Like most people who move to the Twin Cites from anywhere beyond the Upper Midwest, I couldn’t help but be blinded by the white. This was in 1997, when Minnesota largely defined diversity by hair color.
The first place I volunteered was KFAI, one of the nation’s most respected community radio stations. There, in the office and studios, I found all sorts of people I used to see everywhere in California—black, Hispanic, Laotian, queer, hippie, the disabled. KFAI reflected a Minnesota I couldn’t find in the newsroom of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, nor in any other local media.
KFAI is community radio. MPR is public radio. I don’t know if there’s a legal distinction but, nonprofit status aside, it’s difficult to find commonalities. KFAI airs more than 80 programs produced by local hosts across a rainbow of ethnicities, identities and themes, and it operates around the clock on an annual budget of $1.2 million. Minnesota Public Radio is a monochrome monolith controlling three FM channels, with an operating budget topping $80 million.
I say monochrome because MPR—particularly at The Current, MPR’s pop music channel— doesn’t reflect this community’s diversity, ethnically or sonically. Hennepin County is 77 percent white, Ramsey County 72 percent white. At The Current, each of the 14 show hosts highlighted on the station’s Web site is white. MPR News’ three staff arts reporters are white. Do I even need to bother detailing Classical MPR?
When I arrived in the Twin Cities, people were lamenting the recent loss of an alternative station called Rev 105. Apparently, the Rev rocked. Then again, Minnesotans at the time were drooling over the homegrown Honeydogs, so who knows? A few Rev DJs, I believe, wound up at the Current. I’m sure the Current’s hosts are wonderful people—they sure sound like the kind of people you’d invite to a party over, say, me—but, man, their playlists lean heavily to white listeners desperate for a nap.
Who started the meme that Mumford & Sons belonged on anyone’s heavy rotation? Or Dawes? Or Snow Patrol? Or … Oh, sorry … I dozed off writing this sentence.
In an entire week of Current programming, only two weekly shows—three hours of total air time—are hosted and programmed by people who don’t need to pay attention to SPF ratings. I don’t know whether there’s a wry self-critique in the title of one of these shows, “P.O.S. is ruining the Current.”
I’m more taken aback by how MPR’s managers further define the whiteness—middle- to upper-class college-educated family people with disposable incomes—evidenced by the moneyed sponsors dotting every breath in programming and the autistic fundraising drives that turn a week of programming into a wall-to-wall sales pitch. In fairness, every public broadcasting outlet raises money this way, and so does KFAI. But because the Current cultivates an esthetic where the listeners at 10 a.m. could be the same people listening at 10 p.m., the sameness of these drives is interminable. Ditto for the music.
There are countless ways to divide the diversity pie, but because many people regard music the soundtrack for viewing, shaping, carving and reinforcing worldviews and daily lives, there are real exclusions to MPR’s whiteout. I’ll bet Kevin Beacham and Siddiq, the only non-white midweek hosts at the Current (10 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays) have given as much thought to playing the Jayhawks as hosts Barb Abney, Mary Lucia and Mark Wheat (who control 12 consecutive hours of programming every weekday) have to exposing Minnesotans to veteran East Bay rapper E-40. The soul and R&B dotting a day’s playlist is meant to appeal to middle-aged white hipsters. There are far more genres of music you won’t hear with any regularity at the Current than styles you will. I’m a liberal, college-educated 50-year-old white guy, and I listen to a lot of avant jazz and metal. There’s no home for me at 89.3 FM.
Nonprofit public radio shouldn’t concern itself so much with formats and, instead, represent the breadth of its community. That’s especially so with MPR, which receives $1.5 million each year in base funding from the Arts and Culture Heritage (Legacy) Fund and another $1.3 million in state money from a “competitive public radio grant.” This base funding is inexplicably out of reach for nonprofit media whose initials aren’t MPR or TPT—an exclusive largesse won by these networks’ lobbyists. I’d like to see MinnPost, the Twin Cities Media Alliance and other nonprofit media here that cover the arts pressure legislators for equal access to Legacy dollars. I’d also love to see the inevitable legal counter arguments from MPR and TPT for preserving this exclusionary status quo.
But no matter—here we are. At least TPT created and fully staffed a new program, “MN Original,” with its Legacy funds (a slick, big-budget knockoff of my video program, 3-Minute Egg). What does MPR give us? At MPR News, the State of the Arts blog and the weekly Art Hounds feature are “made possible, in part” by Legacy funds. The reporter behind this blog was doing more deeply reported arts journalism before being diverted online with Legacy dollars, and Art Hounds existed before Legacy funding. So really, MPR News is playing a shell game with Legacy money, moving it around the ledger and padding its budget rather than creating anything new.
At the Current, Legacy funds pay for two online-streaming-only channels—Local Current and H2 Local, a show dedicated to local hip-hop. The music is vital, diverse, unpredictable and far more dynamic than what the Current puts over the air—and, together, they prove homegrown music is strong enough to support a broadcast channel of its own. But with the online-only relegation, MPR programmers are treating their broadcast audience as a homogenous mass that can only handle a certain sliver of Minnesota music. As it is, it’s an insult to Twin Cities music, at large, that the “Local Show” runs on-air only from 6-7 p.m. Sundays—an hour less than the program enjoyed in The Current’s earliest days.
For many reasons, Minnesota artists should command at least three-quarters of the Current’s on-air playlists. People can go anywhere—podcasts, online radio, YouTube—to hear and determine for themselves they shouldn’t lose another moment to Fountains of Wayne.
In building Opine Season, I looked to KFAI as a model for shaping this network of columnists—four of whom I’d never met before reaching out to them. They come from vantages and write about topics—and bring distinctive voices—that wouldn’t be within reach of a white slate. Each writer is cultivating an audience that, at least to some degree, is discovering writers they normally wouldn’t know about or read.
The Current is fortunate, if you can call it that, to reside in a weak market for commercial music radio. Still, its ratings are terrible. This shouldn’t hit the bottom line as it would with a commercial station, but the ratings do indicate something isn’t clicking. As smartphones become more ubiquitous and newer cars are equipped to receive Net-based channels, The Current will not only have to contend with local competition, but also Web radio based anywhere—not to mention Spotify, Pandora and others of that ilk.
I want The Current to thrive. But its managers need to commit to age, ethnic and racial diversity among its hosts and commit a majority of airtime chiefly to Minnesota-bred music. It would be better in the immediate sense for listeners and, over the long haul, for MPR. Until then, I’ve got 89.3 FM preset as my lullaby.