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Capitalism is coming to "the voice of the people." Can KNON stay solvent without selling out?
By Rod Davis |

MARC TUTON, 38-YEAR-OLD ME-chanic, welder and self-described “agent of the federal government,” barely has a moment to unwind after the night shift at the main post office repair depot in Oak Cliff. If he’s going to beat rush-hour traffic to the KNON studio in Little Asia by 9 a.m., he’s got to move. No time even to change clothes: sweat-stained khaki work shirt-his name sewn over the left pocket, matching trousers, thick-soled, muddy shoes. His reddish beard and wire-rimmed glasses make him look like a stand-in for a ZZ Top video, but he’d sooner drown in a barrel of frogs.

He makes it on time, parking his ’83 Ford pickup curbside in front of the deteriorating two-story house where the station defines, and in many ways defends, the cutting edge of free-form radio in Dallas. There’s talk around town that KNON’s edge has been dulled by greed of late, and Tuton’s heard the talk. But he’s been there for six years, and if he took the talk that seriously he’d find better things to do with his day off.

Pushing through the station’s often-jimmied front door, he makes his way up a dark stairwell to a textbook example of what a modern studio, let alone a greedy one, shouldn’t be. A boom mike hovers like a praying mantis over a control board that, except for the new all-metal Technics turntables and CD players, might have been purchased at K mart. The shag carpet is so ugly no one but Ranger Rita dares walk on it barefoot, but as program director she’s got tough soles. The air conditioner rattles in the lone window. DJs peer out through it routinely to see if their cars are OK, or maybe to watch shoot-outs and drug deals among the surrounding crack cribs and hooker palaces on San Jacinto Street just below.

The Monday morning public affairs talk show that precedes his own gig is not quite finished, so Tuton passes the time by sifting through a plastic crate of albums he’s lugged in. Like the other 90 or so volunteer DJs- Awesome Andrew, EZ-Eddie-D, Jah Stacy, Jane Doe, Dave Chaos, Curtis Kidwell, Rev. Richardson, etc.-Tuton not only doesn’t get paid, but goes into the hole buying his own stuff.

AS A WHITE BOY GROWING UP IN Dallas in the ’50s, Tuton got hooked on the blues listening to Big Bill Broonzy on the old Jim Lowe show on WRR. He bought the records, and a guitar, and studied with the best he could find in Dallas. “”Some people find Jesus. I found finger picking.” Then, at work, a chisel bit broke off and sheared the muscles in one of the fingers on his left hand. He can’t play the blues anymore himself, but at KNON he can play blues records for others. Not even in a Robert Johnson lyric can you get a love like that.

At the stroke of 9, Tuton takes over the mike and cues up his theme song, “Boogie-in’ in Strassburg,” a rollicking vamp by the late Alex Moore, “Dallas’ grand Buddha of the barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, stomp-stride, good-time blues piano himself.” Then “Marc’s Hot Licks” is off for its regular two-hour Monday morning run of acoustic blues, acerbic commentary and mishaps of community radio:

“That was Lightning Hopkins when he had a drummer who knew how to follow him…

“Disco is making a horrendous-did I say ’horrendous?’ Oops, I meant tremendous comeback, even at this station. . .

“Sorry, I read the wrong promo. I just realized it says that benefit is in San Antonio, not Dallas. It’s like the old saying: The large print giveth, and the fine print taketh away.”

Mostly, though, Tuton lets the music do his talking: Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Blind Blake, Mance Lips-comb, Earl Hooker. “Stuff you can’t find, and won’t hear, anywhere else in town,” says Tuton, who sure hopes it stays that way.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Lately, the hippest and riskiest non-profit station in the Southwest has begun to sell not only “underwriting” endorsements that sound exactly like ads, but also huge blocs of prepaid air time to disco clubs and other commercial sponsors. The rationale is that you stay solvent by any means necessary, that even free-form radio inevitably has to deal with marketplace capitalism. The critique is that selling out is selling out. The truth is just an old blues theme: You can’t get through life without a broken heart, ruined dreams and lost innocence.

A NON-PROFIT “COMMUNITY” STA-tion that came on the air in its present form in 1983 as “the voice of the people,” KNON has always prided itself on being a place where money isn’t everything, and certainly not the only thing. It wouldn’t take you long to figure that out if you tuned in to 89.3-FM, the KNON frequency since the station swapped its old one, 90.9-FM, with Baptist-controlled KCBI after a vicious license battle in 1988. The 24-hour bloc format ranges-so abruptly it gives you nosebleeds-from Cambodian to post-industrial dance music (disco) to gospel to heavy metal to ragamuffin hip-hop, with stop-offs in Hispanic-American onda, African-American blues, Caribbean reggae and Texas swing.

Patchwork programming can be a frustration if your idea of radio involves homogeneity or even predictability of content. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe it. But nobody can say KNON isn’t out there, and usually out there first. Stalwart aficionados have heard, before anywhere else locally, artists-in-the-making from Edie Brickell to Lyle Lovett to, though the hipper DJs don’t tout this a lot, Vanilla Ice.

The station is still a favorite among local musicians, who stream into the studio at all hours with fresh demos, hoping they’ll pop up on a show-and usually they will, if the music’s got any snap at all. KNON has also spawned a few gone-on-to-other-gigs DJs: George Gìmarc (The Edge), Nippy Jones (KKDA/K104) and Liza Richardson (KERA, and most recently KCRW, Santa Monica) are among the alumni.

There’s a reason those DJs are no longer at KNON. “Now I get paid,” Richardson observed of her switch.

That pretty much sums it up. Going into its ninth year of operation, the station has decided to shift its attention from making a statement to making sure the statement can continue to be made. That means facing a new range of issues starting with simple stuff like staff wages and extending through really hazy concepts like capital investments for the future. Ranger Rita, who went to the same high school in Phoenix as Richardson-“but the catch is I graduated the year Liza was born”-says it’s not really that complicated.

“I keep telling everybody around here we need to start operating like a business for a change.”

As program director, Rita understands only too well the depths of her understatement. If KNON were a commercial station, driven solely by profit, it could operate “like a business.” But KNON doesn’t bill itself as “the voice of the people” for nothing. The musical variety and risk taking are important, but are also lures, intended to draw in what the station calls “low-and moderate-income listeners’-the have-nots ignored by the demographic imperatives of commercial radio. Amid the musical idiosyncracy, KNON pumps out public affairs spots, talk shows and ad lib announcements telling people how to buy RTC houses, deal with landlords, obtain health care, find jobs, avoid AIDS, lobby City Hall, and so on.

These efforts as much as the music form the spiritual core of the station, which, though perhaps not on a “mission from God.” takes its role in community activism seriously. The Agape Foundation, a mixed-race, non-profit association of business people, lawyers, ministers and pretty much anyone wishing to join, has held the station’s license since 1983 and has always been politically progressive. So has ACORN, the New Orleans-based grass-roots activist group that helped get KNON back on the air in 1983 after several years of semi-dormancy.

Though considered a “lobbying” organization and thus prohibited by FCC rules from directly owning broadcast outlets. ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now) has over the years become deeply involved in station operations and policy. An ACORN offshoot, the New Orleans community radio consulting firm AM/FM, is under contract with Agape to manage KNON operations and recruit staff. In 1985, ACORN lent Agape $60000 to build its new transmitter, enabling the station to boost power to its present 55,000 watts.

In 1987, ACORN was accused by the Cris-well Center for Biblical Studies of having engineered a de facto takeover of KNON, a rumor that persists today despite specific rejection of the Baptist allegation by the FCC. In fact, ACORN’s relationship with Agape is as friendly, and legal, as that between the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies and KCBI. But the alliance is also a significant source of KNON’s growing pains.

ACORN. AM/FM and Agape made a decision in early 1990 that the best way to advance the station’s political and social goals-and pay off its debts-was to increase KNON’s audience and its revenues. New listeners will come when the station, pending FCC approval. boosts power again, this time to 100,000 watts. New revenues, the station management decided, could only come by trading on its most precious resource-air time.

But air time constitutes the very identity of the station, and as pieces of the programming clock began to be parceled out to this sponsor or that underwriter, something just seemed to feel wrong. To those who felt KNON was a different kind of animal, the feeling was of being caught in a trap and having to chew off your leg to stay alive.

NOWHERE IN DALLAS IS THERE ANY disc jockey like Ranger Rita, although there used to be one in Waxahachie, where she once worked at KBEC-AM. Four years ago, she found herself bored and living in Richardson. Her Mormon husband, an engineer, worked long hours, her kids were grown-up and her days as a Cub Scout den mother and docent at the Meadows Museum were gladly behind. She began driving down to volunteer at the station she listened to and liked. First, she helped organize libraries, files and office paper work; then she got her own show, and in 1989 became program director.

A willowy peroxide blond who walks shoeless around the studio in tight jeans and starched pink shirts, Ranger Rita has inflicted a sense of order on the place, perhaps from her Mormon faith, that has earned her the secondary moniker “Killer Robot.” Nobody crosses her, and, by all accounts, nobody puts in more hours. She’s one of the four paid staff members, and most of what she makes, which works out to far less than minimum wage, she spends on records or equipment for the station.

Ranger Rita, whose nomme d’air was borrowed from a country song (she never uses her real name, which she says “is worse than Heather”), was named “Metroplex Country Music Association Disc Jockey of the Year” in 1989. If you’ve heard her show, “(The Yuppie Edition of) The Super Roper Redneck Revue,” Monday, 5-7 p.m., you might wonder why. Her air voice, a grating falsetto twang-an exaggeration, but not by much, of her real tones-makes Norm Hitzges sound like Charlton Heston doing God. That’s fine with her. Slickness ain’t a virtue at KNON.

“I don’t really hire people for their voices,” she explains while punching a PSA cartridge into one of the usually unreliable play-back machines. “When a listener calls in about the guy who says ’I’m shooting you the finger,’ a DJ has to be able to say, ’Yeah, that’s Robert Earl Keen Jr.’ That’s what DJs here have to do. It’s real old-timey radio.”

That said, she cues up the song in question, one of the most requested of the year, an insouciant ballad of romance, or traffic congestion, or both, that pretty much typifies what KNON means by “country” music:

You keep a-swervin’ in my lane, and causin’ lots of danger/

I’m a-cussin’ out your name, I’m a-shootin’ you the finger.

(Robert Earl Keen Jr., No Kinda

Dancer, Rounder Records, 1989.)

That’s Rita the DJ. But then there’s Killer Robot. These days at the station, you also have to bring in the bucks.

Almost 90 percent of the station’s $220,000 annual budget still comes from the universally hated, two-week pledge drives each quarter-twice as many as at KERA. Marc Tuton calls it “groveling,” but it’s Rita’s job, as Killer Robot/program director, to remain fixated on the goal. The goal is to bring in enough money to pay the bills. Sometimes that means letting go of DJs who don’t meet pledge quotas, a no-fun practice that’s been on the increase at KNON since June 1990. when Rita”s boss, station manager Mark McNiell, dismissed six jocks, mostly from the college and alternative rock formats.

McNiell, a former news director recruited from Little Rock by AM/FM, thought those shows were overrepresented in the lineup and were also consistently low in pledge donations. The people who got dumped thought McNiell was a barbarian. McNiell was raked by the local music press, and dire forebodings were advanced. McNiell, it was said, didn’t know or care about music, and was turning the station into something political, not musical.

“KNON was a bastion of people passionately caring, really caring about what goes out on the air,” observes former program director Craig Taylor. Now lead singer in the band Killbilly, Taylor was fired in 1988 by McNiell’s predecessor in a dispute over programming content. “Music is the only thing that matters to the volunteer programmers. But music is not the thing for KNON anymore.”

Although Ranger Rita says she “learned everything about programming I know from Craig Taylor,” she doesn’t agree with his assessment. Music matters a lot to her. But so do the station’s social aims and so does keeping the place afloat. McNiell wants her to set up a schedule to help make KNON “self-sufficient.” What else can she do as program director but try to put all the competing claims-money, music, politics, egos-in some kind of alignment that maximizes the bucks and minimizes the deviation from the mission?

The task is formidable. For example, the morning gospel shows from 4 to 7 a.m. (“working class rush-hour”) are known to have among the most loyal of listeners, and among the poorest. Pledge goals are relatively modest-usually a few hundred dollars. Rev. Richardson, the preacher in overalls you hear each Thursday morning, comes back and forth to the station during pledge periods carry ing rumpled checks he’s personally gone to pick up-the fulfillment rate on the gospel pledges is only about 10 percent, compared to 90 percent for top-producing shows. The average donation at the station is $35; gospel pledges are about half that.

In contrast, Ranger Rita’s two shows, “The Super Roper Redneck Revue” and “The Magic Time Warp Machine” (co-hosted by M.C. Goober of the Half Price Books show), are favorites of white, middle-class listeners (the station tracks pledges by ZIP codes). She targets her programs and any other drive-time shows for at least $1,000 each; pledges usually make the goal or come pretty close.

Other programs, such as Ivan Stang*s Sunday evening “Hour of Slack,” a send-up of evangelism based on the fictitious “Church of the Subgenius,” also draw high pledges. Among the most reliable earners, is disco. DJ Curtis Kid well’s “Forbidden Planet” on Thursday nights may be an “ultra cool too hip to dance to show.” as Ranger Rita calls it, but because of the essentially “yuppie” audience, its offering of groups like Xymox, Chris and Cosey, ACR and 808 State always puts it at or near the top of the pledge drive results.

It is exactly these kinds of pledge disparities that have forced KNON to re-evaluate the ways it raises money. You can squeeze some shows only so much. But you can get a new squeeze.

Of all the specialized formats at KNON, the one that seems most out of place occurs during the five-hour “Hispanic bloc” each weekday afternoon, The bloc begins at noon with pledge-driven shows hosted by volunteer DJs like Awesome Andrew, a sumo wrestler-sized Irving garbage man né West Dallas street survivor. On his day off each Wednesday he comes in to host “La Onda Airwaves,” a popular show, especially among teenagers and young adults, that in some ways epitomizes the KNON ideal of reaching straight into the heart of a community. In Spanish, onda means wave; in Hispanic culture it refers to the new wave of Latino music produced in the United States.

Andrew says his job is to give the His-panics he grew up with, the “batos” and home girls, and their brothers and sisters and parents and cousins, a constant reminder of the music of their own people in their own language. He likes his job. “I feel like I’ve been cut down and put down a lot and look where I am,” he beams, cuing up La Som-bra’s dance hit, “Las Hijas de Don Simon.” All four of the studio’s incoming phone lines are flashing with listeners who want to hear more.

But at 2 p.m., Andrew has to give up the mike. For the next three hours, the station broadcasts “La Caliente,” a three-hour bloc of lugubrious Latino pop and Anglo Top-40 rock, and seemingly endless promos for Spanish-language magazines and other local businesses. You’d think you were on a totally different station. And in a way, you’d be right. Funded by Monopoly’s, a local Latino nightclub, “La Caliente” is run on remote from an office in Turtle Creek. DJ “Simon the Diamond” Molina isn’t a KNON volunteer, he’s an independent businessman.

It’s no surprise that “La Caliente” is considered a charlatan by many of the KNON DJs, especially the Hispanic ones who find their alloted programming bloc virtually swallowed whole. Most DJs who want to get a show on KNON must present their ideas and arguments for it to Ranger Rita, who assesses both its social need and musical worth. That makes for a fairly tough winnowing, but anyone who gets a show does so based on Rita’s eclectic-heck, eccentric- but rarely impeachable standards. Not so with “La Caliente.” Its bank draft is its qualification.

In fact, neither Ranger Rita or station manager Mark McNiell are thai wild about “La Caliente.” But they can’t ignore the financial-impact of its genre-known as prepaid programming. The current rate card charges $5,000 per year, in advance, for a one-hour prepaid show each week. Only the very top-producing pledge shows, which struggle to draw $1,500 in donations per hour each quarter, can compete. But pledge money’s not guaranteed and is a lot harder to drag in. One good sales call and you put the money in the bank.

There have been several good sales calls. Prepaid programming at KNON now includes “Rhythm Nation,” a hip-hop hour sponsored by a nightclub; “Radio Bharati,” the Indian hour each Sunday prepaid by the India Association of North Texas; and “By the Book” a Wednesday night musical spoof theme show paid for by Half Price Books and hosted by two of its employees.

Only outright advertising could bring easier money, and KNON has started doing that, too. Of course, the FCC doesn’t allow advertising in non-profit broadcasting, but it does permit “underwriting.” Once upon a time, underwriting was quaint and genteel: “Shakespeare Radio Theater is presented in part by a grant from XYZ Corporation.” But the restrictions have relaxed so much in the past decade that only the most discerning ear can tell an underwriting spot from an ad.

In one month last summer, thanks to Texas Trevor, the station’s first full-time sales rep. KNON sold more than $20,000 in underwriting spots-quadruple anything it had ever done before. At $10 for a 30-second spot and $12 for 60 seconds, often produced for free at the station, ad-like promos for car repair shops, telephone equipment services, nightclubs and psychic readers (well, it is KNON) began to pop up at all times of day. They especially saturate “La Caliente,” which is allowed to sell enough spots within its own prepaid time to cover its costs. In theory, at least, “La Caliente” could get its three-hour bloc for free. That makes for lousy, commercial-filled listening, but it’s OK with KNON, which also sells promos during “La Caliente” and which also enjoys the prepaid revenues.

There are even more temptations. The Blueprint Project, an experiment in “targeted demographic programming” now being tried at a few community stations around the country, allots up to 12 hours of programming a day aimed at high-income pledge audiences in order to pay for 12 hours to service the needs of lower-income listeners. It’s not difficult to see where this leads. “No one wants to get away from freedom of expression and creativity,” says McNiell. “But we have got to pay for it.”

Each quarter, Rita asks Killer Robot about priorities. Should she let McNiell sell yet another hour from the Hispanic bloc? Should she add more hours of lucrative disco or country and drop, say, the Saturday afternoon rap show, which brought in only $35, about 12 percent of the modest goal of $300 she had assigned it? Killer says not only yes, but hell yes. But Rita says the Hispanic bloc is already bearing the brunt of prepaid marketing and dropping the rap show could lose an important audience of black teenagers who could use information about jobs, AIDs, drugs, education. Money may be something at KNON these days, says Rita, but it’s still a long way from the only thing. Tell that to the bank, says Killer. One especially bizarre and memorable evening, Ranger Rita confronted Killer Robot on the air. She accused her alter ego of getting “out of control” and generally driving everyone crazy, and, in a fit of something that sounded like an attack on a barnyard rooster. Rita strangled her.

THE MAINSTREAM IS JUST TOO PAS-sive,” Dave Chaos shouts out to the two young, black-clad visitors. Each Wednesday night he’s overrun with fans who take to his show, “Twisted Kicks,” like college students once took to Dylan Thomas readings. “They don’t like to challenge the listener-or the businesses of the corporate sponsors,” he continues as they nod. “The music might be taking a shot at something that the sponsors are selling. You sure won’t hear ’The Goddam President Can Go to Hell’ on The Edge.” That’s not a political observation- or it might be-but more accurately it’s the title of a selection from Warrior Soul’s new album, God, Drugs and the New Republic, that Dave is cuing up.

Chaos isn’t his real name, but it could be. His frizzed hair, sleeveless T-shirt and semi-demented smile make Dave, a 27-year-old insurance company employee by day, purveyor of heavy metal by night, appear as though he’s just pulled his finger from the Big Socket. “Beat Me Senseless” by the Circle Jerks is his theme song and “Osaka Bondage” by John Zorn and Naked City is next up on the show.

“Twisted Kicks” can be rough listening, and it does poorly in pledge drives, relying instead on fund-raising concerts. Ranger Rita is a long way from being a fan. But she’s right there in insisting that it should have a place in the lineup. It’s not really a matter of her personal tastes, anyway. If Dave plays “Let’s Have A War,” by Sacred Reich and dedicates it to “Mr. Bush-whacked” and sets it up by commenting, “That’s how they control youth, isn’t it? They send ’em out to war,” it’s because there’s an audience that wants, even needs, to hear the anger, the irreverence, the aggression.

Ditto each Saturday afternoon when EZ-Eddie-D and his white cohort, D-Ask-Q, pump up the volume on KNON’s three-hour rap show. EZ-Eddie, a 30-year-old billing clerk by day, wears a “By Any Means Necessary” T-shirt, referring to Malcolm X’s advocacy of how black Americans should achieve liberation. Although not a Muslim, Eddie shares some of Islam’s morality. He won’t play “negative” music, or anything glorifying violence, drugs or sexual promiscuity.

“A lot of rappers are into that,” Eddie says, “but I won’t play anything that says things like, ’I’m gonna go out and bag that girl.’”

But it’s not a wimp show. EZ-Eddie says he’s got the dope (best) underground rap in town. Rappers like Baby G of the Dallas group “The 2awk” bring their own turntables to remix direct from the studio. Marly Marl, a famous New York hip-hop producer (LL Cool J and others), calls in to chat on the air. It’s live, fresh, radio at its best. But true to the subversive agenda at the station, radio at its best is just part of the action. “I consider myself kind of an educator,” says EZ-Eddie. “Hip-hop is a culture. I want to use it to break barriers, to let it become a way of communicating, so we can learn about each other.”

You can learn a lot about others listeningto KNON. Any day. any show. For example,Wednesday morning, 11 o’clock: “Cold CaseCountry” yields to “Rebel Reggae.” JahStacy, dreadlocked, smiling, not much caring that his car, out in the driveway, won’tstart without a jump, is going strong. Latemorning is a strange time for reggae, butthat’s another discussion. It’s here, now. andexactly as Jah Stacy, not some computerizedplaylist, wants it to be. Today, it’s especially new and raw. Rick Reid, the younggraphic artist who hosts “Bayous to BourbonStreet” on Monday night, but whose reallove is reggae, has come back from Jamaicawith a stack of impossible-to-find 45s. JahStacy is cuing them up, and even thoughsome are scratched, they’re what you’d neverhear anywhere else on the air in Dallas.They’re dished up by two men, one black,one white, doing the gig for free. For absolutely nothing. Or. if you prefer, foreverything.

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