Last week, Art Deco fans, cocktail-swillers and cash-stuffed travelers celebrated the reopening of the Foshay Tower as a boutique hotel. Lost in the hoopla was a city-gritty victim: local public-radio institution KFAI.
KFAI —which did citizen media before citizen media was cool — had its 125-watt Minneapolis antenna (90.3 FM) perched near the Foshay’s point until March 2007. The hotel’s new owner found the equipment a bit unglamorous, so KFAI’s troops scrambled for a spot atop the IDS Center.
A towering improvement? Not when your signal strength dropped to 30 watts — a refrigerator light’s worth of power. The signal slump picked off chunks of downtown and north Minneapolis, northern ‘burbs, and western parts of St. Paul, says executive director Janis Lane-Ewart. (The station also has a St. Paul signal, 106.7 FM.)
The results aren’t pretty for the eclectic place billing itself as “Radio Without Boundaries.” In fall 2003, the home of “Democracy Now!”, afternoon blues and bilingual programming had 57,700 listeners a week. The most recent number: 22,600. That’s a 60 percent drop in five years.
Not surprisingly, KFAI’s membership has also slid, from 3,400 members to “about 2,900,” Lane-Ewart says. (The public-radio rule-of-thumb is that 10 percent of listeners will become members in good times, she notes.) That’s real trouble for a place that, when they say “member-supported,” really, really means it.
What’s at stake? Deploying her best elevator speech, Lane-Ewart says, “We provide news, entertainment and public affairs program in your community – and we give you access to the airwaves, a commodity not available on any other station in the Twin Cities.” For example, where else do 13- to 18-year-old girls get trained to tell radio stories?
To be sure, transmitter troubles may only explain part of the slump. Radio ratings in general have fallen thanks to iPods, while podcasts and other online mechanisms let subcultures network themselves. Economic stagnation also reduces donors’ willingness to give (though Lane-Ewart notes remaining members donate at higher amounts).
“I was feeling underappreciated until MPR started making cuts,” she quips, noting the public radio behemoth’s recent layoffs on shows such as “Weekend America.”
KFAI’s programming choices could be a factor; the lineup is too diverse and multilingual for me to assess. (Comments welcome.) Lane-Ewart says offerings were tweaked last August, without the usual internecine warfare such moves can engender.
Eventually, we’ll be able to isolate these non-antenna factors because KFAI is weeks away from a substantial transmission upgrade, to 900 whomping watts. Still puny, compared with a 50,000-watt clear channel station, but enough to get the central cities and many inner-ring suburbs back in the game. (Diagram PDF here.)
Lane-Ewart, who somehow has ridden atop this multi-culti bucking bronco since April 2001, plans a “significant” marketing campaign to re-attract faithful listeners. She notes the conversion will also make KFAI fully digital, with a second channel that can complement existing programming, or drill down deeper into niches.
The station’s ace in the hole is a Bush Foundation “capacity-building” grant. That will, in part, allow KFAI to more fully assess which new communities need serving, or what existing ones need better programming.
“Just as a point of example, we can go to the GLBT community this fall and say, ‘We’ve been doing this for you for 30 years, what do you think we haven’t done for you lately?’ We can listen to everyone, take what we’ve heard, and in association with what’s needed in the marketplace, we can develop revenue.”
Fans can only hope there’s a darkest-before-dawn thing going on here. Lane-Ewart says the station’s online streaming numbers have held up, indicating that transmission issues aside, people are still listening. She plans more podcasts and webcentric stuff, albeit with a limited budget.
In any event, KFAI definitely isn’t planning a funeral. It’s readying a 30th anniversary party Oct. 12 that will hopefully celebrate a resurgence that goes beyond watts. Stay tuned, and if you want to keep the grass roots in the green, click here.