One such station in Iowa -- Ames' KHOI-FM -- upon realizing it had been broadcasting for three years, decided to thrown a birthday party celebration at which a former FCC commissioner might speak. (Photos of KHOI-FM's studio facilities and equipment, taken by KICI-FM's Craig Jarvie, are available here.)
In today's [August 29] Des Moines Register the paper's Arts Reporter, Michael Morain, has told the story of the station's beginnings so brilliantly that I have embedded it below. In it he identifies Iowa's other stations like KHOI: KPVL 89.1 in Decorah, KSOI 91.9 in Murray, KFMG 99.1 in Des Moines, KRUU 100.1 in Fairfield and KICI 105.3 in Iowa City. KICI is not yet on the air, but representatives came from Iowa City to Ames for the occasion.
Not having had access to his story and notes, I chose as the subject and title for my talk that day, "The Origins and Future of Radio." Where does KHOI fit in the history of local radio? Who were its ancestors, its friends, the economic forces and individuals that might have eliminated it?
Following the talk on Sunday, August 23, the following paragraph was posted on my Web site's home page:
KHOI-FM Birthday Party. Nicholas Johnson most recently spoke on Sunday, August 23, 2015, on the occasion of the third anniversary of Ames, Iowa, local, non-profit, radio station KHOI-FM. The speech was broadcast on KHOI-FM August 27, 2015, at noon as part of “KHOI Previews the Arts and Heart of Iowa,” and the audio is available here — following introductory remarks by KHOI-FM’s Ursula Ruedenberg and ACLU of Iowa’s Veronica Fowler (00:00-12:10), the speech runs from 12:10-52:45, followed by Q&A to 57:10. Although video and transcript are not yet available, a 21-page, 73-footnoted paper prepared for the occasion, from which material was drawn for his remarks, is available at this link: "The Origins and Future of Radio." The following day, KHOI-FM “Local Talk” co-hosts Gale Seiler and Ursula Ruedenberg told about the KHOI Birthday Celebration that took place on Sunday and played excerpts from the talk given by Nicholas Johnson. Click here for a link to that program.audio of the 40-minute talk, and to the 21-page document that represents some of the research that went into the preparation of brief speech notes. [Photo credit: KHOI-FM; speaking from front of United Methodist Church, August 23, 2015.]
There will probably never be a transcript of that audio -- nor need there be. The paper, "The Origins and Future of Radio," should more than satisfy anyone who would have wanted a transcript.
But here are transcripts of some selected portions of the audio that will provide at least some sense of the content of the talk.
"This is an incredible accomplishment! I'm not sure if those of you here, and affiliated with this station, and fans of it, are aware of that fact. I read in Forbes recently that something like 80 percent of all the businesses that start up -- profit, non-profit, whatever -- 80 percent have gone belly up after 18 months. You have been around for three years. You are in the top 20 percent of American enterprise. I think that is an extraordinary accomplishment in just three years. Give yourselves a hand for that."
# # #
"What we're doing with these low power stations is a major building block in trying to build the social capital that supports a civic society. That's really what this is about."
# # #
"Locally focused radio has been a consistent purpose and presence in America's broadcasting from its very beginning until today, and has never been more needed than it is now."
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"Nothing has ever come along as good as radio [for communicating over distance without wires] -- this invisible electromagnetic energy that is capable of carrying whatever information we can embed in it and send along with it at 186,000 miles a second."
# # #
"At that time  what we had as radio is very similar to what you are doing with your station. These were relatively low power stations, in relatively small towns -- much smaller than Ames is now -- that were of necessity putting out local programming because there wasn't anything else. But they were also mindful of the purpose that served and why that was desirable. Those are some of your station's ancestors -- those early 8,500 amateur radio stations, those 700-plus broadcasting stations putting out programming and music and speech."
# # #
"But even though the miracle of radio was barely understood in 1926, there was an awareness of the risk of monopoly power and ownership. And one member of the House, from Texas, Luther Johnson -- no relative of mine or of Lyndon's -- said,"American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them."Woe be to those who dare to differ with them. How prescient can you be? He concludes,"It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people."
# # #
"There was equal concern about the coming of advertising. At the time of the Radio Conferences that Herbert Hoover called in the 1920s -- 1922, '23, '24, '25 -- he said, 'It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.' Can you imagine that today?"
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"Another sort of example of your ancestors is [that what] the FCC was asking for in the 'Blue Book' [Responsibility etc 1946?] was similar to what radio was in 1915 to 1920."
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"[I]t has reached the point where John Oliver -– a standup comedian -– now seems to be America’s most reliable source of the data and analysis necessary for American citizens to address their most serious public policy challenges.
Regional and statewide news coverage has suffered from many of the same pressures [as national news has from Wall Street insistence on profit maximization].
Which brings us full circle round to the role you and other non-profit local radio stations play in today’s media environment. It is, as it turns out, very similar to where radio broadcasting began 100 years ago, and where the FCC’s Blue Book told broadcasters they ought to be 70 years ago.
There is a there there. And you are there. The state of radio is good -– both as a technology and as a local civic service, an endeavor that comes as close as any can to the potential for rebuilding the sense of community we so desperately need in these times.
Thank you for the invitation, happy birthday, and now let’s party on!"
Des Moines Register, August 29, 2015
[Information regarding subscribing to the Des Moines Register and following Michael Morain's reporting, can be found here.]
Three years ago a group of upstanding citizens of Ames — well-educated, highly functioning grown-ups — huddled under a tent made of blankets inside an old dry-cleaning shop just off Main Street. The quilt hut, as they called it, looked like the sort of makeshift fort their kids could have made from couch cushions back home in the living room. But its sound-muffling magic did the trick: It was the first studio of the fledgling community radio station KHOI-FM 89.1.
“It was like something out of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” station host Carole Horowitz said. “There were just two microphones, two chairs and a table.”
Now, as the station celebrates its third anniversary, it does so from the relative luxury of a real studio suite with fancy gear and foam-padded walls. It’s the buzzing, bustling hub for a totally homegrown operation — the sort of station that has flourished in other states but is still rare here in Iowa.
“In a lot of places” — especially Colorado and California — “the older community radio stations are a substantial cultural force,” said station manager Ursula Ruedenberg, one of two paid staffers among an army of KHOI volunteers. “The stations set the tone and really lead the conversation for the whole town.”
KHOI isn’t there yet. It’s still “a diamond in the rough,” Ruedenberg said, but it has already outlasted the odds.
In a keynote talk during last weekend’s anniversary festivities, University of Iowa cyberlaw expert and former Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson pointed out that eight out of 10 entrepreneurial projects fail within 18 months.
“That’s why even mere survival for three years is worth a birthday party,” he said. “It’s truly a remarkable accomplishment.”
The station’s story, in fact, started much earlier than 2012.
Following a freeze on new FM station licenses for several years, the FCC announced that it would accept new applications for a single week in October 2007. The decision prompted a frenzied scramble for the remaining frequencies, especially on the lower end of the dial already crowded with religious groups and nonprofits.
Ruedenberg, an Ames native, works for Pacifica Radio Network and was living in New York at the time of the FCC’s big news. She studied a map of open frequencies — about 3,000 nationwide — and spotted a few up for grabs in her hometown.
She wondered: Would it be possible to start a community radio station in Ames? The short answer was “yes.” She recruited a few key players to submit a successful application for the license to 89.1, anchored at a tower in Story City.
But the long answer was more complicated. The FCC required the new station to start broadcasting within three years, a deadline that arrived more quickly than anyone had predicted. The team had to find a space (in the old Pantorium dry cleaners) and connect it to a tower (through a circuitous route west and then north to Story City) and then recruit a bunch of on- and off-air volunteers.
“We argued for a year and half (about the studio floor plans), but it worked out,” Ruedenberg said. “Everybody kept the mission in sight.”
When the signal was finally active, the sounds of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” clattered over the airwaves, an ironic nod to the out-of-state religious station that had been using the frequency, through a translator, for the past few years.
“We couldn’t resist,” Ruedenberg said.
But after that first giddy moment, she and studio engineer Rick Morrison looked at each other and thought, Well, now what? Now that they had all this airtime, how should they fill it?
“It was all very abstract,” she recalled. “It hadn’t registered yet. It was just unheard of in this community that people could get together and have a real radio station.”
At the time, Ames’ popular WOI radio station was joining the statewide Iowa Public Radio network, so folks around town were looking for a new place to hear local voices and local news. WOI’s longtime jazz and classical music host Hollis Monroe signed on to the new station, as did dozens of others with less experience. One of the engineers is a senior in high school. His mom stopped by the studio earlier this week to make sure he made it to class.
The program schedule, like the old quilt hut, is a patchwork of creative ingenuity. It’s about half talk and half music, with a smattering of quirky surprises. “Blue Collar Philosopher” Lance Sumpter has two hours every Friday night. “Planetary Radio” explores questions about outer space during a half-hour slot on Saturday morning.
Morrison spins electronic and new-wave music in the hours after midnight. “We get feedback from insomniacs that he’s very comforting,” Ruedenberg said.
There are still a few slots to fill, but nothing is set in stone — or even permanent marker, judging from the whiteboard schedule by the coffee machine.
“That’s the most important thing: It belongs to us. It’s our community radio station,” said Horowitz, who co-hosts a showtunes program on Tuesday mornings. “It’s easy: Just come in the door. Bring in an idea and you’ll go on the air.”
The station’s board of directors is still figuring out a long-term funding plan, especially now that most federal grants have dried up. This year’s projected budget is $140,000, funded almost entirely by private donors and a few local businesses.
But the board hopes that fundraising will be easier now that the station is up and running.
“We’re a service to the community as much as a public park or a public library,” Monroe said.
He was shopping at the Fareway meat counter the other day when one someone recognized his voice. The butcher had been channel-surfing when he stumbled on 89.1 and was happy to hear Monroe spinning music again.
“Thank you so much,” Monroe replied. “Is there something you’d like to hear?”
Community radio in Iowa
Compared with other states, Iowa has relatively few community radio stations, which are nonprofit organizations run mostly by local volunteers (as opposed to the pros at Iowa Public Radio). But the FM dial has a few here and there, including KPVL 89.1 in Decorah, KSOI 91.9 in Murray, KFMG 99.1 in Des Moines, KRUU 100.1 in Fairfield and KICI 105.3 in Iowa City.