KABF to celebrate 30 years of diverse programming
Community station KABF to mark 30 years of diverse programming.
n the south end of Main Street, there’s a rambling creamcolored house with a steep, narrow stairway out back. These metal stairs, essentially a fire escape, are the primary entrance to KABF, FM-88.3, Little Rock’s community radio station.
On this morning, a few days after the Aug. 4 death of longtime DJ and musician Gerald Johnson, a collection of friends and disc jockeys are making an on-air memorial of Johnson’s show, Variety Edition Jazz. They’re selecting songs he loved and tracks he contributed to and telling stories about the man who grew up in his father’s club on Ninth Street, once Little Rock’s answer to Beale Street in Memphis.
In an adjoining room, the station’s trio of paid staff — programming manager John Cain, 77; assistant station manager Bryan Frazier, 38 and development director Carly
OGarner, 22 — log donations and plan events. This is pledge week, a quarterly beg-a-thon when KABF DJs request listener support, not just for the radio station, but for their shows. Each show is expected to bring in $300-$400 per quarter. If it doesn’t, it may not stay on the air.
wanders in from Johnson’s memorial, check in hand. It takes a lot of checks to run a commercial-free 100,000watt radio station. (A hundred thousand watts equals solid reach to Hot Springs and Pine Bluff.)
“I started in this market in the ’60s,” says Cain, who DJ-ed the first KABF show on Aug. 31, 1984. “A lot of those managers that I knew from my early days [in commercial radio], they came and said this is not going to work … volunteers … you’re unprofessional … yada, yada.”
Cain ignored the criticism and kept programming jazz. He has been hosting that first program, Jazz & Jive, ever since.
“I’m a jazz preservationist. I’m not in radio just to be doing this. I came with a perspective on it,” he says.
Cain, also a Ninth Street veteran, had known Johnson since he was 5 years old.
But KABF isn’t just about jazz. It’s also gospel, blues, bluegrass, hip-hop, indie-rock, Latin music and news, as well as literary and religious programming. Disc jockeys range in age from 25-85 and include schoolteachers, a college professor, retirees, a grocery store worker, artists, a restaurateur, a tax specialist, students, a minister, a contractor and the governor’s spokesman, among others.
Within the confines of Federal Communications Commission regulations (no obscene language), KABF DJs have lots of freedom.
“I read commentary from Pope Francis, I read poems from Langston Hughes; I do a lot of social justice and other kinds of commentary,” says Paul Kelly, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Families and Children, vice president of the KABF board and a DJ/producer of World Tour, focused on international sounds.
Station manager Wade Rathke, 66, says all voices are welcome: “Anybody that can find an underwriter can have a show, as long as we have an open spot.”
The station’s germination was a 1976 Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) campaign to prevent utility rate increases.
Rathke, ACORN’s founder, wanted to provide citizens the kind of media access made available to corporations. ACORN had already started a community radio station in Florida and had one in the works in Texas, each a standalone nonprofit.
“The most important thing is that they become viable community institutions that have a life of their own,” Rathke says. He has been involved with KABF to varying degrees over the decades, but took on the role of volunteer station manager in 2013 and visits every few weeks from his home in New Orleans.
In 1978, KABF applied for a frequency. The University of Arkansas Little Rock wanted the same frequency for KUAR-FM, its National Public Radio affiliate; it took years for licensing to be resolved.
“Because there was no community radio where the people could access it without going through an institution, that was the decision,” Cain says. “That was why the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] gave us this signal.”
ACORN members went door to door, soliciting contributions to build a tower on donated space atop Crystal Mountain. KABF’s tower was the first there. Nowadays several towers are visible from Chenal Parkway.
“The slogan was always ‘the voice of the people,’ that this would be a station that wasn’t just alternative music or NPR kind of a thing, but this would be something for everybody, including some of the normally disenfranchised voices,” Rathke says.
Cain estimates that KABF started with 30 shows. The station now hosts 77. Early programming included gospel, blues, an ACORN talk show and a national program called Radio Bilingue.
“Most of the DJs had never been in radio,” Cain says.
TARGET FOR VANDALS
The transmitter, in a small building at the base of the tower, has been a frequent target for vandals.
“They shot up the cables and everything. It looked like Swiss cheese. That’s a way to take the transmitter off the air,” Cain says.
In the 1990s, someone set a fire at KABF’s transmitter station. The arsonist was never caught, but graffiti at the site indicated that KABF had been targeted because of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgenderprogramming.
“We were first with gay programming and the first to put gospel music on a regular basis on FM dial. We still are probably the only ones to put on Indian music — not just Native American but from India,” Rathke says.
The station drained its funds repairing the transmitter, while fending off the American Family Association, a fundamentalist religious group based in Tupelo, Miss., that wanted to take over the frequency.
“Community radio broadcasts around the country had to organize against it,” Cain says. “Not just us here and our sister station in Dallas, but at the annual community radio meeting, we found that any public license seemed like it might go dark, they were after.”
At the time, KABF’s biggest source of funding was an annual grant of about $50,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There were occasional grants from the Arkansas Arts Council and other organizations, but mostly the station ran on personal donations, underwriting from local businesses and fundraising events.
“KABF has been a scrappy proposition,” Rathke says. “The station has run deficits, but as long as ACORN was alive and well … there was never any real bottom line issue as to whether the station would survive.”
In 2008 and 2009, ACORN began to unravel in the wake of an embezzlement scandal and damaging videos created by conservative activists that purported to show ACORN workers advising prostitutes how to skirt tax laws but were later found to have been heavily edited, according to Democrat-Gazette files.
KABF was leasing part of an ACORN-owned building and, according to Cain, ACORN couldn’t pay the electricity bill. Power was shut off and, briefly, KABF was silenced.
“There was tension between the DJs and the board. Apparently the books were being handled by an ACORN affiliate in New Orleans and the reports were not accounting for where some of the money went. The DJs had raised money, being told they were going to get equipment,” KABF board member Kelly says.
In 2010, ACORN filed for bankruptcy and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting audited KABF.
According to Kelly, KABF hadn’t filed mandatory tax documents for two years and was behind on its studio rent. The audit found questionable expenses, lack of documentation and a failure to hold open meetings.
“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled its money, which was huge,” Kelly says.
He doesn’t think that annual $50,000 will return anytime soon.
“We would have to be in very good shape to ask for it back,” he adds.
According to tax documents, revenue dropped from about $175,000 in 2010 to $72,000 in 2011 to just over $60,000 in 2012. By then, the station had more than $200,000 in liabilities and $40,000 in reported assets.
Eventually, a group of disc jockeys and several board members tried to work around the board at large, meeting secretly at Vino’s Brewpub. Some board members began to discuss selling the station.
“The board was burned out,” Kelly says. It had changed very little since 1984, and most members had some type of ACORN affiliation.
“They weren’t getting good guidance. … They continued to put the same people on there, new people would join, and they would get frustrated and quit because it was poorly run. I know that nobody was stealing money from the station … but they were not managing it well. It was just a crisis all the time,” Kelly says.
Underwriters pay $150 to sponsor an hour of programming and, according to Rathke, each on-air hour costs the station about $40. In 2012, Kelly and a few others joined the board, bringing fundraising leads, such as partnerships with Landers Fiat and Oxford American magazine and paid public service announcements about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Rathke says about half of the station’s approximately 40,000 listeners are black and about half have household incomes lower than $40,000 annually, which means KABF reaches the federal health-care law’s target demographic.)
The board back-filed tax documents, an independent accountant was hired and volunteer lawyers have begun to renegotiate terms for the tower’s lessors. The nonprofit Darragh Foundation donated money for equipment, and the station’s DJs solicited construction materials and remodeled the studio. Frazier was hired as assistant station manager, Rathke found a deferred line of credit and the station was able to pay off some debt. In spring of this year, development director Garner was hired to help with fundraising. Now only about half of the board are linked to ACORN-related organizations and only one member has been in place for more than five years.
Communication among various organizational arms is still spotty. Frazier sometimes refers financial questions to Rathke, and Garner says the station doesn’t have to pay fees for the music it broadcasts. Kelly says the station does have to pay, and that, in recent years, it has been behind on those fees.
Despite these challenges, by 2013 the station’s reported revenue had more than doubled, to $106,162.
“It isn’t like we’re out of the woods. We’re just feeling much better,” Kelly says.