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Taking Back the Airwaves: Community Station KGNU Buys Commercial Denver Signal

StorySeptember 21, 2004
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Bucking a national wave of media consolidation by large corporations, Boulder community radio station KGNU reached terms to buy Denver AM radio signal KJME, offering metro Denver listeners independent news and diverse music currently unavailable in Denver. [includes rush transcript]

This is Democracy Now! broadcasting from Denver, Colorado where commercial AM radio station KJME was recently bought by KGNU–the volunteer-run community public radio station in Boulder.

The deal, which was finalized last month just days ahead of the Republican National Convention, runs counter to a national wave of media consolidation by large corporations. Clear Channel Communications, the media giant that owns over 1,200 radio stations across the country and organized pro-war rallies ahead of the invasion of Iraq, owns 8 stations in Denver.

After its purchase of the KJME AM signal, listener-supported radio station KGNU began broadcasting in the Denver area on August 29th–the day that marked the largest march at a political convention in U.S. history.

  • Robert McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of eight books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He is the co-founder of Free Press which hosted last year’s National Conference on Media Reform.
  • Marty Durlin, station manager at KGNU.
  • Kris Abrams, Denver Campaign Coordinator for KGNU and former producer Democracy Now!

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney has written many books on media consolidation, among them, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, a professor at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. We’re also joined in the studio here in Denver by Marty Durlin, who’s the Station Manager at KGNU and chair of the Pacifica board as well as Kris Abrams, who’s the Denver Campaign Coordinator for KGNU and the former Senior Producer at Democracy Now! We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let us begin with Professor McChesney. Can you put this expansion of KGNU, of community radio, in the context of the largest media consolidation in U.S. history that’s going on right now?

BOB MCCHESNEY: I think it’s obviously an exciting development and my congratulations to KGNU and to the people of Denver. I think the real question here is how come this is so late? How come this is so rare? How come we’re celebrating something like this that should be taking place all the time? And the reason is that we have let these huge companies get for free all of these monopoly licenses to airwaves, then if we want to get one of them back, we have to pay a lot of money to get them, which prices out community groups. I think that’s the original crime here we should never forget as we celebrate getting one station out of 11,000 on a commercial system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you think this will start a trend?

BOB MCCHESNEY: Well, if there’s a lot of money, it might start a trend. Commercial radio is so bad, some of these stations might not have any listeners left, so the prices might begin to come down. I think the real action here we need to do is political change to blast open these airwaves so there’s more room for non-profit, non-commercial and community broadcasters. If we’re reduced basically to trying to buy stations from Clear Channel, the crumbs they can’t make money from, even their crumbs cost a lot of money. It’s going to be very difficult. There will be some instances where it will work, but I think we’re dreaming if we think it’s going to change the system substantially.

AMY GOODMAN: Kris Abrams, how did this happen?

KRIS ABRAMS: Well, it was really the corporate media’s failure which created the demand in Denver, for KGNU, the increased demand. You’ve dissected that failure on Democracy Now!, and even today on a national level, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and so on. But this was replicated on a local level all over the country. The papers in Denver, for example, the Denver Post, after Secretary of State General Colin Powell gave that very crucial speech to the U.N. Security Council ahead of the invasion of Iraq, the war was in the balance. Tens of thousands of lives were in the balance. The Denver Post said that that speech was enough to dispel any lingering doubt about the threat. They said that that speech provided not just one smoking gun, but many of them. Of course, now, none of those claims have been substantiated. The Rocky Mountain News, owned by the same company that owns the Denver Post, after that crucial protest on February 15, the largest protest in U.S. history, where over 10 million people took to the streets around the globe, The Rocky Mountain News editors wrote that the protesters are unwittingly helping to keep Iraq’s arms dumps secret and Baghdad’s torture chambers in business. It’s really important not to forget the role that the local media played as well in bringing this country to war. People in Denver stood up and said “No.” They realized they were not getting the full story and they demanded an alternative.

AMY GOODMAN: Marty Durlin, how did you respond to the demand from Denver?

MARTY DURLIN: We ended up with an $80,000 surplus the year the war started. And we looked at that and said, “What should we do with this?” How can we use this as leverage in a way? So, we decided to sort of seize the moment. We felt a responsibility to the First Amendment, really. All of the rights of the First Amendment. A feeling that we really needed to enhance freedom of expression, both in music and in news. Just unavailable except on the left-end-of-the-dial where non-commercial community radio stations are. We talked about it within our community. Could we do this? Should we do this? We realized we couldn’t do it alone. So, we contracted with Public Radio Capital, a group that had helped larger public radio stations do this kind of thing to purchase frequencies in the commercial band. So, we worked with them. We found Kris available to help us. That was certainly crucial in making this happen. We needed a focused point person. It helped too that Kris had the background in alternative media and organizing. None of us had background in raising huge amounts of money from major donors, so we brought in Kim Kline, who is really a San Francisco-based guru of fund-raising for progressive causes. She came in and taught us how to do it. And from February to August, we raised more than $1.2 million.

AMY GOODMAN: Kris, you were the point person, as Marty Durlin says. How did you raise this $1.2 million?

KRIS ABRAMS: Well, the training session with Kim was crucial. The most important lesson I learned from her is that donors appreciate the opportunity to give to revolutionary effective campaigns like this. And that really played itself out. It was a huge lesson. And it is a revolutionary campaign. I remember so clearly working with you at Democracy Now! during the Pacifica struggle, and thinking this is an amazing amount of organizing going on to save this network. After we win that struggle, how can we turn that in a positive direction? Not just to defend the few channels of expression that we have, but to start taking back other mediums for expression, other channels, and donors saw that, that this is not just playing defense but playing offense, finally creating an independent media outlet that will be around for years to come. And then the election played a role as well. People realized the corporate media wasn’t giving a full range of opinion, a full debate. People all over the political spectrum expressed the need for a real in-depth public debate in this democracy. Supporters of Howard Dean realized the corporate media skewered him. Supporters of Kucinich realized that this country will never elect a dissident candidate until we have a strong independent media. When you give to political campaigns, we realized that that money, most of it, goes to the corporate media in the form of airtime for political ads, and then it disappears. Here was a chance to create an independent media outlet that would provide an in-depth debate and be around for years to come. The largest donation we have received so far was $250,000, a couple wishing to remain anonymous, long-time supporters of KGNU. $40,000 we received from an outraged Bush voter who couldn’t believe what he was doing. Another woman who wishes to remain anonymous gave $50,000. She had never heard of Democracy Now! or independent community radio before, but was so convinced by how strategically this money was going to be used, that this was the most important thing she could give to in this year. That’s what we told people. It really worked. People want an alternative, and they’re willing to put their money to that alternative.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Marty Durlin, where do you go from here? As we flew into Denver yesterday and came into Denver Airport, it was quite something to be able to turn to, what was it, 1390 AM and to hear KGNU all the way in Boulder.

MARTY DURLIN: Yeah. It’s very exciting for all of us. We have to let people know it’s there. That’s the first thing, and that’s a grassroots effort for us. Word of mouth, list-servs, just trying to get the word out. We have had an outreach coordinator working with us, Vayshali Mishra in the Denver area, talking to non-profit groups and activists. So, that’s a big part of it. We want to become a real community resource for the diverse communities of Denver. That involves a discussion within KGNU about community. What does it mean? What is a community? We’ll be working off the fund of trust and history of working together, that we have — we have for 25 years at KGNU. We know that conflict will inevitably arise in an open-door media organization. We have learned how to deal with it. We hope we can carry that forward into this new chapter for KGNU. And of course, the issue of how our programming may change, as our community expands, and we still have a lot of money to raise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about that, Kris Abrams?

KRIS ABRAMS: Well, the purchase price for the AM station was $4.1 million. And we have raised just over $1.2 million so far. So, we have got at least another $3 million to raise just for the signal. We are not talking about increased staff or new news and public affairs programming from Denver. If it takes us the three years that we have allocated to raise that money, that’s going to be an additional $400,000 in interest, so there’s a lot left to do. We’re still looking for that million-dollar-angel investor. We’re launching a 1390-squared campaign in honor of the new signal, so if 1,390 people become founding members of KGNU Denver by giving $1,390 dollars, that’s nearly $2 million. That’s the power of relatively small donations. People can make those donations over time. It also goes to the broader question of where does the independent media movement go from here? What do we do with this knowledge? We know that the corporate media is failing us. We know that they served as a megaphone for power. We know that they played a role in bringing this country to war. We know that they keep the two-party system in place. When you hear this and you know that, what do you do? Do you maintain what you’re doing or do you try to expand? Do you try to reach new people? Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, and now a leader of the anti-war movement and the global justice movement, said simply, “We must make the corporate media irrelevant,” and that’s what this campaign is about. It’s about strengthening independent community radio stations. One community radio station, KGNU in Boulder, strengthening the programming but also reaching 2 million more people, and this needs to happen all over the country. That’s what this campaign is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonight we’re going to Albi in Denver for part of a Pacifica series of town halls. Kris, maybe could you talk about that. We’re going to be broadcasting this also, parts of it, on Democracy Now!, what it means to have a media that provides a forum for debate?

KRIS ABRAMS: We are starting off with a debate on gay marriage. We have an attorney from Equal Rights Colorado, and a spokesperson from the Family Research Council. It should be a very interesting debate. Then we’re broadening it into a panel discussion on how and whether politicians play on fear and prejudice in winning votes. And the idea behind this is not just to create, you know, a two-hour broadcast, but to show people what community radio is. Denver has not had the opportunity to have these in-depth discussions on local and national issues. So, this is going to be a window into what that is. The event is tonight at 7:00 at the Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman Street. You can call 303-449-4885 for tickets. If you want more information on this campaign, you can call that number or go to our website, or email me at

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much. Also, Bob McChesney. Do you see this as a viable option for other community media? You’re chair of the Pacifica board, which is more, Pacifica is more, than the five stations. It’s about the community media movement in the country. Marty?

MARTY DURLIN: Well, I hope so. I hope there are less expensive ways to reclaim the media. Bob McChesney talked about the corporate media taking over the dial. In the left end where non-commercial stations are mandated to be, there are many religious broadcasters who have gobbled up that spectrum as well. So, I think we need to be alert, I think for any opportunity to get any frequency, and I also want to say that the low-power movement is a big step in the right direction. Reclaiming pieces of our broadcasting spectrum.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Kris Abrams and Marty Durlin. I also want to thank you, Kris, for all of your incredible work at Democracy Now! over the more than two-and-a-half years that you were there. Your dedication, your intelligence, your sensitivity, your organizing abilities, and getting us through some of the darkest days as we hunkered down in that firehouse in those first days and also making that transition from radio to radio and television, and now reaching close to 300 stations around the country. You really were seminal in making that happen. Thank you. Thank you for doing it here as well.

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