General 9-23-2003

Perfect 10: Celebrating Radio K’s Birthday

Andrew Knighton celebrates the decade of rich musical life that is Radio K, 770 AM, local music's capital in Minnesota.

Andrew Knighton

In 1995, a quirky 7-inch single by the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, called “Minneapolis,” emerged from the morass of static just up the AM dial from WCCO. “There’s a place I’d like you to move,” Ruiz sang in a caramel warble, beckoning listeners to, among other things, break out their hockey sticks and join the elderly on the 17 bus. Ruiz’s hit was as improbable as it was infectious — and while the endorsement of mayor Sharon Sayles Belton very temporarily made “Minneapolis” the jingle of the city, it sounded more like the anthem of a community.

The rental market inflation of the ensuing years may have negated Ruiz’s promise of “a cheap apartment you can call your own,” but the unabashed civic pride of “Minneapolis” has yet to abate. The station behind its success was Radio K (770 AM), and, now ten years old, the community anchored by that station is as vibrant as ever. The successor to the old University of Minnesota station WMMR, Radio K’s perseverance over the past decade is all the more remarkable given the grave condition of the radio market, which, with very few exceptions, is an arena of format-swapping and profit-mongering, guided by what the theorist Allen Weiss calls mainstream radio’s “stultifying ‘laws’: the law of maximal inoffensiveness, the law of maximal indifference, the law of maximal financial return.”

Celebrating a decade of fleering at such impositions, Radio K is about to launch an extended birthday party conducted throughout the month of “Rocktober.” Ten concerts commemorating the station’s achievements will be held throughout the month, kicked off with the fall installment of the “power surge,” the semi-annual pledge drive that raises about a fifth of the station’s half-million-dollar budget (the rest coming from the University, student fees, business underwriters, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). One instinctively cringes at the idea of a celebration that is also in part a fundraiser, but traditionally the pledge drive foregrounds the station’s charms: many of its one hundred student volunteers and staff will fill breaks with testimonials that are frank and unscripted — and often endearingly giddy or awkward. This birthday surge will also air for the first time numerous documentary segments in which station personalities, past and present, recall highlights from the station’s history.

It might be worth mentioning that another key anniversary in radio history follows in November — Lee de Forest’s groundbreaking demonstration, ninety years ago, of how vacuum tubes could be used as signal amplifiers. While de Forest’s technology, with which he took the sound of a dropped handkerchief and turned it into a deafening crash, today appears rather crude (and we also have to credit his demonstration with introducing the phenomenon of “static”), the amplification he pioneered is a highly pertinent metaphor in this case. Radio K’s flagship signal is a mere 5000 AM watts, recently complemented by a tiny 10 watt off-hours FM broadcast (which can be heard in the southwest metro area at 106.5 FM) and a streaming Internet broadcast-without-borders available at But the station is a mouse that roars; it leverages its modest sonic resources into a remarkable cultural presence palpable not only in the station banners that fly at innumerable sponsored events or the bumper stickers and stocking caps that are seemingly everywhere, but also in the burgeoning networks of affiliation that extend the station far beyond its University origins and its musical emphasis, deep into the area’s cultural fabric.

Today, Radio K faces the somewhat enviable problem of being widely in demand as a co-conspirator with cultural institutions ranging from campus organizations to the Walker Art Center to the Triple Rock Social Club. “It is hard to keep up with the people who want to work with us, and that interest has just ballooned beyond everyone’s expectations over the last ten years,” says veteran staffer Mark Wheat. “Longevity instills confidence.”

Though longevity certainly plays a part, Radio K’s long-term success is probably equally attributable to the relationships that flourish between its listeners, supporters, and staff. Though Jean-Paul Sartre dissed the radio medium for its “seriality” — how it simultaneously reaches huge numbers of people only to isolate each of them in their own listening environment, subjected to messages crafted without their participation — listening to Radio K for a while makes it necessary to rethink this description. The station doesn’t impose assumptions on its listeners, nor does it merely reflect a pre-existing scene from which it remains aloof; the station is rather an indispensable element of a larger local creative project in which it functions simultaneously as a participant and a catalyst. Specialty programming on the weekends reaches out to world and electronic music fans, punks, hip-hoppers, and obscure oldies freaks. On Sunday afternoon a local “music lover” visits the studio to play his or her favorites, and each week listener feedback is invited on potential playlist additions. DJs can experiment with the nether regions of the station’s vinyl collection and to play tons of requests — here a dedication to someone cramming for a psych exam, there a day-brightener for the guy getting bled behind a copy shop counter somewhere. An enigmatic dedication from an unnamed listener to his girlfriend — the song is the Smiths’ “Unhappy Birthday” — gets you thinking that other people’s lives might be kind of intriguing, even if they’re probably a lot like your own.

The reciprocity of Radio K and its community is most evident in its engagement with local musicians. Gone are the days of 77-hour all-local music marathons (an endurance stunt perhaps partly reflecting the old WMMR slogan arguing that “music should hurt”), but local music still makes up a sizable percentage of the playlist and is the sole focus of Friday afternoon’s “Off the Record” show, which surveys the weekend’s events and features a live performance in the vaunted Studio K each week. On air, the studio sometimes sounds like a meeting hall or maybe a reckless happy hour: a cacophony of dissonantly juxtaposed musical genres, interviewees outnumbering microphones, musicians performing live, and blasts of concert and band news. The live performances are a rare radio treat by any measure, and all the more so for their regularity; some of the more notable appear on a series of highly-listenable CD compilations called “Stuck on AM” (Volume 4 is to be released in October), and others reappear from the obscure crannies of the station’s history on a daily basis, in an early afternoon feature called the “Live One at One,” which gives plenty of long-forgotten artists the chance to sound live once again.

Features and promotions like these have increasingly stratified the broadcast day, giving it signposts and familiarity, and pushing Radio K further and further from the kind of free-form roots that can make college radio by turns exhilarating and trying. An unpolished appeal nevertheless continues to pervade the broadcasts, in the unpredictable skip of a vinyl record and in the inevitable on-air goofs of a student staff publicly learning how to do what they want to do. On holidays, when the station is purely free-form, it is easy to get carried away by the freedom of it all, and to think that maybe Radio K’s delicate equilibrium between liberty and listenability might be productively tweaked a bit more to the incautious side. But mostly one wonders at the station’s ability to create an actual, solid community out of a format that is not only an anomaly in the corporate radio world, but which also fundamentally depends for its existence on the fragility of vibrations conducted through the air. The AM signal, due to FCC regulations, must cease broadcasting at sunset, and in the summer you can almost imagine the last few notes suspended, momentarily, before they diffuse into the hazy still of evening, into the ether in which we, too, live. “It is there that music floats,” as Alberto Savinio once wrote, to which we might add that it is there, in Minneapolis and beyond, that a vital and participatory community thrives.