KKFI 90.1 is going through a transformation, but the changes aren’t yet audible. Instead, they’re visible, at least in the community radio station’s Westport offices. New signs — crisp, laser-printed sheets of paper — are posted everywhere, informing visitors of where they are to go or alerting volunteers to upcoming meetings and events. Parts of the station are now off limits to anyone but those who are “authorized.” There’s a visitor waiting area, stacks of newsletters and notices, and an efficient, organized look to the place. In some ways, it’s almost creepy. A sense of order has taken over a once-confused space whose disorganization seemed to convey the passion with which the volunteer-staffed station was run.
The subtle change is indicative of a more dramatic one: The new boss, former American Heartland Theatre marketing director Robert Barrientos, says KKFI “needs to start acting like a radio station.”
When Barrientos started with the station in June, KKFI had been without a general manager for about a year, since former general manager Greg Hanson succumbed to burnout and left the station for civilian life. In the interim, the station’s board of directors saw that it was time for a change, time for the station to move to the next level of its development.
Then along came Barrientos, a longtime broadcast professional who had taken a break from radio in 1994 when he left his development post at KCUR 89.3. Barrientos had found a successful fundraising formula at that public station, using community members to help with pledge drives — and that experience made him especially attractive to KKFI board members.
But what made Barrientos take a substantial pay cut to work at KKFI?
“I needed a new challenge,” he says. “I am excited by the changes that are occurring in media now. And I wanted to be a part of that. And it was going to be a challenge that was going to take someone with a lot of experience who knew the systems that have to be in place in a radio station.”
In other words, for 12 years KKFI has been run primarily by volunteers who don’t have much training or experience in radio, aside from what they’ve learned at KKFI. But that’s exactly what the station is for — to allow community members who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice to put theirs on the airwaves. And when a relative outsider who has never volunteered at the station starts talking about “acting like a radio station,” that can be intimidating.
“Change is hard, no matter what kind of change it is,” longtime volunteer and current program director Wendy Neutzler says of the volunteers’ reaction to Barrientos’ changes. “But I think in the long run we’re headed in the right direction. We’re still going through a transition period, but we work well together.”
Barrientos says he’d like to get volunteers more involved in the station by enforcing an existing rule that program hosts do four hours of volunteer work — outside their airtime — a month. He says only 25 of the station’s 110 volunteers actually fulfill that obligation. “We’re dealing with people who’ve gotten into the habit of just coming in here, doing their shows, not caring about the rest of the station, even though they sign an agreement to do four hours of volunteer work a month,” he says. “That’s what we’re working on — getting our volunteers to actually volunteer.”
It’s hard to believe, however, that Barrientos’ enthusiasm about the station won’t eventually catch on. When he gets going about KKFI’s future, the chain-smoking Barrientos becomes a smooth salesman. He launches into monologues that are part history lesson, part sales pitch, and part tent revival as he explains that KKFI is perfectly poised for the future of radio, when digital and Web radio will eliminate the problem of limited bandwidth and create more competition. In an age when more and more stations are embracing national programming, “Our niche is going to be the voice of Kansas City.”
So what about the programming? With local commercial radio being a homogenized wasteland, fiercely loyal KKFI listeners are apt to get a little nervous when they hear of such an eclectic station’s “professionalization.”
Not to worry, Barrientos says. While he wants to strengthen the station’s public-affairs programming with more local coverage, “We’re not going to screw around with our music programs…. This is where you go to find cutting-edge music. Plus we give a lot of local bands exposure, and we’re not going to mess with that; that’s our strength. That’s what we want to keep and that’s what excited me about coming here.”
Now they all want AM: When Entercom moved KXTR to AM in August over the objections of die-hard classical fans, Bob Zuroweste, the head of Entercom’s Kansas City operations, sent a letter to some local public stations, including KKFI, offering the classical stalwart’s “intellectual property” — music library and call letters — free to anyone who could provide an FM home for classical.
Barrientos nearly took him up on his offer — on one condition: “Hey, how about offering us the AM band?” he asked Zuroweste. “That way, we could probably do something with classical on the FM dial, but I’ve got programming that we’re committed to, so why not give us the AM so we can move that programming there?”
According to Barrientos, Zuroweste said he’d check with his bosses. “He never called me back.”
Zuroweste’s take: “We felt that the offer we gave them of the intellectual property was an incredible one, that this would enhance and improve the overall listenership of KKFI, and I told him I would get back to him if the AM was part of that deal or if that was to be taken into consideration. I checked with my higher-ups and they felt, as I did, that the offer of KXTR and its intellectual property was such an incredible deal that there was no reason to offer the AM property. Those things are very expensive and very limited, so we did not get back to him based on the fact that I told him that if there was any opportunity, I would. So I’m assuming that he took that as a no, and I guess I should call him if he didn’t.”
But since when did AM become such a hot property?