Desert Exposure / October 2011

For Kyle Johnson, Gila/Mimbres Community Radio is only the latest stop on the dial in a career that’s taken him from TV and movies to “Radio Free Silver.”

Story and Photos by Richard Mahler

Tuning In

Don’t worry, Kyle Johnson assures me, running fingers through his short gray hair, KURU-FM is coming.

“What we think will happen by the end of this year,” the board member and secretary-treasurer of Gila/Mimbres Community Radio declares, “is Internet radio.” The online service will start by playing mostly music, he explains, and will not identify itself initially as KURU, the call letters recently assigned to the long-awaited Grant County station. “We won’t keep them a secret, but we’re basically saving the marketing value of the call letters until we’re actually broadcasting on the airwaves.”

Okay. And when will that happen? When will KURU actually air at its recently assigned 89.1 FM?”If we get lucky fast,” speculates Johnson, speaking in the authoritative manner that served him well during a past career as an actor and musician, “it could happen a year from now. If we get lucky slow, it could take two years.” Either eventuality, he believes, should renew enthusiasm for a project that has ridden a rollercoaster of support as efforts to launch the station have dragged on for over six years.

“People need to push a button or turn a dial to hear [programming],” Johnson allows during a recent interview. “I think that’s what it needs to catch.”

In April 2005 about a dozen Grant County residents formally birthed the idea — which already had been kicked around for several years — of creating an independent, listener-supported voice for an area served by only a handful of radio stations. Of these, the non-commercial options were retransmissions of New Mexico State’s KRWG-FM, an NPR affiliate, along with a couple of religious broadcasters. Gila/Mimbres Community Radio incorporated in fall 2005, then hired an attorney and engineer to move its idea forward. During the long period of bureaucratic maneuvering — extended by a freeze on applications imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — some early GMCR organizers faded away and even Johnson dropped off the board for a while. But enthusiastic newcomers are now on board and, following the FCC’s grant of a construction permit for a 10,000-watt facility last December, their dream is closer to reality than ever.

“What brought about the genesis of this was a pretty acute dissatisfaction with the existing media landscape,” says Johnson, a self-described “media guy” who departed California for short spells in Santa Fe and High Rolls before settling in Grant County more than decade ago.

The 60-year-old Gila resident, whose communications credentials stretch back to childhood, is helping to secure the money, office space, volunteers and equipment needed to put the station on the air. “The thing has to get launched for it to be viable,” he maintains, “so I’ve really been concentrating on that.” Asked if he seeks to become KURU’s first general manager, Johnson demurs, noting that much groundwork still must be done for such a paid position to enter the realm of possibility.

“Hearing that our application for a construction permit was approved was a great relief,” he says. “But it started a clock running that stops in three years. We have to be on the air within that time period or else we lose the permit.”

The result? Johnson is one busy guy. An unexpected task is answering questions related to a non-commercial station that came on the air during the two years GMRC spent waiting for the FCC to act. Silver City’s KOOT-FM, at 88.1 MHz, is licensed to Community Access Television of Silver (CATS), which also operates low-power KOOT-TV. The radio station, technically assigned to Hurley, has been broadcasting music and public affairs shows from a Bullard Street studio since spring 2009. Because KOOT-FM describes itself as having “an educational and community” focus, many wonder why the GMRC folks simply don’t join forces with the outlet. One reason, Johnson offers, is that KOOT’s 2,000-watt signal reaches only a portion of Grant County and is available only 12 hours each day, from midnight to noon. The latter is due to a frequency and time-sharing arrangement with another entity that has not yet started to broadcast.

“I’m sure some people are confused,” Johnson admits. “But I think that the definition of community [by KOOT] might be different, as evidenced by our very open and transparent process and one in which there was no [prior] announcement. It was all after-the-fact that KOOT was being planned; it didn’t come out of a grassroots community process, which sets a tone for what might be expected.”

He also foresees that KURU will have greater editorial freedom, more “adventuresome” fare, and a much more powerful transmitter than KOOT. “In essence,” he predicts, “we will have coverage roughly equal to or better than any existing Grant County station. If you can hear one of them, you will hear us.”

For this articulate and energetic community radio advocate, returning to the airwaves in unfettered fashion may be particularly sweet. Over seven years ago, Kyle Johnson lost a short-lived and controversial weekday program on Silver City’s KNFT-AM after a group of local businesspeople threatened to pull advertising if Johnson’s one-hour offering wasn’t dumped. The pressure came from a conservative faction, he contends, that engaged “in what was basically thuggery.”

Radio Links: You can stay abreast of Gila/Mimbres Community Radio through its website, gmcr.org, and hear programs from the Radio Free Silver archives at radiofreesilver.com (http://radiofreesilver NULL.com/). Learn more about community radio in general at the website of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, nfcb.org (http://nfcb NULL.org/).

As the deposed talk show host tells the story, his “red hot minute” on KNFT — actually, about eight weeks — was a fluke from the start. The station’s then-owner offered him the 9 to 10 a.m. slot out of the blue on a day when Johnson asked for some airtime, perhaps an hour each month, on behalf of the Grant County Peace Coalition.

“I’d never done radio before,” Johnson admits with a shrug, citing previous experience as the original general manager of CATS. “But I thought, ‘Let’s give it a whirl.”

“Radio Free Silver” was born.

“The idea was that it would be a discussion show,” Johnson recalls, “with dialogue and debate between [members of the Peace Coalition] and those with opposing views.” His ultimate motive, says Johnson, was instigating political change. “I felt that 2004 was a pivotal year, that George Bush was going to destroy our country.” Yet while some shows focused on the war in Iraq, others involved local issues or the work being done by nonprofit organizations. “Basically,” says Johnson, “my show involved a single subject under discussion with one or two guests.” We talked about “a wide range of things, and not particularly radical subjects.”

Within a month, Johnson continues, “the station started getting calls of complaint about my show, even though I was followed by [nationally syndicated conservative hosts] Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Michael Savage each day.” The threat delivered to management by a group of disgruntled business owners, according to Johnson, was that “either you get rid of this thing or we are going to take all of our advertising off both the AM and FM [KNFT] stations, not just this one show.” Within a month, despite full financial support of his program from Radio Free Silver, Johnson was off the air.

The incident received national attention, not all of it flattering to Silver City. “The irony,” Johnson laughs, “was that some people who were not necessarily supporters of us, the hotel and real estate people, had been trying to paint this as a wonderful retirement community with great natural attributes and a terrific place to live. They were asking [those opposed to the program], ‘What is it with you yahoos? We’re trying to build this place up and you’re trying to turn it into some kind of redneck backwater?'”

Shaking his head at the memory, Johnson says he had a hunch that “something like this could happen. I knew that there were enough people here with that way of thinking that they would do something” to get the show off the air.

Undeterred, Johnson took Radio Free Silver’s programming, now in video form, to CATS as well as other public-access TV outlets in other cities. These discussion shows continued running for several years. Meanwhile, the audio portion of many of Johnson’s TV and radio interviews can still be heard on the Internet via the Radio Free Silver website (see box).

“Over time,” Johnson points out, “area radio stations have changed hands so that all but one of them are now owned by the same [corporate parent, Arizona-based Skywest Media], with basically a chain model.” The result, Johnson continues, is that most programming comes from a central location in a big city out of state: “They have no interest in local issues at all. Period. What our station would be like is a lot more social interaction and, basically, more coverage of social justice issues, although over a 24-hour period it is mostly going to be mainly music, arts and culture.”

Asked to be more specific, Johnson says that KURU’s backers “want very much to provide a real alternative to the kinds of things that you typically get on a radio station. We would like, for example, to get [the Mideast-based network] Al Jazeera as one of our news sources. It’s the new BBC — so get used to it. I’d also like to have some English-language programming out of India, Latin America, Africa and Asia that really gives the picture of how other people see the world.”

This, he says, is the notion of “turning the telescope around so we can see what other people are thinking and how we are perceived by them.… Even in community radio, this is something you rarely hear. Let’s open a window out of our own direct experience and see what other people are thinking, how they see us, and what’s happening where they live.”

In summing up his activist orientation, Johnson quotes the late anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” KURU, according to this co-founder, “will be a use of media that empowers our community. The media-chain radio stations certainly don’t want to talk about anything that might be unpleasant to explain to their advertisers.”

As an aside — and in the interest of full disclosure — I’ll mention that I first met Kyle Johnson casually about 25 years ago, when we both lived and worked in the Los Angeles area. For a time he dated my housemate. Our first encounter was at a concert by an African ensemble at a time when Johnson was a musician in a band, writing songs and playing guitar.

“During that part of my life in Los Angeles I was not involved in political activity, even though I had a political awareness,” Johnson reflects. “As an artist I think I was much more self-focused or centered on things that had to do with my career…. But I’ve always been involved in media. I started working as an actor at seven years old.”

According to Wikipedia, Johnson’s acting career began when his mother, actress-singer Nichelle Nichols — who portrayed Lt. Uhuru in the “Star Trek” TV series and movies — dragged him as punishment to an audition for a stage play. The director was immediately impressed by young Kyle and cast the boy on the spot for his production. Born in 1951, Johnson was cast as Sidney Poitier’s son in the 1965 epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and went on to play the lead role of Newt in the critically acclaimed 1969 movie The Learning Tree. During the Sixties and Seventies he appeared in episodes of TV’s “The Fugitive,” “Mod Squad,” “McCloud” and “Dr. Kildare,” among others. Johnson segued into a music career in the 1980s. His love song “Ready to Receive” became a modest hit for singer-musician Claudia Russell and headlined her album of the same name.

But that was then — and this now.

“The process of helping launch KURU has been interesting and fruitful for me personally,” muses Johnson, who sees communication as the unifying theme in his string of endeavors. “Now I am not simply talking about or visualizing community, but actually engaging at a level where I am really developing a relationship and an involvement with organizations that are very dedicated. These groups aren’t the Red Cross or United Way or something where people are getting paid a lot of money; these are organizations [whose employees] are just scraping by because this is what is important to them and embodies their desire to fulfill their vision of how one lives in relation to other people. This kind of work is practical, not theoretical.”

Lest this sound overly idealistic for a signal area barely encompassing 31,000 people, Johnson believes the “changing demographics” and growing “sense of awareness” in Grant County ensure a sizable audience thirsty for the programming he anticipates from KURU. The mission of the station “is to serve the community in general,” stresses Johnson, “but particularly those who are underserved and who do not have a voice or do not have a choice in what they can hear on the radio…. We will present a range of content and ideas that you can’t get on existing radio outlets or on CATS except irregularly or from time to time.”

Gila/Mimbres Community Radio needs about $150,000 to sign on, although it expects to offset that with some donated equipment from the former owner of now-defunct KSIL-FM. It plans an initial operating budget of between $75,000 and $80,000 annually.

“All we ask from supporters,” says Johnson, “is a base membership of $60 per year. It will take a while to ramp up to that, but I think getting a thousand subscribers at that level is possible and not unreasonable in this county.” With a core of this many listeners contributing regularly, he argues, “we will not be beholden to businesses, to grants, or to any of the sources of funding that tend to have strings attached or are here today and gone tomorrow.”

So what can listeners expect to hear when GRMC starts webcasting this fall or winter?

“We will begin mapping out our schedule first with music,” says Johnson, “and replacing it [over time] in blocks with news and public affairs, Spanish-language programming, locally hosted shows, and selected other content from outside that we feel would be of interest and value. We will do training.… It’ll be a modest affair initially and a lot of it will be automated.”

And while this online venture will not meet the FCC definition of going “on the air,” concludes Johnson, “it will relieve us all — especially me — of the need to describe what community radio is. People will be able to click the button and hear it. In terms of content I think we will move quickly to present a pretty good sketch of what KURU will be ultimately. It will take some months to develop things, to train people, and to get programs from local folks — but it will happen.”

Stay tuned.

Southwest Storylines columnist Richard Mahler is a freelance writer based in Silver City.
His career in radio includes stints as a freelance reporter for NPR, CBS, Pacifica and other outlets.
Learn more at richardmahler.com (http://www NULL.richardmahler NULL.com/).

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