You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, there's ongoing rebellion against the safe and secure at KXCI. The community station at 91.3 FM faces significant economic obstacles to survival, has a constant influx and outcasting of staff personnel and struggles to find a way to give Tucson a stronger broadcast signal. That's normal. Revolution and change is one of the constants at Tucson's most diverse radio station.
"If you don't like something that you're hearing at this moment, just wait a minute and something different will be on," says Shirley Shade, president of the Foundation for Creative Broadcasting's board of directors. (The foundation is a non-profit corporation holding KXCI's broadcast license and overseeing the stations operation.) "It's a learning experience, it exposes you to different types of music that you might not normally listen to."
Listeners are exposed to healthy doses of Blues, Jazz, Western music, Folk, Native American music, Reggae, Bluegrass, Country, women's music, soul, Zydeco, the music of Vietnam, gospel, hip hop, Celtic music, Industrial, Latino music, Rock and Roll, music by Local Artists, and more. You can find specialty programs devoted to one of those genres on weekday nights and weekends, or you can get the whole palette delivered to you in the river of song known as the "music mix" weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The station also has locally and nationally produced programs offering examinations of contemporary social, cultural and political issues.
KXCI has a paid staff of six who take care of the innumerable details of running a radio station. It also has about 75 volunteers who do most of the on-air programming and help with special events such as this spring's Bob Marley Festival. The station regularly sponsors such concerts, which along with membership drives, provide a large part of its income.
Because KXCI is a non-commercial station it depends on listeners who support the music and public affairs programs it offers the community for free. Just like the University of Arizona's Public Broadcasting Service stations (although KXCI isn't part of PBS), the volunteers and staff of the alternative broadcast outpost must convince listeners that financial participation is not only vital to the station's survival, but also the right and fair thing to do.
When the station first went on the air in December of 1984 listener contributions were one of its few means of funding. Today, the nearly 2,000 members provide a crucial 30 percent of the station's operating budget; a budget also augmented by concerts, underwriting of programs by businesses (the non-commercial version of advertising) and grants. Those grants include money from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting--a primary target on the Republican Party's federal budget hit list.
Republican members of Congress have made no secret of the fact that they consider the CPB (along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities and PBS) a subversive organization that does little but help radical media spew leftist, Satan-inspired propaganda to a gullible America. They also have made it known that the $1.09 each American contributes to public broadcasting--which includes PBS and stations such as KXCI--is far too much for us to afford. Significant funding cuts loom in the immediate future for broadcasters like Tucson's community radio station.
"Certainly we could get by with less funding," says Michael Hyatt, director of underwriting and concerts at KXCI. "We're not sure if it will be gradual or suddenly that's it--no more checks. We'll have to make major adjustments, eliminate a couple positions on staff. Right now we're managed by five full-time staff members and we have a half-time administrative assistant. I can see it cutting back to three staff members and it'll be harder for the three that remain to keep the station operating at its present degree of success."
"Elimination of CPB is going to take a little while," new business manager Russell Lowes predicts (he's been at the station for two months). He says a bigger financial problem is a mortgage balloon payment of $75,000 due next January on the building the station occupies at 220 S. Fourth Avenue. Lowes says a member of the station's board of directors is currently renegotiating the mortgage and he hopes that will take care of the dilemma.
"If that fell through for some reason we would have to try to appeal to the general membership or to specific people we know that have more money or do a little joint note or separate promissory notes."
While the balloon payment once made the people tremble who have populated KXCI's staff over the years, Lowes says it isn't anything for fans of the station to fret over. He insists KXCI is in pretty good financial shape.
"We're doing fairly well," he says. "From what I've heard it's the best that its been for many, many years."
Even though he couches his endorsement of the institution's financial health in cautious terms, the words "fairly well" would have been a wild exaggeration of the state of KXCI's economics most times in its history.
The station has been tuned in to death's frequency several times since the days when a handful of visionaries got together more than 11 years ago to try to come up with an option to Tucson's commercial and non-commercial radio offerings. They begged, borrowed and salvaged old equipment, tapes, records (this is way before CDs were on the market) and a place to set up shop.
They were headquartered for the first few years in the vacated Dave Bloom and Sons men's clothing store on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Congress in the heart of downtown. The DJ's (called programmers at KXCI) would sit on a squeaky chair next to two ancient turntables in a cramped, over or underheated room (depending on the season) and spin tunes for Tucson.
Membership drives sometimes lasted for months, as staff and volunteers pleaded with listeners to fork over a few bucks to keep the station breathing. Somehow, someway, they've always managed to find a way to keep KXCI alive despite its relatively low number of listeners and poor reception in many homes and cars in the city. Sometimes it seems as if the love of music alone is enough to keep the disparate band of volunteers and staff on the air.
"Programming wise, it's one of the best stations I've ever run across," says Joe Vincenza, the station's program director since early May. The 33-year-old has worked as a producer of the nationally syndicated Lonesome Pine Special program and as production director at sister stations WFPL and WFPK in Louisville, Kentucky. "When I came here to visit in March, listening to the station was a big convincer as to why I wanted to come and work here. I didn't come here for the pay," he says with a smile.
"The music mix they've created is a very nice, workable thing. I like virtually everything we play. I love Celtic and I love Bluegrass and I really like Jazz and good Rock and Roll and World Music and Flamenco guitar and Enya, Dire Straits and Tom Petty. I really have a good time."
One of the things Vincenza is determined to do is to make sure that the estimated 20,000 weekly listeners will eventually get better quality sound when they tune to KXCI.
That's been a goal and promise of every program director and station manager who has ever worked there. The problem is, as always, money. They would need approximately $10,000-$15,000 to provide a translator for the northwest side of Tucson. A translator is a smaller version of the transmitter that sits atop Mount Bigelow. It would be aimed specifically at the northwest side of town where reception is exceptionally weak. The governmental paperwork and processing to get a translator takes at least 14 months, so don't expect a sudden surge in KXCI's power anytime soon.
Even though their transmitter in the mountains is capable of delivering 50,000 watts of power, it's actually only beaming 330 watts to listeners--less than one percent of its potential.
"That's all we're allowed to squirt out," says volunteer engineering and production assistant Doug Groenhoff. He says KXCI is limited by its broadcasting neighbors on the same transmitting tower and on nearby towers on Bigelow. The Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency overseeing broadcasting, has a maze of regulations that prevent one station from ruining the signal of another by transmitting too strong a signal.
"Covering your town of license--if you're not doing that you're not serving your community the way you should be," Vincenza says. "I'm really disappointed that we're not and I'm going to do my best to fix it."
Unfortunately, Vincenza doesn't have the authority to fix the problem--even if the station had the money. No one person at KXCI has the power to fix the power problem or any other major difficulties it faces in the normal course of day-to-day life in the world of community radio.
That's because the station's board of directors decided to switch to a lateral form of management two years ago after KXCI's last station manager was fired. Lateral management means the station has five department heads but no station manager to guide them. That responsibility rests now with the board itself.
The station has a long and sometimes sordid history of personnel changes. (This writer was once a member of KXCI's paid staff, that's how I know some of the changes were unsavory.)
"We have learned from the past," board president Shade says. "We certainly can't dwell on it but it is our responsibility to learn from it and I think we have done that. I think the lateral management system is more reflective of what KXCI is about and tries to represent."
She says the station simply couldn't afford to hire a station manager two years ago when they went lateral. Another reason the unusual management method is employed by the station, according to Shade, is because financial mistakes were made by past managers.
On the other hand, some observers of KXCI charge that the board itself has been responsible for many of the station's financial problems and difficulties with staff members. The directors have been plagued with in-fighting and political and personal agendas that have had little to do with the actual operation of the station.
"This past year we have had a working board," Shade says. "The station seemed to be very fractured a year or a year and a half ago. Board trust was at an all-time low and that had to be rebuilt through communicating with staff and programmers and members. We focused on putting the community back into community radio and that started with the community within KXCI. There are very important components that make up this station and there isn't one component that's more important than the other. The staff is just as important as the programmers and the programmers are just as important as the board. There isn't any one entity that can run this radio station alone."
Shade says the board may someday hire a station manager again, if it decides one is necessary and economics allow for it. If and when that time comes, she won't be on the board anymore. Her term as president expires at the end of this month and she says she looks forward to participating in station activities as a regular volunteer again.
Fellow board member Joel Parris also looks forward to the day when he relinquishes his seat on the board and returns to the chair in KXCI's broadcast studio as a programmer. He agrees that the board has improved in recent months, due to the departure of a couple of contentious members and a renewed effort by other members to solidify their relationship with volunteers and staff.
"We're the most user-friendly organisim in the universe," he enthuses. Hugh Grant may contest that statement, but Parris' enthusiasm is admirable. He says it's the volunteers who are the unsung heroes of community radio.
It's they who play most of the music (although several staff members do have regular air shifts) and produce the local public affairs programs. They take the tickets at the concerts put on by the station, they nurse the delicate broadcast equipment and they take care of the vast music collection. They donate time, money and love to the little station that gives Tucson so much.
The all-time leader in hours donated to KXCI is super-volunteer George Ferris. He began volunteering his time even before the station went on the air and hasn't missed more than a day or two in those 11 years. All told, he's put in over 25,000 hours in that span.
"It's the music," Ferris says by way of explaining his incredible dedication to KXCI. "It's about the greatest variety you'll find anywhere."
A truer statement could hardly be uttered about the constant
revolution of sounds and people that is community radio in Tucson.
Despite the omnipresent financial quandaries and management squabbles,
there is little doubt that KXCI will survive and continue to provide
an alternative listening option on your radio dial.
You can become a member of KXCI by donating $70. With your donation you get the deep satisfaction of having helped community radio, plus two CD's, a t-shirt, a subscription to the station's newsletter and discounts to concerts. Students and senior citizens can join up for just $25. Call 623-1000 for more information.
© 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth
© 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth