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Happy birthday, KBEM

Radio station KBEM, a.k.a. Jazz 88, turns 40 this year. This weekend, the station will throw a two-day party for itself, with a little help from its friends.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, celebrants will gather at International Market Square for food by D’Amico Catering and Three Tiers Bakery, a silent auction, and music by the very danceable Wolverines Big Band. On Sunday, Oct. 24, the festivities move to Vic’s restaurant on the riverfront for a five-course dinner with wine pairing, dessert by Three Tiers, and music by Grammy-nominated vocalist Karrin Allyson and the Laura Caviani Trio plus one: Caviani on piano, Phil Hey on drums, Gordy Johnson on bass, Pete Whitman on saxophones.

Both events are fundraisers because KBEM, like MPR but on a far smaller scale, is a public radio station that depends on donations and memberships.

Currently KBEM is one of only 30 full-time jazz radio stations operating in the United States. It hasn’t always been a jazz radio station; when it opened in 1970 in a vocational high school, it played a mix of news, music, and educational programs. By 1983, it had moved to North Community High School and made jazz its main focus.

Housed by the Minneapolis Public Schools, licensed to the Minneapolis Board of Education but paid not a dime by the district, the station has a strong educational commitment, training students in broadcast communications and putting them on the air. It also has an active community presence, sponsoring the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, presenting the REEL Jazz film series, supporting summer jazz events at the Lake Harriet bandshell, hosting monthly RestauranTours and offering community education classes on jazz.

Many people know KBEM as the station they tune to during drive time for live, up-to-the-minute, often chatty traffic reports. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has had an almost 20-year partnership with KBEM, paying the station to broadcast its reports and contributing a sizable chunk to the station’s annual budget. When MnDOT announced in December 2004 that it would end the partnership for cost-cutting reasons, there was enough of a public outcry that the state continued the contract.

Even though KBEM station manager Michele Jansen is up to her eyeballs this week with party and personal plans, she made time to answer questions by email.

MinnPost: Why do you think KBEM is important to our community?

Michele Jansen: Jazz 88 provides programming that no other Twin Cities station provides; jazz in all its beautiful colors. We also offer a totally unique educational experience for the students of the Minneapolis Public Schools. It’s important that students learn skills for the 21st century: technology skills, but also communication skills. And they’re learning about jazz! Jazz needs to be played on the radio locally so that local artists can be heard and promoted.

MP: Why do you think KBEM has survived when so many other jazz radio stations have failed?

MJ: The Twin Cities has a great jazz community, so the TC audience knows this genre and wants to hear it on the radio. It has also received the support of the Minneapolis Public Schools for a very long time. They’ve never pressured the station to change format or tried to sell the station, and they could’ve many times over. So I have to credit MPS for keeping us on the air.

MP: What sets KBEM apart from other jazz radio stations? What makes it unique?

MJ: That’s easy ... clearly the student program is what makes KBEM unique. There are other radio stations owned by school districts, in high schools, with high school students on the air, but none that are jazz. We have this great opportunity to teach a new generation about this great American art form.

MP: What are the greatest challenges KBEM faces?

MJ: The economy has been very hard on nonprofits because the foundation support has practically gone away. Donors are becoming much more discerning about how to spend their philanthropic dollars. School districts are in flux. Keeping pace and staying relevant in the educational arena is always challenging. Traditional media is also in flux. Audiences have so many more choices now, and also immediate access to anything they’re looking for.

MP: What are you most looking forward to as station manager?

MJ: I’m always looking forward to see who the next radio star will be. There are always certain kids that connect with me, and I never can predict who that will be. I would love to see KBEM grow beyond our expectations, in terms of listeners, students and the quality of music we play. We’re always working on all of that.

MP: Are there any new developments on the North High situation that you care to share? [Last week, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson proposed closing North High at the end of the 2013-14 school year. KBEM pays no rent for its space at North High.]

MJ: We continue to have the support of the school board and the Minneapolis Public Schools. We will be in North High as long as it's open. Ultimately, MPS will decide if we move to another location, but I am confident KBEM will be fully involved in this decision. While North High is obviously our main source for students in our educational program, we've been reaching out to other schools through our online classes (which has an in-studio requirement), our after-school program, and our summer internship program.

KBEM’s 40th Anniversary Gala, Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 23-24. Saturday: 6 p.m., International Market Square, 275 Market Street, Minneapolis. $88.50 per person. Register online. Sunday: 6 p.m. Vic’s, 201 Main Street SE, Minneapolis. $125 per person. Register online.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified and tweets about jazz on Twitter. Each Friday morning at 8:30, she talks with KBEM’s Ed Jones about her weekly jazz picks.

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