may thus differ in small details from the published version. JW]

If 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 -- even more, really, since those stations inevitably change form over time. Yet most of these can be fit, if not always easily, into six rough categories:

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.

The trouble with benign dictatorships is that there's no guarantee that they 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 pen.) 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 structural form:

The Monstrous Bureaucracy. Typical features include: a preference for day-to-day governance by paid staff over governance by volunteers; an overreliance 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 usually 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 sometimes degenerate into members of category five:

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 seperate 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 ex-Catholic lesbians 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 timeslots that, at one tense meeting, one pulled a knife.

Let us conclude on a happier note:

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 Lansman *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, indeed, lived in the KDNA building.) And 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 our share of internal conflicts, would-be centralizers, and, of course, interference from the university administration. But we also two great checks on any empire-builder's ambitions. One was the
simple 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 P.C. 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 U 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 DJs.)

*  *  *  *  *

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 programs sound 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 simply 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 stations.

As for Pacifica, the first and most necessary demand must be to stop this 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. --

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