KBOO quarters and Chris Merrick, program directorThe view from 8th Avenue, Portland

KBOO made the difference?
'It is the difference'

Originally published in Current, March 16, 1998. Photos by Michael Parrish, KBOO.

By Rachel Freed

KBOO is not your typical public radio station. It doesn't air Morning Edition, All Things Considered or Fresh Air. Instead, you'll hear Folk Espresso at 5:30 a.m. or The Old Mole Variety Hour at 9. Other programs include Uncle Mort Presents Rockaholics Anonymous, La Voz Del Barrio and The Tiki Cha Cha Club.

KBOO volunteers produce daily a.m. and p.m. news and public affairs programs, relying heavily on the AP wire and local reporting. The schedule also includes Pacifica News, Democracy Now, Radio Nation and programs from David Barsamian's Alternative Radio Service. According to its Programming Charter, KBOO's mission is to "provide programming to diverse communities and unserved or underserved groups."

With its quirky, community-based schedule, this small grassroots station in Portland, Ore., now finds itself at odds with standard practice for the mainstream of public radio.

The field's experts now tell stations that listeners place a high value on national news and information and the lowest value on locally produced music shows. They suggest that stations like KBOO redesign schedules, focus on one or two formats, and replace volunteers with pros.

The price of running KBOO the way it has been run for 30 years is its federal funding. Since last fall, CPB has put KBOO and five other stations "on probation," and KBOO lost approximately half of its expected $68,000 in grants. KBOO has appealed that decision, but in the meantime is planning schedules changes so that it will meet the new minimum audience levels set by CPB.

The risk has been clear since 1996, when participants in CPB's grant review released a list of about 80 stations whose CSGs would be endangered--the so-called "Dis List." KBOO was on that list.

"It doesn't make sense, but . . ."

KBOO operates from an old converted warehouse painted blue. Across the street stands Portland's funky, innovative Imago Theater. Around the corner is Hippo Hardware, brimming with claw-foot bathtubs. Down the block is the huge, windowless Union Jacks Strip Club.

In terms of individuality, the radio station yields to none of its neighbors. Its call letters, K-"BOO" were chosen because the incorporation papers were signed on Halloween. In its reception area, the station shows off two giant co-ed softball trophies. Volunteers are called "Radioactivists." One of the volunteers does her program, 3-5 a.m., wearing pajamas. E-mail is checked sporadically and phone calls remain unreturned.

But with perseverance you can get past the unreliable volunteer receptionist and into the beating heart of KBOO. Three people sit and discuss the current predicament. They are surprisingly relaxed; their commitment to KBOO's mission does not seem to waver.

Kathleen Stephenson in her office at KBOO"The various ways we've been told we can qualify for the funds potentially involve making programming changes," says staff member Kathleen Stephenson.

"Operationally, that is really at crosscurrents with some of our objectives," adds colleague Mike Broderick. "No, it doesn't make any sense to program in Vietnamese, that's true. However, that's an underserved audience we've attempted in some marginal way to service. Spanish-language programming in our broadcast area--no, that's not a smart programming move. Is it part of our mission statement? Is it part of what we say we're all about? That's why we do it."

Chris Merrick, the program director and sometime g.m.--a tall man with a long, blond ponytail--reviews the situation: The station was expecting $68,000 in CPB grants for fiscal 1998. "Our troubles began around August 1997 when we talked to CPB and found out that this was not the case."

Because KBOO met neither the minimum audience standard nor the minimum fundraising standard (story, page 1), it will receive $33,643 from CPB this fiscal year--about half of what it expected. With the loss, KBOO's revenues dropped 10 percent.

A major problem for the station is that Portland, Ore., is something of a public radio heaven. The city of 1.6 million people has four community-supported radio stations. KBOO and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) receive CPB funds. Classical KBPS and jazz KMHD do not.

"We are competing with NPR stations or all-classical formats or all-jazz formats where they're narrowcasting, and narrowcasting is always going to be more successful," Merrick explains. "We can't compete in any way shape or form with the public stations in Portland that narrowcast. But, that's not our goal. ... In Portland, Ore., public broadcasting is a success. [OPB] has a huge audience. They raise lots of money. They are 'successful.' KBOO is not. But we have two different philosophies and ours is not secondary to theirs. In our opinion we're equal."

A local writer who listens regularly describes the difference between OPB and KBOO as the difference between being a spectator and a participant. "Being a participant is always better than being a spectator," explains Diane Tweten. "I've been a listener with OPB longer, but in five years I've come to be a more committed listener to KBOO and a more involved listener."

Lynn Chadwick, until recently president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and a member of CPB's radio grants review task force that came up with the new qualification guidelines, sees both sides of the argument. "I think CPB is trying to engage in a new process, and they're feeling their way as well. They're trying to be fair." But Chadwick also believes that stations like KBOO should be given some leeway, particularly since CPB is now expecting a $50 million increase in its appropriation for fiscal year 2000. She says the Task Force recommended to CPB that stations making a good faith effort be given additional time to reach their goal. "KBOO has made changes at considerable cost to their community. Why do we need to kick them off of federal support? We're talking about $60,000. It's not a big bunch of money, it's not going to change the world of public radio."

Rick Madden, CPB's director of radio system and station development, believes the new policy is necessary and fair. "The new criterion was announced in January '96 so stations would have 20 months to a year to qualify," he says. "The success story is that 98 percent met the standard--and given that kind of overwhelming ability of stations to achieve this standard, it should be a relatively easy hop for KBOO to do that, too."

"Not goofing off"

Merrick and members of the Programming Committee have spent a difficult year designing a new schedule to bring in more money and listeners.

The station hasn't been standing still. Over the last four years, both listenership and audience support have grown an average of 10-12 percent a year at KBOO. The station had its largest fall fundraising drive to date, raising $100,000--a third of its operating budget. KBOO wants to show CPB that its "not goofing off," says Merrick. "We are changing our programming; we are doing more fundraising. We are going up, but we cannot go up at the rate that you have set for us." A slight grin brushes across his face as he adds, "If I could produce 20 percent growth every year for five years in a row, I'd be working for Nike and making a couple of million bucks a year."

Reports to CPB this spring will determine whether CPB reinstates its usual grants to KBOO in October. KBOO people are worried. In late February, the usually contentious Board of Directors held an emergency meeting and unanimously brought back former General Manager Alan Bailey. An attorney and expert grant writer, Bailey was driven out several years ago by a previous board. Merrick promises sweeping schedule changes--featuring regrouped topical blocks of programs--as of May 1, and the staff anxiously wait to see how much money will be raised during the three-week spring pledge drive.

"You never had it so good"

Meanwhile, 337 Radioactivists continue to clean bathrooms, answer phones and create programs 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an audience that Arbitron estimates at 1,400 listeners per average quarter-hour, compared to 11,000 over at Oregon Public Broadcasting's Portland outlet. Why do they do it?

Just ask Charles de Greef, the self-described dinosaur of KBOO radio. A Dutch expatriate, who works as an insurance executive, is dressed impeccably in a tailored blue suit, starched shirt and silver cufflinks.

"Broadcasting has always been a hobby," he says with his slight Dutch accent. "Some people go bowling, or some people play golf, and I go broadcasting." For 29 years, de Greef has been a volunteer programmer at KBOO. He describes his first impressions of KBOO: "I heard about a little station that sounded like a street person. It was so rogue and so independent, it was unbelievable. They were in an unfinished basement that had not been touched since 1896, I think."

"I wanted to do classical music" says de Greef, "and they said, 'As long as you play music that is not heard on other stations.' I had to stay away from the parade horses and play unusual, independent, progressive, obscure music. And I had no problem with that."

A year later, de Greef got a Sunday-morning slot, 6-9 a.m., that he still programs every other week. Dawn Concert takes up the first two hours and the third is devoted to entertainment for Portland's Dutch community--Hel Hollands Uurtje: The Holland Hour, the nation's only live show in Dutch, "with songs, sounds and humor from the Netherlands," according to the program guide. Total potential audience: perhaps 1,500 Hollanders in the Portland area.

By Arbitron's estimate, 0.00 people listen to Hel Hollands Uurtje and KBOO's other foreign language shows. Merrick contends that pledge drive results--$400 per hour for both the Vietnamese and Dutch programs--indicate the "minority" programs do have a significant and loyal audience, but it would take fewer than 10 listeners to donate that much. De Greef says Dutch expatriates in other cities have tried in vain to find stations that will air his show. "I always tell my listeners, you better realize what you have, you never had it so good."

Listeners to Davood Fatehi's Persian Music & Art program are likely to agree. With about 10,000 Iranians living in Portland, Fatehi provides a weekly 90 minutes of Persian music, news and public service announcements in Farsi. The isolated and home-sick Iranians were living in darkness before KBOO provided a community program, he says. Last March, KBOO was willing to give him three hours in the morning of March 21, when Iranians celebrated their new year (it occurs at different hours every year) and the coming of spring. Fatehi played lively music and kept the phone lines open, receiving about 40 calls from delighted Persians, wishing each other Happy New Year in Farsi. When asked if KBOO made the difference, he replied "KBOO is the difference."

Other voices crack the airwaves, too, including journalists like Barbara Bernstein, who began volunteering at the station in 1971. Petite with curly brown hair, Barbara hosts Locus Focus, a weekly call-in show that focuses on social justice and human rights. She's particularly committed to gay and lesbian issues as well as debates about the new religious right. Barbara is an independent radio producer with many national credits, who has been a stringer for Pacifica and is a member of the NFCB Board.

As a professional and a devoted volunteer, Bernstein believes KBOO needs to make its programming more user-friendly. Though she's "pissed as Hell at CPB" for its decision to put the station on the track toward defunding, Bernstein thinks that KBOO really needed "a kick in the butt" to increase its audience and membership. "We've been sliding by with a certain kind of self-satisfaction," she says, "and not really getting an outside eye of what we need to do to improve our programming."

"There are people that can barely do a decent air sound," Bernstein complains. She'd like to see better training and oversight plus carriage of more national programming. "I think having certain anchors throughout the day of the best national programming available gives local programmers something to listen to and be inspired by."

Six hours of Drone

Richard Francis, a friend and colleague of Bernstein's for 20 years, voices concern about KBOO becoming too professional--a place where production quality matters more than content. Every Thursday night he hosts A Different Nature, a two-hour showcase of "new music." He plays anything from contemporary classical to didgeridoo to tango. Several genres he airs include Sound Text Composition, Musique Concrete and Drone (a bagpipe-like style sometimes known as trance music). He smiles, "I've got a real big audience for Drone. The last big Drone show I did was in August, when I did a six-hour Drone. That should keep them happy for a while."

Sipping juice and sitting with his cat Lucien, Francis sorts through a plastic container of his daily medications. A raspy cough interrupts his talk.

"I'm one of those people at KBOO over the years who has constantly taken a stand that if it's a matter of losing money or losing our integrity, I'd rather that we lose the money and go back to equipment that we hold together with chewing gum. ... I think the thing that keeps KBOO alive has been that it's accessible. You can go in there, and if you put your mind to it you can make a difference in the place. If we end up with some sort of homogenized programming, that's not going to be possible. Sometimes in minority communities the essential form of communication that comes in may not be in a format that the majority understands. In my way I'm a minority. I'm gay. I have AIDS. My music is a minority. You can't always please that big crew. You have to hear your own voice."

As fiscal year 1999 approaches, KBOO staff and volunteers wait to learn their station's fate. They generally concede that, if CPB ends its funding, KBOO's local news and public affairs department will be the first thing cut. "If we lose federal funding, I'm gone" says a weary Mike Broderick, who has been the p.m. news director at the station since 1994.

His colleague Kathleen Stephenson, a.m. news director since 1987, agrees. "There will have to be staff cutbacks. The news programming has expanded beyond a one-person job. Since that's my area of interest and that's my job, I see that [our activities] will have to be curtailed in some way."

Merrick confirms that the federal money has been used for salaries, Pacifica programs, satellite feeds and the Associated Press service. "We've looked at the AP wire. If we can't come up with a news grant, we might have to cut it, which will really devastate our newscasts."

As CPB prepares to launch its annual review of grant criteria, KBOO has a chance to plead its case this month. The station has appealed CPB's grant action, pointing out (among other things) that new guidelines have greatly disadvantaged volunteer-based stations like KBOO by not counting volunteer time as donated support. Members of the NFCB Board are meeting this month with CPB President Robert Coonrod and Rick Madden. Two KBOO staffers and board member Barbara Bernstein will be present. Merrick sees this meeting as the "next and last big opportunity" for discussion. The argument is simple, he says: "Should minority programming in a white city be defunded because we can't commercially compete? I don't want to antagonize CPB. I just want them to consider what they're doing."

He sits quietly for a moment, then continues: "I want them to say, 'We will give you your money, we will support community radio.'"


Rachel Freed is a freelance writer and former Oregon PTV producer who lives in Portland. In an earlier life, Freed worked in CPB's international activities office.


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Related story: Just six public radio stations lost partial CPB funding in fall 1997, though 20 others also failed to qualify.

Outside link: KBOO's web page.


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