People power A third way

It's not flawless, but collective broadcasting is an alternative to the corporate model

Last month, Prometheus Radio Project organizers put a new community radio station on the air with the help of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker organization comprised of primarily Latino, Haitian, and Mayan immigrants in Florida. (Photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou)
Austin's KO.OP 91.7 radio station nearly imploded amidst vicious infighting in 2000. At the nadir of hostilities, one faction of programmers and volunteer staff sued the board in a destructive and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reverse the results of a prior board election; many observers took it as a sign that a cooperative couldn't successfully run a broadcast outlet.

Simmering tensions at KO.OP were ignited in part by the conflicts over programming at California's KPFA - home of Pacifica News and other popular nationally syndicated progressive content - which resulted in the removal of longtime programmers at the station. One outcome of KO.OP's troubles was the cessation of KPFA broadcasts, including the evening news. As familiar voices were ousted or resigned in frustration from the airwaves, Austin fans of community-owned radio could be forgiven for feeling that the sun might be setting on an idyllic and doomed experiment. Nonetheless, in many ways, KO.OP remains a workable example of an alternative to corporate ownership of local broadcast stations.

KO.OP was founded on a cooperative non-profit model. Theoretically, any Austin resident could become a station member by either paying a very reasonable annual membership fee or volunteering a minimum number of hours at the station. Members are allowed to vote in annual elections and to apply for an on-air program. They can also run for the Community Board - elected annually by the members - which in turn elects the Board of Directors and appoints members to committees that decide how to run the station.

Community non-profit groups receive an automatic station membership and a number of seats on the community board. The organizations didn't have to volunteer time or commit funds to maintain their membership and influence at the station, which would be a significant source of conflict when the troubles started.

KO.OP's annual budget is comprised primarily of membership dues and funds from Austin's equivalent of the Office of Cultural Afffairs. For most of its brief lifespan, the only paid staff person was the station manager, who worked with volunteers and the occasional paid assistant or fund-raiser. Because it has to, the station runs lean and mean. Its 3,000-watt signal - strong enough to be heard throughout the city in most weather - is shared with KUT, University of Texas at Austin's student radio station, which takes over the bandwith at night. (Although KUT already had the 90.1 frequency, when 91.7 became available, UT sued KO.OP's founder, Jim Ellinger, for it. Ultimately, the FCC split the frequency between the two entities, saddling the KO.OP with enormous legal bills).

Low power heroes

Americans haven't felt the full brunt of the FCC's ownership rules because of a scrappy bunch of activists in Philadelphia. Credit the Prometheus Radio Project and the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project for taking the FCC to court over the rules last fall, effectively stalling them in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Prometheus works on micro-radio issues, offering technical, legal, and organizational support for non-commercial community broadcasters. Before the FCC ownership rulings, Prometheus became well-known for battling Congress and the National Association of Broadcasters over Low Power FM rules. (See for more information on that issue.)

Prometheus successfully convinced the court that the rules would cause "widespread and irreversible harm," and that granting the stay would not hurt the Commission or broadcasters.

"These new rules, if implemented, would allow media corporations to consolidate control over more outlets than ever before, especially for lower income people who can't afford satellite, cable, and the internet," said Prometheus Technical Director Pete Tridish. "If ever there was a special interest, it's the giant media corporations. They manage America's perceptions of their activities using the very airwaves they control. These are the wrong sorts of groups to give so much power over what Americans see and hear about their world. This decision to stay the rules will give Americans a chance to convince the powers that be that the consolidation that has already happened in radio should not happen in other media."

Lisa Sorg
In the late '90s, the KO.OP offices were a pleasant incarnation of controlled chaos. Grant applications were filed just under the wire or put off until the next round of funding. Syndicated tapes would occasionally go missing, necessitating an unscheduled "archive" edition of a show. But KO.OP managed consistently to air more than 100 hours of widely varied programming per week. Ritmo Latino used the same mics and board as Notes from A Broad, a women's news and variety magazine. A local bike advocacy program handed the controls over to an environmental show, which in turn filled out the same log used by the rockabilly roots show and the program for transgendered folk.

Programming collectives formed around affinities. The Women's Collective trained dozens of programmers, initiated several new shows, and organized the citywide International Women's Day Festival each year. Station manager Jenny Wong (who has since changed her name to Bala Wong) presided benignly over a core group of volunteers and programmers who operated a training program, held outreach events at the yearly Juneteenth festival and other community gatherings, and generally met the FCC guidelines for running a station.

And because it hosted multiple Latino programs, KO.OP was one of the first and most thorough reporters of the Zapatista movement in Texas.

Monthly station meetings brought together the panoply of KO.OP members and programmers: the music aficionados, socialists, feminists, and all-of-the-aboves. But underneath the veneer of functionality, trouble was brewing. Participation in station elections had withered; even many programmers didn't vote in the annual Community Board poll. So when a faction of the volunteers decided to, in their own words, take over the station and make it more diverse and representative of the community, the coup was easily accomplished.

Ironically, on the face of the conflict, the opposing sides were equally motley crews. The revolutionary faction, led by activists Teresa Taylor and Eduardo Vera, claimed to seek more participation from community organizations; their declared enemies, headed by founder Ellinger and popular music DJ Ricardo Guerrero, felt the station thrived on the energy of individuals and wanted, among other things, to require more of organizations if they were going to participate in programming decisions.

At the root of the conflict lay a weak set of by-laws and lackadaisical participation in the governing mechanism. But due to a dogged belief on both sides that this resource really matters, KO.OP Radio still broadcasts one of the most diverse programming schedules on the air. Last December, the station celebrated its ninth birthday. Many of the same programmers are still around, slowly healing their relationships and the station.

With a strong set of governing documents, the KO.OP model could work well as a blueprint for community-based broadcasting. The system requires consistent participation by the public, a conflict resolution plan and skills, and committed volunteers. Unlike micro-broadcasting, it reaches and requires the support of a significant portion of an entire city, making it both an indispensable source of information for a democracy, and a microcosm of the democratic process itself. •

By Elaine Wolff

The writer is a former KO.OP programmer and station member.

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