By Jim Walsh | 08/22/2019
Monday morning was a quiet hive of urgent activity at the studios of KMOJ-FM on Penn and Broadway in north Minneapolis. The station’s weekly board meeting had just ended, and employees and volunteers were gearing up for the business week of running one of the nation’s oldest and most successful community radio stations.
There was legendary KMOJ deejay Walter “Q Bear” Banks, Jr., heading over to his memorabilia-festooned cubicle while planning his next drive-time show. There was the one and only Nikki Love, arguably the most respected hip-hop deejay in the Twin Cities. There was Ray Seville, the station’s underwriting manager and founder of the dance party stalwart Ray Seville Productions, who was heading off to the State Fairgrounds to set up KMOJ’s booth — this year with a “dancing with the deejays” theme.
“At the State Fair, at any event we have a booth, people always stop and say, ‘I love KMOJ, I just LOVE KMOJ,” said General Manager Freddie Bell, fresh from hosting his Monday-through-Friday early shift on “The Morning Show with Freddie Bell and Chantel Sings.” “It’s really heartwarming to hear people say they love KMOJ. Who says they love a radio station? I get chills when I think about it.”
Chills are what can regularly happen via the warmth that KMOJ organically delivers. KMOJ connects in a way that only community radio can, providing as it does a listening experience wherein the deejays speak directly to you, the listener, complete with the freedom to voice their opinions about life and the news of the day. Which can be followed by a song that makes sense to them or the times, all the while cutting through the rest of the world’s noise and intimately connecting — a neat trick in these times of great skepticism about radio, media, government, people/robots.
“We’re that friend that comes through the car radio,” said Bell. “We’re that friend in the morning that can tell you the temperature and the weather, but we’re also that neighbor, that close companion, that gives you the information that you need so that you can act as quickly as you need to act, in order to take care of yourself and your family.”
Depending on the time of day or night, punching the radio dial in the Twin Cities can provide an embarrassment of riches, a dearth of originality, commercial-clogged talk pablum, and boatloads of cold corporate crap. Springing out of that maw is KMOJ and its many voices of reason. For all of its 43 years, KMOJ’s tagline has been “the people’s station,” and these strange days it feels that way. Special. Warm. Human. Humane.
“The same things that impact the African-American community impact people all around our country,” said Bell, who took the reins as KMOJ’s general manager the same year Donald Trump was elected. “So the more that we stay vigilant with what’s important to us, that can translate over time to a better society. We don’t have the answers, but we do know that we want to celebrate the successes in our community. We want to put a big light on that.
“We want to do stories about our community, our people. One example is this young man who set up hot dog stand. We broadcast live from his family’s house, and that went everywhere. We want stories like that. But also, at the same time, when forces are trying to vanquish the voice of Ilhan Omar, we talk about that as well.”
Most casual listeners to KMOJ tune in for the great music, and a mix of soul, funk, jazz, R&B as played by deejays who obviously curate and care about each cut: Listeners can readily hear the passion, knowledge, and freedom in their voices and choices. But beyond the steady beats and deep knowledge, the station has always been a resource for its listeners in a way that true public radio and community radio was created for.
This year, the station was awarded a first-place Society of Professional Journalists award for “The New Slavery,” its 2018 series on sex trafficking. And when longtime civil rights leader and teacher Josie Johnson was recently “treated poorly” by an Uber driver, KMOJ reported the story, including a live feed from a town hall.
“It’s grass-roots people talking about grass-roots issues,” said Bell, who received his journalism degree from Creighton University in Omaha, and has worked in radio most of his life, most notably as the main voice behind Solid Gold Soul, formerly at 950 on the AM dial. “I haven’t heard that Josie Johnson story anywhere but on KMOJ. It was an amazing situation where the community came together to capture the video and bring it forward, the hearings were held, and they talked about it and came to the support of Josie Johnson. It’s amazing.”
Two years ago, KMOJ unveiled it’s sister station, The Ice, geared to a younger demographic. The studio itself drips in history (a poster of James Brown and Q Bear greets visitors), but it’s safe to say that KMOJ has never been more vital than it is today. Bell himself is a persuasive speaker, connector, and advocate for his staff, the history of KMOJ, and the station’s invaluable role in Minneapolis music and storytelling.
“My background is as a journalist, and I’ve tried to bring that forward at KMOJ. But there have been people here, long before I even knew KMOJ existed, and some of them are still here. … We have over 50 [weekly broadcast] hours of public affairs programming, where all we talk about are the issues. So I believe the music is a hook to get you to stick around long enough and to hear about the issues that are impacting the community with our wonderful hosts. We stop every day at 6 o’clock and talk for an hour about various things that are happening. We do it on Saturdays. We do it on Sunday mornings. We take prime time to talk about the topics that we have.”
KMOJ started in 1976 as a blip on the north Minneapolis radar. Now thanks to the worldwide web, KMOJ can be heard all over the planet, giving the station’s “the people’s station” a broader definition.
“With our app, with technology the way it is, we’re no longer just the northside radio station,” said Bell. “Our signal and our reach is worldwide. We are very, very conscious of the messaging that we send out. We know it’s not just being heard here, so when I talk to corporations, I talk about the history of when we began in 1976 as a five-watt radio station. The signal barely got off the block. We had a power increase in 2011 that got us to St. Paul. We’re still a relatively small station, but we’re on a higher stick: Sixty-two hundred watts of power.
“’The People’s Station’ is more than just a slogan. There’s some good parts about it and some bad parts about it. We’re a business, number one. There are some people who believe that just because we’re ‘the people’s station’ they can come in and sit at a microphone and say whatever they like. We would like for that to happen, and there are portals for that. However, when we’re talking about the people’s station, we’re talking about young people, old people, black people, white people, yellow people, red people — we’re talking about people. But we’re very, very aware that we’re super-serving our African-American community.
“That’s why it was set up in ’76. And now more than ever, it’s a way to really bring people together and to talk about the common issues that we have, and also to shed a light on the issues that really are impacting people of color. That’s what the people’s station is for me.”
“There’s been tremendous growth just in the past three years that we’ve been working with our community partners, and I’m just hoping that more and more of our partners in the community, [from] the major corporations, the Fortune 500 companies to the community organizations that are just getting by — we want to partner with all of these entities,” said Bell.
“If you’re advertising with KMOJ, if you are serious, then this is the place to be if you want to reach our community. We super-serve the audiences that you’re looking for. That’s why we brought up the Ice a couple years ago. The mission is still the same as it was in 1976: to train broadcasters and also to bring forth the issues of the day.
“So what does that mean? If I’m talking health care on KMOJ, the people’s station, we might be talking about retirement. If I’m talking health care on the Ice, I’m talking about the fact that you might be entering the workforce, and to make sure that you take as much money as they’re offering for a retirement plan early on. Take the health care plan.
“So we’re talking about health care in those two instances, but we’re really sensitive as to the audience to which we’re talking. So now we have that 25 to 54 age range, but we’re super-sizing on the Ice, 6 years old to 25. So that’s the real sweet spot: So we’ve got mom and dad, we have their kids, and we have the grandparents and the great-grandparents, too.”
It’s all about edification at KMOJ, be it public affairs shows like Dr. Charles Morgan’s “In The Mix,” Mahmoud El Kati’s “Reflections,” Nneka Morgan and Lennie Chism’s “Financial Fitness,” Sara Hollie’s “Know Your Options,” Lissa Jone’s “Urban Agenda,” or a recent station-sponsored Alzheimer’s symposium.
“One of the things I wanted to do when I came here as general manager was add to the narratives that we talk about, and one thing we hadn’t talked about is aging in the African-American community,” said Bell. “What Alzheimer’s looks like. Sometimes there can be a stigma when people start aging, but we wanted to embrace it and so we’ve added that narrative.
“When you think about it, there are some people who will work until they die, because they have no financial backing. There are wonderful agencies like the Agency On Aging that do fine work here in the Twin Cities, but I’ve never heard of a program where we take significant time to talk about what happens beyond 65. We have a huge amount of baby boomers in our community. Some will retire very, very well, but a lot will not. Some will work and probably die on the job. Some are deacons in their church, and will die on their knees in the church.
“We wanted to shed a light on that, to let people know there are resources and strategies to be employed. We wanted to make sure that we put a big light on that, or a big microphone in front of it. We have a show called ‘Financial Fitness,’ and we’re talking about how we can take care of not only ourselves, but how our families can take care of each other in a financial way. We’ve brought forward those issues at KMOJ, and my job, I believe, is to add to the narratives that are not commonly spoken about, and see what it is to impact change.”
Hanging on the wall near Q Bear’s cubicle is a poster of some of the on-air KMOJ talent, including Ray Richardson, Sonny Day, Candace Gray, DJ Divine, Lady L and more. On the shelves in Bell’s office and the conference room are broadcasting and journalism awards. Outside the windows beats the heart of a thriving, growing city that KMOJ helps document, chronicle, and inspire.
“I don’t know what’s next, but I was part of a conference where we talked about our profession, and reporting, adding the narrative that takes into account what people of color who are reporters go through,” said Bell. “How in some cases their personalities and their drive to want to bring the real story forward are somewhat thwarted because of being the only one in a newsroom. Or if they bring it, the news editor puts the kibosh on it because they’re not as sensitive to it.
“I still read stories today that say a group of protesters were at a X meeting somewhere, and that’s a buzzword: If you know the address, or the area of the community, ‘Oh, that’s just probably a bunch of African-Americans, or Somalis, or what have you.’ What’s wrong with saying, ‘A group of people got together to bring forward their concerns over an issue that is impacting their community’? It’s the same story, but it’s without the easy, go-to buzzwords that turn people off from listening to what the real story is, that’s impacting the human condition.
“We can do better.”