KBOO: out of the mainstream

by ,

Give a listen to KBOO, a Portland noncommercial radio station, for 24 hours and you'll hear the kinds of programs the corporate giants can't or won't touch

by Su-Jin Yim, Portland Oregonian

You can perhaps forgive a place originally named after a type of marijuana for being a bit scattered in its approach.

But scattered isn't a byproduct at KBOO 90.7 FM, it's a strategy.

This tiny, noncommercial radio station in a sky-blue building in Southeast Portland exists to cater to nearly everyone that the mainstream media tend to miss. On any given day, volunteer hosts mix up a perfectly Portland concoction of punk music, African American Muslim talk, one-time-only live studio performances and astrology-tinged commentary.

But today, nearly 40 years after it started as a classical music station, KBOO confronts a myriad of competitors, from Oregon Public Broadcasting to hip-hop station 95.5 FM. To fight a slight dip in membership -- its all-time high is 6,600 -- the station is amping up efforts to attract new fans among teenagers, Native Americans, Spanish speakers and others.

Last month, it launched the Urban High School radio project (a joint effort with Sabin Community Development Corp.) designed to bring teenagers into the station by giving them a monthly show of their own.

As KBOO and its army of nearly 500 volunteers ready for their spring pledge drive, community radio around the country is facing a critical challenge, KBOO board treasurer Gene Bradley says.

"There's a chance to put on a lot of stuff that people want to hear," he says. But amid the corporate radio giants and new technology like satellite radio and podcasting, "How do you let people know you're there?"

Twenty-four hours at KBOO reveals what potential listeners will find at Portland's noncommercial community radio station: the bizarre, the political and, in the dead of night, even the ambitious.

1:30 p.m.: Mitakuye Oyasin (which means "all my relatives" in Lakota)

Host Eugene Johnson's melodic voice growls into the microphone, reading a poem he wrote last weekend.

"America, you have memorials to many peoples you have wronged. And what about us red invisibles? . . . 98 percent reduction in my people's population by the same government whose rules I am forced to live by. . . . I want it all back and you, you should all want it all back. Don't you feel that ache?"

It's a passionate performance, but Johnson, who has a gentle laugh and long black hair, knows most Americans aren't interested in generations-old atrocities. Their eyes "glaze over," he says.

Johnson, who is Siletz and Blackfoot, won't let people forget.

"When I was in seventh grade, I was told there were no real Indians left," the 41-year-old truck driver tells a group of visiting young Native Americans. "Make new legends and make new songs about yourselves and all that you've done."

To members and volunteers, KBOO isn't just a radio station. It has four other identities, says longtime host and former board member Celeste Carey. It's a political nexus, a social network, a business and a social service/advocacy agency.

Sometimes, those interests collide.

The station naturally wants to reach out to new communities, but its own culture can be a barrier.

"KBOO has a very strong counterculture culture that makes it hard for minorities to feel welcome and accepted," Carey says. "Minorities are typically not as counterculture as people would expect them to be. Sometimes there's a rub there."

It's true that KBOO has a reputation for being a left-wing hippie haven, but Bradley argues that things have changed.

"If you talk to 10 people at KBOO about where they are politically, you're going to find a pretty good divergence," Bradley says. "You'll find liberal Democrats and a fair amount of Libertarians." 5:26 p.m.: KBOO Evening News

In KBOO's small news office, anti-Bush parodies hang on the walls. News reports list Iraqi casualties from the U.S. war and feature regular commentary by Texas populist Jim Hightower, things you won't always find in mainstream news.

Co-anchor Tom Knipe says KBOO grants him an opportunity rich in family history. His dad was on the radio on the East Coast.

"There have been radio journalists who have inspired me," says Knipe, who works at Community Cycling Center. "I want to be that voice for people."

Of course, life sometimes intrudes.

Studio 2's door opens, and Knipe and co-anchor Marliese Franklin, eyes popping, shoot out their arms, imploring Franklin's daughter, 9, to stay quiet. On the wall, the red on-air light is on.

The newscast cuts to a pre-recorded segment, and Franklin's daughter says calmly: "I would like to make myself a cheese sandwich."

With nine paid employees, KBOO relies on volunteers to answer the phone, host shows, sit on the board and fix technical problems. About 85 percent of its funding comes from member donations, Bradley says.

An advisory board considers proposals for new shows. Hopeful wannabe hosts sometimes even produce a pilot program, station manager Dennise Kowalczyk says.

Some hosts have been on the air for nearly three decades, a problem critics say leads to boring radio and declining membership.

Every host goes through training to make sure he or she know how to work the sound board and other equipment. Still, you can tell when an experienced show host goes on air. The transitions between songs are smooth, almost imperceptible in the case of experimental-music DJ Richard Francis, who's been doing his show for 25 years. Some, like reggae DJ Ben Schulte, come with professional experience. Others pick it up as they go.

One thing is certain, DJ Robert Johnson (aka Reggae Bob) says: "You gotta be really self-confident to come in here." 7 p.m.: Good Times with Reggae Bob

Wearing a jaunty hat and a relaxed attitude, Reggae Bob looks like a reggae host. But 10 minutes into his show, you find out Reggae Bob doesn't play much reggae. Instead, he plays old loves such as the Jackson Five, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin.

Johnson, a convivial 50-year-old taxi driver with a bald head and an easy smile, grew up listening to KBOO, which has aired African American-centric programs for decades. But lately, it seems people in his community are more interested in the hip-hop of 95.5 FM, he says.

"We gotta push it," Johnson, a Grant High School graduate, says. "We gotta let people know we're still here."

KBOO's new outreach coordinator, Chihiro Wimbush, who joined the station last summer, says his job is to help the station talk with the new and old communities it wants to serve. KBOO's programming advisory board is considering adding a two-hour Asian block on Sundays.

But getting into tightknit groups can be tough. KBOO recently tried to work with the Vietnamese community in organizing the Tet Festival, says Dr. John Tuan Pham, vice president of external affairs for the Oregon Vietnamese Community Association. The festival organizers, who gave KBOO a table at the festival, saw little need to work with the station.

"We, the Vietnamese, have our own radio station that's aired every night," Pham says. "We have our own TV station on cable."

Still, Wimbush says, "It's headed in the right direction. My job is to make sure to accelerate the process." 11:37 p.m.: Night of the Living Tongue

You hear the drumming first, then the yowling and guttural noises. It's not until you peer through the studio's doorway that you see doe-eyed host Jennifer Robin banging the tambourine against her leopard-print clad leg. Behind her, on the floor, guitarist Jake Anderson plays a wooden flute as Pippa Possible plays cow bells in the corner and drummer Brian Miller issues forth with caveman-esque sounds.

On top of the cacophony, Robin is . . . is she really? Yes, she's talking about the Romans. In fact, what looks to be a history book on the Romans rests on the desk by her microphone.

Robin, whose sparkly shoes match the studio's twinkling pink Christmas lights, has hosted this show for five years, always with live experimental music, sometimes including her studio band the Groop, which is here tonight.

Good news for fans: The Groop hopes to release a CD this spring

You couldn't find a show like "Night of the Living Tongue" anywhere else on the FM dial. Or the mix of languages, from Spanish to Chinese to New Age.

And therein lies both KBOO's glory and its struggle. A non-mainstream station will never get mainstream dollars, making each year a triumphant affirmation of a community's devotion. If an eclectic community station can survive anywhere, it should be in Portland, KBOO's supporters believe.

KBOO doesn't have the resources to conduct one of those fancy listener surveys. It counts on the community to tell it when it's time for a show to go and another to be born.

At 2 a.m., when DJ Ital Vibes (aka Ben Schulte) is spinning his modern reggae, it's tempting to feel alone in the world.

But at 2:29, the white light blinks. It's a caller. And it's proof, Schulte says.

"There are people out there."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey