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KDNA Three Years In

KDNA has been broadcasting to St. Louis for over three years now at 102.5 FM. In this period of time the station has broadcast talk, and interviews, and strange and wonderful musics - the types of programs which, because of their diversity (or rareness) have been ignored by all the other commercial and educational broadcast outlets in the city. KDNA was set up by two people who had worked at other community, listener-supported stations in the country...KRAB in Seattle, KBOO in Portland, and KATO in Los Gatos. It took them some ten years to go through the FCC application and hearing process, to get the station on the air, and to make it what it is today.
And KDNA is something special. There are only eight similar stations in the country: radio outlets with the independence and the fire to broadcast such a variety of talk and musical programs. There are interviews on poverty, and war, and hate, and love, and The Meaning of Life. There are musics of Spain, and Africa, and India, and Central Europe. There are concerts of rare jazz, and obscure blues, and unknown classical works. There is an entire panoply of music and talk and ideas which are always ignored by the other radio and television outlets in this country because of fear, or outrageous greed. "The history of radio in this country is littered with the bodies of those who have tried to do something better or different with the Aether - and who have been sold down the river by commercial interests," one critic has written.
We do not want KDNA to become just another body. We want it to survive, to live, to prosper - to become a permanent part of St. Louis life.
The two original founders of KDNA are now in financial straits. They have spent all their funds on this and similar operations in the country. And comes now an offer - a very large offer - from a commercial broadcaster, to buy KDNA and turn it into something else.
These two people, being not less than human, but just like the rest of us, are very tempted, are sorely tempted. Still, they would like to see some perpetuation of their broadcast ideals for the city; but the city will have to buy the outlet from them.
A non-profit corporation has been formed. Called Double Helix, it is established to own and operate KDNA as a perpetual community broadcast outlet. But it must raise $250,000 to purchase KDNA from the present owners.
$250,000...that sounds like an enormous amount of money. It is - and yet it isn't. It is far less than half of what the owners of KDNA have been offered by national commercial radio groups for that frequency. As we say, the previous owners are not being greedy.
But they have to pay back the enormous number of debts facing them on the construction of KDNA and three other broadcast stations. They have given Double Helix Corporation a few months to come up with the purchase price. When 20% of this purchase price is raised, the FCC will be petitioned to allow transfer of control of KDNA to this non-profit corporation. The radio station will then be set as a community operation for all the peoples of St. Louis. We would like your help in this endeavor. It goes without saying that the opportunity will never come up least not at this price. Please help us to make this community station a permanent part of the intellectual, cultural and political life of St. Louis.
KDNA is staffed by fifteen full-time and forty-five volunteer personnel. The full-time staff gets subsistence wage, which includes free room and board at the staff house, plus about $25 spending money each month. (The spending money comes from 1% per person of the total station income.) Volunteers receive no monetary compensation for their work. Full-time personnel work on an 8-12 hour day, every day, basis. Regular volunteers range up to about 30 hours a week. In addition, there is a continual stream of part time volunteers on an irregular basis.
Station policy is, generally, made on a collective basis with no distinctions drawn between full-time staff and regular volunteer personnel. Major decisions are made at weekly staff meetings, run on a democratic basis with group consensus determining most decisions. The station gives maximum freedom to each participant, and we have usually found that the effect any one individual has upon the station is closely related with the effort that individual expends.
"You know that we can never lose sight of the fact that the sole purpose for which an advertiser spends money is to win friends and influence people. Anything that he might do, however meritorious in one direction, that makes enemies is a bad action and is to be assiduously avoided." - memo from general manager for radio and television of a major advertising agency to Hubbell Robinson, Director of Programming for CBS Television.
KDNA has not always been listener supported radio. It started as a commercial station. But several things quickly became apparent. Commercial sponsors want to control the programming that surrounds their advertisement. They want a program that will hold the ears of just the "right audience"...THEN THEY MAKE THEIR PITCH. This considerably diminishes freedom to broadcast, an ideal KDNA was created to expand.
Few people are aware of the incredibly high percentage of time devoted to commercials on most radio stations. Even fewer know of the time staff at such stations put into lining up those commercials, matching ads to programs and producing the ads themselves. This was an energy drain on creative programming KDNA did not want.
KDNA found itself advertising products it just didn't think people needed, using programming energies to create an attractive "package" that would tell consumers to rush out and BUY, BUY, BUY.
"We know that your series is striving mightily to do things that are different and outstanding so that, as a series, it will rise above the general level of TV drama. This is fine, but since the series is a vehicle for commercial advertisers, it must also be extremely sensitive to utilizing anything, however dramatic, however different, however well done, if this will offend viewers." - Ibid
All these considerations indicated that KDNA should stop advertisements. Yet they were learning other things as well. As they became more familiar with the radio medium - what it is and what it can be - they began to understand that communication (and thus the media of communication) is too important a factor in the development of our society to be left to the manipulations of the commercial business world.
"As long as this series wishes commercial sponsorship, all of the creative people associated therewith must never forget that not to offend people must be an inviolate rule for guiding their operation. Narrow, prejudiced, ignorant, or what you will, though any part of the population may be, as a commercial vehicle the series must be ever alert not to alienate its viewers." - Ibid
Mass commuications is an art, a science that must grow and develop according to ppeople's needs - not their needs to sell or buy, but their need to communicate with one another. The KDNA staff felt that communications should be supported by and responsible to the people of its community directly. People should learn of the need for open and effective communication and be willing to support it. Broadcasters should be accountable for the content and quality of their communications to all area citizens, not just advertisers.
KDNA became a listener supported station in 1970. It was hard at first. St. Louisans had to understand the concepts KDNA was talking about before they could be expected to offer support. That took time - time in which finances reached often precarious levels. However, the situation soon began to stabilize. The subscription list has constantly expanded as more and more listeners "get the message" and as more and more subscribers see that supporting KDNA is more than a one-time gift.
For over one-and-a-half years now, listeners have totally supported KDNA's day-to-day operations. What that means is that KDNA is supported by its community more than any other station in the United States.
We believe our world has too many categories, barriers and divisions in how we act, how we think, how we live our lives. These barriers keep us from seeing true relationships among people, among ideas - the whole reality around us. At KDNA we try to break down some of those compartments in our lives. That's why we think no one person should just answer the phone, or just manage the station, or just be an announcer.
And that belief is reflected in our programs as well. Music can be used in many different ways. News should not be a five minute phenomenon, or a neatly encapsulated two-minute nothingness. Everything should be public affairs. Everything should be entertainment; nothing should be just entertainment. Everything should be political; nothing should be just politics.
But breaking down artificial barriers doesn't mean blinding ourselves to the differences that make up the variety of our existence. And recording the mayor's press conference is a different process than selecting the right record to play following a phone-in program on ecology. So we'll talk about the different areas of the station's programming and the different techniques that it is possible to use. Yet we hope there will remain a clear theme of integrated communication by and for the people of our city.
Think of "educational broadcasting": for a moment. Other than Sesame Street, a few special programs and the Great American Dream Machine, the vision is probably pretty bleak. Yet KDNA conceives of itself as educational radio - and that concept lies behind much, if not all, of its programming.
KDNA has no affiliation with an educational institution, nor is it licensed as an educational station. But KDNA provides more educational services than any other broadcaster in the St. Louis area.
Both students and faculty from local colleges, universities and high schools have made extensive use of KDNA's broadcast facilities. Mark Seldon and Jeff Shevitz, two nationally known professors from Washington University, have a regular program at KDNA. So does Chuck Lomas, a graduate student in urban planning at SIU. Mary Lehman of the St. Louis Learning Resources Exchange hosts the Spotlight on Education, regularly bringing in people who are at the cutting edge of crisis and creation in the educational field. These are but a few examples.
A recent arrangement with KFRH, the Washington University student station, is yet another kind of service. Through direct link-ups between the studios of the two stations, students will have access to the entire KDNA listening audience. Staff members will work with the students, training them in production work and effective radio communication.
Local high school students have access to KDNA broadcast facilities, providing "real" learning experiences. Occasional broadcasts of projects prepared for classes give a special extra value to the work.
KDNA will often broadcast speeches, discussions and other special programs from local educational institutions, as well as programs recorded at colleges and universities across the country. This sevrice makes it possible to share the resources of these institutions with a mass audience. A regular listener to KDNA will hear more lectures by top ranking authorities than most students at a typical university.
Other services include the continual availability of KDNA staff members to speak to classes and seminars on a variety of topics; the instant availability of nationally known speakers to our listeners for direct interchange through our phone lines; and the recent publication of the KDNA Handbook, a how-to-do-it guide for producing radio programs, making documentaries, covering news stories, etc.
In addition to these services, perhaps the most important educational contribution of KDNA is the continuing broadcast of music, poetry, drama and discussion heard nowhere else in this area.
It all merges together in a layered collage, at times entertaining, at times grating to the ear, at times reinforcing, sometimes knocking you down, but always pushing at the borders of your mind, and that, in the end, is what education is all about.
(Originally published in Fat Chance 4/1972).