MPR poses competition to Radio K

Two of The Current’s staff members helped found Radio K as University students.

Neil Munshi

Amy Dahl checked the levels on a mixer some say is as old as the 30-year-old Rarig Center, which houses the studios and offices of the University’s station, Radio K, AM 770.

“Can we say ‘hell’?” said Felix, a member of the local hip-hop group Heiruspecs, after listing off a few curse words. Dahl said she wasn’t sure if Felix could say those words during the group’s live, in-studio performance Friday.

Just as Dahl is uncertain of which words are appropriate for on-air use, an air of uncertainty is wafting through the station because of its new competition, Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current, 89.3 FM. The radio station debuted last week.

“We don’t like to say that they are copying us, because we believe in what they’re doing in terms of format,” said Mark LaCroix, Radio K’s program director. “But essentially, we are the model for them, and that Ö you can pretty much tell.”

Throughout the history of Radio K and The Minnesota Daily, employees have worked double-duty at both institutions. Radio K and the Daily serve as training grounds for future media professionals.

Mixed feelings abound at Radio K because staffers want to support public radio stations that play the sort of local and independent music found on Radio K’s play list, LaCroix said.

At the same time, many at the station are wary of Minnesota Public Radio’s reputation as a monopoly, he said.

“By and large, public radio people are nice folks and Ö are respectful of the ground people have staked out, but MPR is an exception,” said Andy Marlow, Radio K station manager. “They’ll do whatever they want to do to advance their ends, and they don’t really care if they hurt other public radio folks.

“They really have the soul of Clear Channel or Disney-ABC.”

Sarah Lutman, Minnesota Public Radio cultural programming and initiatives senior vice president, said she helped create The Current and dismisses such comparisons.

“I think that a lot of people think that anything that’s big must be bad,” Lutman said. “MPR has never really done anything that our listeners haven’t been in lock-step with, because that is Ö where we get our money to operate.”

She said people who listen to Minnesota Public Radio stations donate to keep them running.

Marlow, who helped found Radio K in 1993, said he thinks Minnesota Public Radio’s upper management, such President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Kling, is to blame for its monopolistic reputation. Marlow said that during the last 30 years he’s been with the University, he has seen Kling attempt to buy out many public radio stations.

He said he doesn’t blame The Current’s staff members – two of whom helped found Radio K as University students. He also said he does not think there was any malicious intent on their part.

“I just think they’re working for the wrong people,” Marlow said. “And I told them that.”

He said that when it was announced Minnesota Public Radio was buying St. Olaf College’s WCAL, there was speculation as to the new format. They found the new station was curiously similar to Radio K, he said.

Steve Nelson, who helped found Radio K, said the new station is not meant to compete with the University station. Instead, it is aimed to serve an audience Minnesota Public Radio has neglected in the past, he said.

“I think our goal is to serve the community – to nourish the mind and enrich the spirit,” Nelson said.

He said he was serving on Radio K’s advisory board when it was announced that he was the new program director for The Current. He said he was asked to resign by Marlow.

Nelson said that because the Twin Cities are “under-radioed” in comparison with other big cities, there is room for other stations in the market.

Lutman said each radio station could benefit from the other’s existence.

“(Radio K’s) audience might increase,” Lutman said. “The more people that are introduced to great music, especially great new music and great local music, the more appetite there’s going to be for it.”

For now, a tepid feeling remains at Radio K, as staff members await their first fund-raiser since The Current’s opening. That, said Radio K’s marketing Director Sarah Sandusky, will be the true test of the new station’s effects.