by Tom Crane, host of KKFI’s “World Sound Radio,” Saturdays from 1:00-3:00 pm.
Thirty years ago, on February 28, 1988 at 10:00 a.m., Kansas City listeners heard something new on the radio on KKFI 90.1 FM – the cry of a newborn baby followed by the Bob Dylan song “When the Ship Comes In.” One lyric was, “They’ll pinch themselves and squeal and they’ll know that it’s for real”, which caused loud cheering of a crowd gathered to celebrate the first day, including Mayor Berkeley, in the largely empty Mainmark Building third floor on 18th and Main streets in Kansas City destined to become the first studio of the new radio station.
But the real story did not begin on that first day; it began 11 years earlier in February 1977 with a series of Communiversity courses entitled “Radio Free Kansas City.” Back then, radio in KC didn’t help local artists and had few public affairs shows. Area public stations played only classical music or promoted religion. Over 50 people were dissatisfied enough to attend the classes at various locations to change things.
The community radio movement had started in 1948 with the Pacifica stations, and in the early ’70s community stations around the nation sprung up with the counter-culture to support the idea that people could own and run their own media.
Part of that wave came to Kansas City in the late ’70s, spurred on by an irreverent and humorous manual on how to start a community station by Lorenzo Milam called Sex and Broadcasting. It looked so simple back then: just do the engineering, find a spot on the dial, raise money, get volunteers involved,buy the equipment, do the paperwork for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and finally turn on the switch.
To get the ball rolling, a non-profit corporation began, called “Mid-Coast Radio” (as a humorous slap at how radio was programmed on the East or West coasts). An office was set up in the Foolkiller Building, 501(c)3 status was achieved for tax and fundraising, a quarterly newsletter printed, and people put their dreams down on paper for the radio they wanted to create.
But simple it was not. After five years, the situation looked grim. It was discovered that there was no spot on the dial for a community station. The FCC had strict rules on how close stations could be so they wouldn’t interfere. There were a few small low-powered stations on the air, but while they were there on those frequencies, that left no room for others.
Mid-Coast Radio (MCR) meetings became less attended and the enthusiastic group dwindled down to only a few true believers in the dream. It begin to look more like pie in the sky since all over the nation it was getting harder and harder to put new radio stations on the air, although commercial ones were bought up and sold by people all the time.
But then, the future for KKFI changed dramatically! The FCC changed rules to serve the public better and decreed that small 10-watt public radio stations would either have to go up in power, or move to the commercial end of the dial. Kansas City had two of these which, if they moved, were willing to share the spot, or if they went off the air, would make room for Mid-Coast Radio’s 100,000 watt station serving a greater audience.
Then, a $20,000 planning grant was received, which let MCR hire a project coordinator to organize fundraising, complete needed engineering studies, and start the mountainous FCC paperwork required to apply for a broadcast license. At the same time, they applied for a $305,000 equipment grant which needed 1/3 matching funds raised by the group.
It seemed impossible to raise that kind of money when MCR had only been supported by benefit concerts and garage sales, but in a meeting of a newly formed board of directors, someone whimsically joked about running a bingo game. While some laughed, others checked into it and eventually a Missouri bingo license was issued.
By 1984, bingo games run weekly by crews of volunteers had allowed MCR to raise the $100,000, and equipment could be ordered. Putting a radio station on the air became a real possibility. After negotiating with the two low-power stations in Kansas City, one worked with MCR and moved to a new spot on the dial and the other decided to go off the air.
After negotiations for a tower site, completing engineering studies, solving zoning and neighbor problems, and the need to find a studio site, slowly everything started to fall into place. In 1986, a 10-year party was celebrated after the FCC granted MCR the 90.1 frequency and assigned the call letters for the station that are in place today, KKFI-FM.
An idea central to community, non-commercial radio is volunteer participation in governing, programming, production, fundraising, and outreach to the larger community. The statement of purpose that was developed included, “To support music and the arts by broadcasting a variety of music … broadcasting verbal arts including prose, poetry, theater, and comedy … public affairs programs which will address issues and needs of the communities we serve … to serve the Kansas City area by providing a forum so that diverse racial, ethnic, and minorities will be represented … and to provide social analysis and news broadcasting ….”
KKFI now broadcasts 24 hours a day with over 100 local programmers on the air with a very diverse program schedule. Hundreds of local volunteers and musicians have walked through the studio doors and the station’s listening area reaches an 80-mile radius around Kansas City. The station is supported by listeners in Kansas City, and has been since 1988.
Programming now serves an array of communities: visual and performing arts, Latinos, women, LGBT, Native Americans, Persians, African Americans, organized labor and many musical genres, including blues, jazz,alternative, international, hip-hop, reggae, and experimental music. KKFI provides progressive news and local public affairs about political, economic, environmental, and social justice issues and causes.