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Low power, high hopes: KRSM brings community radio to south Minneapolis

Lula Saleh at a training session in March

Lula Saleh at a training session in March Courtesy of KRSM

Inside the Waite House Community Center sits a small room with concrete walls. It looks like a gym teacher’s office—and right down the hall is a swimming pool.

“Not an Olympic pool, but one step down,” says Brendan Kelly, the 40-year-old station manager for 98.9 KRSM-FM, the noncommercial low-power FM (LPFM) station headquartered in the office. The pool, he says, is currently being renovated: “They’re going to have track meets there. I think this building is really going to become more of a destination.”

For many in the neighborhood, it already is. From its unglamorous office in the Waite House, a Parks Department building run by the Pillsbury United Communities located on East 24th Street in south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, KRSM serves the South Side. Its 100-watt signal reaches Como on the north end and Nokomis on the south, a range of about 3.5 miles, as established by FCC rules.

It’s also streamable at krsmradio.org. Last March, KRSM had a digital-only soft launch. “By design, we have attracted predominantly a lineup of hosts who have no background in radio,” says Kelly. “I wanted it to feel like, ‘Somebody could be listening, so I have to take this seriously.’”

A healthy number of people have certainly been listening since the station planted its antenna on the Waite House roof the day after Thanksgiving. A bookmark-sized flyer boasts that KRSM offers “over 80 hours of programming,” from music to political discussion to cooking shows, by and for the community, with programming in six languages (English, Spanish, Ojibwe, Somali, Haitian Creole, and Hmong).

“All the things we pictured the station sinking its fingers into, some version of that work exists in this building,” says Kelly. “It put us in this intersection of all these different communities, all these different people with experience and knowledge about the community that we wanted to serve.” Seven new shows are about to launch. “One is [hosted] by a 10-year-old, and one is by a 70-year-old.”

The station began recruiting on-air talent last December. “This year we’ve led something like 135 trainings, ranging from introduction to the equipment and software in this room to more specialized classes, how to do recording, editing, production, sound stuff, how to do recording on location, FCC rules and regulations,” says Kelly. “We have portable recording equipment that people can check out.”

But they almost didn’t have a station at all. “In mid-June, a sizable portion of money we were counting on, through no control of our own, just evaporated,” says Kelly. “We had to be up and running by the beginning of December. We were suddenly 40 grand shy of that.” A fundraising drive through July netted the station its goal, thanks to “hundreds of individual donors, local businesses like Rhymesayers, and different community organizations.”

Kelly’s Rhymesayers connections go deep: As BK-One, Kelly spent over a decade on the road as Brother Ali’s DJ. The two met shortly after Kelly, a Milwaukee native who’d moved here to attend the University of Minnesota in 1996, began co-hosting The Beatbox, a Saturday-morning independent hip-hop show on Radio K. “Before he’d performed locally, before he’d really recorded anything, Brother Ali used to call in,” says Kelly. “He and I started sneaking into the B-studio where you’d record promos and PSAs at Radio K. It gave me access to digital recording and production equipment. These standing dates were basically for me to learn how to produce and engineer.”

Kelly spent “eight to ten months of each year” on the road with Ali, but he and his wife wanted to start a family and “I didn’t want to be a touring parent,” he says. He gave a year’s notice and returned to full-time civilian life in 2010. “I had no idea what I’d do next,” he says, “and mostly I didn’t do anything. I just relished being a dad.”

He also got involved in the community activism that has long been a hallmark of the Phillips neighborhood. In particular, he began attending meetings—spearheaded by Steven Renderos and Danielle Mkali, then of Main Street Project, as well as Waite House’s Francisco Segovia, Chaka Mkali (aka Rhymesayers artist I Self Divine) from Hope Community Inc., and a handful of representatives from the Native American nonprofit Little Earth—that were focused, says Kelly, on “racial inequity within traditional media. Who controls the narrative? How can we put tools into those communities’ hands and help them lift up their story, their concerns, their cultures?” When the FCC announced it would be opening up bandwidth to LPFM stations, a community station seemed the obvious way to go.

“I think there’s a temptation to plant a flag and say, ‘This station represents south Minneapolis,’” says Kelly. “But I think it’s better to view it as a tool that we’re making available to these communities. There’s no one show that can encapsulate the community: ‘We are not homogenous, and if you really want to represent us, we can’t just be a box that you check off.’ Like, ‘Great! Got our Native American show.’”

That’s especially important in Phillips, where Waite House is blocks away from the birthplace of the American Indian Movement. “To my knowledge there’s one show on all of FM radio that exists hosted by an indigenous-identifying host,” says Kelly. “We launched eight hours a week of programming [by Native Americans], and I believe four more hours are on the way. It gives us a whole palette of voices who can feel free to specialize in the topics they know the most about. I’d like to think it’s something I already would have been thinking about. But meeting with these different communities and asking questions, it’s really driven home for me the importance of building a programming schedule around that. These conversations around equity and representation and control of narrative [can] feel too big to get your hands around, but when you say, ‘All those things in this specific area,’ it suddenly becomes a lot more tangible and doable.”

The station’s application was approved in October 2015, while Kelly and his wife were on vacation. After they returned, he says, “Francisco takes me out for a beer and says, ‘We’ve decided we need to pay somebody to run the station. We decided it should be you.” At the end of 2016, the station acquired its equipment, with Kelly and a friend buying wood from Menard’s to build the studio’s wraparound desk. “It looks remarkably like my studio at home, minus all the records,” he says with a laugh.

Despite running in full for less than two months, KRSM’s rapid growth may demand more space. “Unlike KFAI, where if you walk in those doors, you’re walking by the doors of 20 different programs, I can’t just give someone a 1 a.m. show here unless I feel like coming in to let them in, staying here through their whole show, and setting the building code when they leave,” says Kelly. “We’re going to hit capacity for the way we do things now, probably next year, at which point we’ll need to make some decisions about what happens next.”