How a Low Power Phoenix Community Radio Station Provides “an Institution for the Uninstitutional”
A few miles from my house was KDIF 102.9 FM, a low power FM station in South Phoenix. My ride to the station took me from the prosperous and developing areas of Phoenix to the neglected areas of southern Phoenix. The streets and businesses changed the further south I drove, but my radio picked up the sound of live DJs spinning their favorite funk records instead of the religious syndicated satellite radio station. I entered KDIF thinking that I would focus my thesis on the station’s transition to digital media, but realized that KDIF and community radio were doing something more important than going digital. KDIF created a sense of belonging, and it’s something the people of South Phoenix needed.
I study human communication and spend a lot of time explaining how communication is not quite the same as journalism. My research has focused on social movements and digital media. My masters thesis was on the Muslim Brotherhood English website and my interest in how groups use digital media to foster social movements. My time in the Peace Corps and volunteering for various arts and community organizations inspired me to take an interest in volunteer work. I visited KDIF as part of a short course on research methods, thinking it would be a quick project. But I realized that community radio work was a way to connect my interests in media, volunteering, social movements, and community building.
However, the most compelling lesson I learned from the artists and volunteers at KDIF was how they would use community radio to build a different future for South Phoenix. The region has faced a long history of discrimination and neglect. If you’ve ever heard of the term “environmental racism” – the idea that groups facing racial discrimination are forced to go to environmentally unsafe places – the early research that developed the term used South Phoenix as an example. South Phoenix’s current “development” plans focus on bringing in wealthy new residents and businesses while failing to invest in those already there. Local media cover some of the issues facing South Phoenix, but often portray the area as a desperate place of crime and poverty. National or syndicated broadcast stations focus on news, talk and music with national rather than local interests. The broadcast media don’t let them speak or represent them, so it’s no surprise that the people of South Phoenix feel estranged from radio.
Phoenix music critics complain that most radio stations use the same playlists. DJ Balo agrees. “There is a whole world of music, and people only hear a small part of it,” said Balo, former host of Around Da Music on KDIF and now owner of the Phoenix radio station WUBI. “If the music isn’t really new or in the 2% of old songs approved by big business, it’s not on the radio. “
I think about how Anjelica, a DJ who co-hosted the all-vinyl show Rosewax vinyl club, talked about having the kind of music on the radio “where you can have grandmothers, mothers and daughters listen together”. Commercial radio often segments by age groups, but community radio like KDIF avoids segmentation in favor of rapprochement.
KDIF’s goal is not just local but hyperlocal. As a low-power FM station, KDIF has a broadcast radius of approximately three miles. Its FCC license requires it to stream a certain amount of locally produced content each day. “Locally produced” means that the content must be produced within 10 miles (10 km) of the station. KDIF is allowed to use 102.9 as the broadcast frequency, but the low power license does not protect KDIF from interference from a commercial radio station with the same frequency.
In 2000, the FCC licensed a new class of radio stations called Low Power FM Stations (LPFMs) with the aim of serving small communities and underrepresented groups. Media reformers across the political spectrum had argued that consolidating the media in a few hands homogenized radio, and this homogenization reduced the effectiveness of radio as an outlet for local communities.
The LPFM designation was immediately opposed by commercial and public broadcasters, and lobbying on behalf of commercial radio and NPR in Congress helped stifle LPFM’s growth. Many lawmakers, including the late Arizona Senator John McCain, have spent nearly a decade struggling to define how the LPFM works. When the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 allowed more LPFM stations to broadcast, organizers in Phoenix requested space on the dial. In 2013, the group that would become KDIF obtained an LPFM license to broadcast in southern Phoenix and parts of downtown Phoenix. These organizers believed that radio had a unique power that was most effective when linked to a particular geography and people.
Community radio brings people together by helping local people discuss local issues. For example, a high school in southern Phoenix found that its predominantly white teachers struggled to understand how non-white students used slurs and slurs among their friends. The students teamed up with the station’s executive director, Franco Hernandez, to create a radio show where they could work on issues. The show allowed students to voice their concerns about the loss of their language community, and they were challenged to consider how their language creates complexity around racial issues. The radio amplified their perspectives and provided nuances that did not occur in face-to-face conversations. The immediacy of the radio broadcast forced teachers to focus on the students as they spoke. KDIF changed the power dynamic between students and used radio to solve a problem in their high school. National unionized programs cannot solve problems at the local high school.
KDIF taught me how community radio fills a need that business advocacy and digital audio won’t completely replace. Community radio is a space where people who lack power, access or agency can talk to those in power, and community radio is the place where a community can talk with itself. “Hearing people like us on the radio when you walk into a restaurant or an auto store,” says Hernandez, “makes you feel like South Phoenix is yours too. The power of radio is to create a sense of belonging, and community radio like KDIF supports belonging where other stations falter.
Commercial radio creates fantastic programming, but nationalizing many commercial stations takes as much away the local character as a chain restaurant. Public radio supports great local work, but public radio has a complex relationship with localism. Christina Dunbar-Hester, author of Low power to the people, argues that public radio lobbyists have removed the distinction between content intended for locals and stations controlled by locals. Dunbar-Hester acknowledges the comments made by public radio officials in favor of the local media, but his research recognizes that the public radio position supports the same practices of nationalizing and consolidating commercial radio. College stations are raising new voices, but college radio ignores people over 25. Community radio is not a threat to any of them. It exists as a place for people who don’t have a place in the media, and they should have a part of the airwaves for their church, their school, their little group of people.
KDIF is an institution for those without an institution. Sunday service, a show that is no longer on the air, spent every Sunday morning pumping funk, soul and hip-hop for sweet walks through the avenues of South Phoenix. “There are organizations and places to go [to] in South Phoenix, “said a KDIF staff member,” but they only welcome you if you fit some kind of respectability. If you are a kid, don’t like church or sports, and you don’t have the right background, then there isn’t much for you. I sat in the studio with all kinds of people, the kind of people who didn’t fit in other places, gently nodding my head on the bass. Their fellowship was no less valid than the religious services held in neighboring churches on Sunday mornings, and Sunday service connected the people of South Phoenix with each other and with people around the world. Community radio is not only broadcast, but a sense of belonging.
A sense of belonging or connection comes through community radio, but community radio struggles to keep that feeling for long. KDIF hosts and staff are all unpaid volunteers. Sunday service ceased its broadcasts after the departure of its hosts, but the Sunday morning time slot remains an active place for new shows and programming. Two of the three hosts of Rosewax vinyl club passed away recently, but their memory survives KDIF. Hernandez and a local artist transformed the KDIF lounge into the La Dama community lounge, a welcoming space where friends and family of DJs can relax while the DJs put on their shows. Community radio is a place where belonging and change often go hand in hand.
A friend told me that most people study something either because they want to fix the world or because they want to fix themselves. I studied community radio because I thought I could “fix” this station. Every afternoon or evening when I came home from a show or a long budget meeting, I tapped into KDIF until the peaceful reggae mix turned into a shrill monologue from the religious union station that shares the frequency of KDIF. The hard part of listening to KDIF was that moment where belonging and closeness to a hyperlocal station that I felt was subsumed by a national station that didn’t care about me. I wanted this sense of community, a place where I fit in, to last a little longer. I came seeking to understand belonging, but realized that I also needed a place to belong. KDIF gave me this in a way that no radio station has done for a long time, and belonging is something every radio listener deserves.
Ian Derk is Senior Lecturer in Communication at the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. He teaches popular culture and graphic novels. His research explores the link between sound and community activism. He can be contacted at [email protected] You can find KDIF 102.9 online and follow it on Instagram.