Really Left of the Dial

Austin's True Cooperative, KOOP

by Lee Nichols

T his story shouldn't re- quire more than four interviews, I thought, and four names were quickly chosen. And then, to my horror, I realized the list had a flaw - they were all white males. Oh, what an embarrassing irony that would have been. KOOP (91.7 FM) went on the radio dial on December 17 with a mission - to provide a cooperatively run broadcasting outlet for people and groups whose voices have traditionally been ignored or muted in the mainstream media. Women, blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, a variety of leftists and even children were among the many groups that KOOP wanted to boost. They now seem to have done it. Had I committed my white-male faux pax, the fault would have been entirely mine, because KOOP has certainly defied the stereotype of Austin's left as just being a bunch of long-haired, granola-munching, white guy do-gooders. And they've also defied any pre-broadcast notions that the station was merely going to be a forum for activists to bitch - KOOP has installed what is unquestionably the most diverse music mix in town with deejays who are pushing a musical agenda, not a political one.

That's exactly what KOOP founder Jim Ellinger wanted, and the longtime advocate of both media diversity and cooperatives says he's pretty pleased with how his 11-year-old idea has shaped into a reality. "I knew it would be a wide variety of very unique programming," says Ellinger. "The old-time bluegrass rockabilly jamboree would be followed by the science-fiction show that would be followed by the gay/lesbian collective followed by the Zapatista hour. Except for money, which is still pretty tight, KOOP is pretty much what I expected."

As far as Ellinger or anyone else knows, it's the only truly cooperative station in America, or at least the only one run according to the Rochdale Principles (the structure first devised in England that many co-op businesses now pattern themselves upon, which gives one vote per shareholder, rather than one vote per share, and encourages inclusivity). While most community stations naturally have a degree of cooperation about them, KOOP's board of directors are chosen by a community board, which itself is elected by the station's member listeners and contributing organizations. This democratic structure stands in contrast to, say, a university-run station answerable to the administration, or a board that is appointed by the outgoing board members.

Interim station manager John Duncan (station manager Jenny Wong was on vacation at the time of this writing) says that running a station without the dictatorial efficiency found in other situations is the greatest challenge. "It's hard to be a vehicle for many, many different groups and perspectives to express themselves," says Duncan. "I guess it's the same thing the Democratic Party has problems with - it's hard to open it up and get everyone to work it out, to get people from many different perspectives together cohesively."

All involved in KOOP agree there are issues that the mainstream media simply aren't addressing, or at least not with enough depth. Even though women, homosexuals, and racial minorities see their perspectives gaining increasing coverage, they still have a ways to go, thus validating KOOP's existence in the meantime.

"KOOP provides an alternative, sometimes radical - some people might call it progressive or liberal - perspectives on women," says Donna Hoffman of the KOOP's Women's Collective. "More and more women have been in journalism schools over the past decade, but they aren't necessarily leftist-oriented. In fact, a lot of women's issues have gone mainstream, which is great - it connotes progress - but we would like to reassert the feminist agenda, which is women's liberation."

Jerry Ruiz of the Queer Collective suggests that KOOP may even be considered the alternative to the alternative. While gay/lesbian publications such as the Advocate aren't exactly sitting on everyone's coffee table, Ruiz says "I finally read an Out Magazine for the first time the other day, and it belongs to a totally different class that I just don't belong to. Calvin Klein, stuff like that. It's just not me. I'm a punk/live-show type of person. I think [Out] deals more with middle-class type issues. We have touched on those as well, but also with poverty issues."

People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) is another good example of this. The Hispanic-oriented environmental group, part of the station's Environmental Collective, helps ensure that the green perspective isn't strictly a white one, a problem that has tarnished the image of conservationists. Rene Rentira, a producer with PODER's weekly shows, says having the radio forum strengthens the bond between environmentalists of different color.

As said, the other diversity goal at KOOP is in the music mix, and the term "format" is certainly of no use here. There are world-music shows, Tejano shows, Cuban music, polka, classic reggae, lounge music, big-band jazz, and other commercially marginalized genres carving up the pie. Country music could certainly be seen as mainstream, especially in Texas, and at first glance might hardly be seen as needing space on the community station. But such an opinion rests on whether the pop music played on today's Top 40 country stations satisfies your cravings for twang. For many people here in Austin, it doesn't. Rod Moag is one of those many. His two shows, the "Country, Swing, and Rockabilly Jamboree" and "Strictly Bluegrass" meet the needs of those who look to Bob Wills and Bill Monroe rather than Don Henley for two-stepping tunes. "The niche that's unfilled in the market is pre-1960, classic country, western swing, and the early rockabilly stuff," says Moag.

Of course, many Austin musicians look to that era for inspiration, and thus Moag is able to fulfill another of Ellinger's original goals for KOOP, playing lots of local music. "I play Don Walser, I play Don McCalister, Marti Brom, High Noon, the Derailers" says Moag. A professor of East Indian languages at UT, Moag is hardly a raving left-winger, and adds a nice balance to KOOP's staff. He's quick to mention the Pacifica news service - the nationally syndicated alternative to the increasingly corporate National Public Radio - and other "liberal to radical" programming as vital to fulfilling the station's mission.

Bob Brister would no doubt agree with Moag on the vital necessity of getting the true left on the air. Brister, the office coordinator of the Austin Peace & Justice Coalition and the producer of "Progressive Forum," knows that while the "liberal" view a la Clinton can and does get heard, true pacifists will never get quoted on higher-profile newscasts. "NPR has become more and more establishment-oriented, I feel," says Brister. "It was never really progressive. I can remember hearing Noam Chomsky maybe once. On Pacifica, you get to hear Noam Chomsky once a month, easily. I know we're going to air a speech of his on class warfare here in the U.S. You'll never get that on NPR. [APJC] is very grateful to the station for providing this outlet."

Brister doesn't really have to be grateful - it is, after all, his station. He owns it, along with all the other members. Although Ellinger spent a great deal of time and money to obtain the license and fighting off UT's legal attack, he has turned ownership of the frequency over to the community. He is not the station manager, serves on only one committee, and has a single show on Fridays, "Austin Airwaves." He is happy, he says, that it KOOP has not become "Jim Ellinger Radio."

"Me and a lot of other people," Ellinger laughs. n

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