Could there be hope for better music programming on KKFI? This morning, I heard a DJ named Mark Manning play a vast range of outstanding local artists. It sounded like a beautiful miracle.
Born of idealism, a principle of community activism, and leftist politics, Kansas City’s community radio station KKFI was founded with the best of intentions. But good intentions don't necessarily make for good radio. The station is regularly embroiled in political infighting. And with a few notable exceptions, its music programming remains unimaginative and second-rate.
I heard something last week that represented everything that's wrong with the musical choices made at 90.1 FM. A certain on-air personality has been one of the few constants at the station. She now hosts a show that airs several times a week. I have no doubt that she’s a very nice person; she’s not a snob like me, anyway. She’s almost certainly volunteering her time and energy, and due the station's many inefficiencies, she probably provides much of the music she airs from her own collection. On Friday morning, after playing, of all things, a song by John Mayer, the jock said something like, "Up next is a song from a new CD by someone named Frank Black. Maybe he’s been around, but I’ve never heard of him."
It’s not a crime to be unaware that Frank Black is the primary voice of The Pixies, one of the most important and popular rock bands of the last twenty years. Nor is everyone familiar with Black’s eleven solo albums. Even so, local media coverage alone includes The Star
's Tim Finn, an outspoken champion of Black’s work. Finn named the Pixies concert at the Uptown Theater as the best show of 2004. KCUR’s Robert Moore featured the new Black release on his fine Sonic Spectrum
show only last week.
It's troubling- but not surprising- that one of the station’s few regular music DJs missed all this. Entire musical revolutions, local and global, have come and gone while KKFI remained entirely oblivious to them. Among the other innumerable examples I could cite is one of Kansas City’s biggest musical exports, The Get Up Kids. In the past decade, the band formed, became international stars, and dissolved. Yet KKFI listeners would never have known they existed. The same is true for the roster of Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records, the underground hip-hop movement, and a myriad of other musical flavors that have broken into the mainstream in recent years. Not only did KKFI fail to expose and share in the success of these new art forms and artists, it missed the opportunity to gain the attendant audience that such promotion would have allowed.
To be fair, KKFI's blues programmers have connected to a meaningful local audience and have contributed to that music's popularity. Consistent with these efforts, they've organized a benefit blues show at Knuckleheads on August 20. But as a whole, the station’s music programming has been, and continues to be, largely irrelevant.
Perhaps it’s foolish to even care. Many radio stations with mission statements similar to KKFI, such as St. Louis' KDHX, have become important online broadasters. Competing download services such as EMusic and Rhapsody allow provide virtually every note ever recorded for a negligible monthly rental fee. Podcasts and MP3 blogs multiple daily. Offline, it’s clear that satellite radio will eventually trounce commercial radio among music fans. And we're in the midst of the Ipod revolution. These new technologies threaten to make KKFI completely obsolete.
Still, there's hope. The mere fact that KKFI's DJ somehow received and aired a Frank Black CD is a positive sign. And as I write, jazz DJ "Dr. Mike" is playing the free jazz master Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Listeners did have to first endure Dr. Mike giggling with a representative from a humane society about a dog shelter for fifteen embarrassing minutes, though.
I propose three options that would benefit KKFI and the Kansas City community. The least disruptive choice is to hire someone like KCUR's Robert Moore- or, based on what I heard today, Mark Manning- and allow him to give the station an upgraded musical voice. I’d hope that he’d install an integrated mix in which local artists like bluesman D.C. Bellamy, Astralwork’s Golden Republic, hip hopper Approach, Latin act Trio Atzlan, jazzer Mike Metheny, and indie rockers Doris Henson might be heard together in any given hour. An emphasis on local music and local events is essential to making the station meaningful.
A second possibility is to completely replace all music content with Spanish-language programming. It's an under-served market, and I sense that enough money would pour in from appreciative new listeners to support the remaining English-language special-interest shows. Otherwise, the station should consider abandoning music entirely and offer nothing but public affairs programming. There are plenty of unions, transgender groups, Native Americans, New Agers and left-wingers eager to fill the airwaves with their greivances and agendas.
Until then, the beat goes on. Unless you’re listening to KKFI.