Operating at 90.3 in Minneapolis and 106.7 in St. Paul, KFAI-FM is a non-profit, volunteer based community radio station that has been broadcasting since 1978. The station produces programming in 12 different languages—a mix of music, discussion, and political and cultural news. On any given day or night, listeners can tune in to such eclectic shows as Khmers in Minnesota, African Rhythms, and Scandinavian Cultural Hour. Crap From the Past highlights pop hits from the 70s and 80s. Songs of Praise offers up gospel and Christian music each Sunday morning. I spoke with KFAI’s executive director, Janis Lane-Ewart.
The Internet has drastically changed how people are getting their news and music. In today’s crowded media universe, what’s the unique role of radio?
Radio is still the main source for news and information as people drive from point A to point B; it remains a primary source for immigrant cultures, especially as they rely on local and international news updates; and radio provides unique access to train the next generation of citizen journalists.
What, specifically, do you think the community would be likely to miss most if KFAI’s programming were to cease?
The community would likely miss the actual voices of on-air programmers who are their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. There would be no other source for programming in other languages; there would be less opportunity to be informed of news at the grassroots or local level; there would be fewer sources to hear the voices of young people in news reporting.
You coin yourself Radio Without Boundaries. Since your goal is to appeal to many different people, how would you define your average audience?
There is no core audience. In the past ten years, our multi-language programming has increased, and in the near future, we expect our biggest growth in the Somali community. Our Asian audience is also up. Results from a 2005 survey revealed our average listener is male, age 20-54, and a college graduate. We are now reaching out to a younger audience, ages 13-18, by offering programming variety of interest to that group. One segment of this effort, Girls of Color, focuses on journalism training for young girls.
“Radio is still the main source for news and information as people drive from point A to point B.”
Mainstream radio measures success by the amount of time listeners are tuning in. Since a listener will likely change stations if they can’t understand the language, how do you keep them coming back?
We have a fixed schedule, so listeners know they can turn on the radio at six to nine a.m. on Mondays and hear Good Noise. We also aim to schedule common programs during certain time frames. For instance, on Sunday afternoons we focus on news and music from the East African community. These listeners can hear a range of programs of interest during a set block of time.
Aside from funding, what unique challenges do you face that commercial radio doesn’t?
Attracting new listeners. In the next few months, we will be hiring an outside public relations and marketing firm to help us achieve this goal. Also, over the next three months the station will convert to digital. We are excited about this development. There will be a separate channel, available by streaming from the Internet or on digital radio, so we can simultaneously produce another 24 hours of new, different programming.
What are you looking forward to learning at the National Conference on Media Reform? What do you think the conference will accomplish?
I’m looking forward to learning how other communities are energizing and mobilizing citizens around media reform and how others are engaging the younger generation via all the available media platforms to care about the media…what’s right with the media and what’s wrong.
How do you think freeform radio may evolve in the future?
With the possibility of Low Power FM radio, the future may be crowded with small wattage stations in communities or conclaves of communities. People may have more access to news and information on a micro level—not only nearby but from other communities as well.
Patricia Webb-de la Cadena (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and an account executive in the Twin Cities.