A dark-eyed man and two women with black hair sit quietly to one side. Their show, Shabahang, served Kansas City's Iranian-American community until KKFI general manager Robert Barrientos yanked it off the air in March. KKFI's grievance committee has recommended reinstating Shabahang. The board will attempt to decide the program's fate.
Two board members immediately argue over which set of bylaws governs KKFI. One set would allow Barrientos a vote on the board. The other set would not, and it would invalidate April's board election. Bobbi Abram, a newly elected member, has proposed that a committee look into the bylaw conflict. The board needs to concentrate on running the radio station, she says. But two other board members continue the quarrel.
"We've got to work these contradictions [in the bylaws] out," James Olenick snaps at fellow board member Phil LeVota. "We can't just piss on each other," Olenick rants. "If we're going to piss on this, then we might as well just piss on the whole thing!"
As the bickering continues at length, Selina Basey, also a new board member, stands up, introduces herself to the Shabahang group and leaves. Abram has already walked out. Minutes later, board member Henry Lyons exits in disgust.
The meeting continues without three of the eleven board members.
LeVota, who is on the grievance committee that voted to reinstate the Iranian group, brings up the Shabahang matter. He and Barrientos heatedly debate the rights and wrongs of Shabahang.
"Excuse me, since it concerns Shabahang _," says Ali Kamali, speaking up in defense of the group's show.
"No!" three members of the board reply in unison, rejecting his input.
"I wasn't going to bring this up, but now I have to," Barrientos sighs. He pulls a stack of papers from a file and waves them before the board. Shabahang was promoting events in exchange for money, Barrientos insists, which violates Federal Communications Commission rules against plugola/payola. That is news to LeVota.
"The information you are making your decision on is false," Kamali tries to tell the board. "May I address the board with my concerns?"
"No!" replies Chuck Tackett, the board's new president. "I told you in that letter that you could come, but you are not allowed to speak," Tackett continues in an icy tone. Kamali had asked Tackett to put his group on the agenda to state its case, but Tackett refused. Tackett hadn't even given members of Shabahang that night's agenda, claiming he didn't have enough copies.
"I have e-mails proving that this group requested kickbacks for promoting certain groups," Barrientos continues.
"That's not true," Kamali and the two women say more loudly, leaning forward in their chairs. "That is not correct."
"I make a motion to back Robert Barrientos," declares Olenick, a longtime friend of Barrientos' who recently was elected to the board.
"The motion is based on false information," Kamali interrupts. But the discussion continues without him.
Olenick finally thinks of a way to end the argument: He'll switch and vote for the Iranian show, counting on Barrientos to disregard the board's action. "He can still say no, right?" Olenick asks the remaining board members. "Then I motion to accept the grievance committee report."
"All in favor say 'aye.'"
What remains of KKFI's board of directors votes to reinstate Shabahang to its show. After adjournment, Barrientos shuffles papers at the head of the table. Asked privately whether he plans to abide by the board's decision, Barrientos doesn't hesitate: "No."
In his cluttered KKFI office, Robert Barrientos holds up an article titled "Is Your Station a Radio Club?" KKFI has been operated too long by programmers who treat the station as a personal social club, Barrientos says. He intends to transform KKFI into a professional-quality radio station. But KKFI's history includes no one quite like Barrientos.
Mid-Coast Radio Project Incorporated was founded in 1977, but KKFI didn't go on the air until 1988, after eleven years of struggle by a small band of volunteers. The founders dreamed of a radio station in Kansas City free from advertisers and corporate control. They obtained a couple of large grants, and eventually the FCC granted KKFI the 90.1 FM frequency. Allowed 100,000 watts of power -- an uncommonly strong signal for a community station -- KKFI could broadcast to an eighty-mile radius. But the station still needed money.
For a few years, KKFI volunteers hosted bingo nights at a smoky hall in Belton. Chain-smoking women in polyester -- surrounded by rabbits' feet, teddy bears and assorted lucky charms -- ran the volunteers ragged as they gambled the night away.
"It was a sedated hell," recalls Tom Crane, one of the station's founders. By 1987, Mid-Coast Radio Project had raised $70,000 from bingo. KKFI took to the airwaves with a noble mission: to offer a voice to local artists and activists not heard elsewhere on Kansas City's radio dial.
"We literally created something of value from nothing that was there before," says Crane. "Our concept was to provide a medium for local artists who have little if any voice on other stations."
KKFI was the first local station to offer programming in Spanish. As KKFI's diverse community broadened, Rasta women chanted on weeknights, transsexuals lulled insomniacs to sleep and energetic troupes tap-danced on tabletops beside rickety microphones. And local musicians got their music played on the air.
The listener-supported station limped along each year on a skimpy budget, but KKFI soon was broadcasting 24 hours a day.
There was The Tenth Voice, a gay and lesbian show. Eventually, three shows for Native Americans aired each week. Several programs covered women's issues. Others examined Kansas City issues from an African-American perspective. But inside KKFI's walls, this melting pot of community diversity frequently boiled over.
The station relied on volunteers who often came and went quickly rather than on long-term paid staff members. Tax returns and financial audits sometimes were overlooked and lost. Programmers who sat on the board of directors frequently had personal agendas that drove their decisions. Most of the people who managed KKFI had little or no radio experience. More often than not, the station chewed up its general managers and spit them back out into the community.
After the abrupt resignation of general manager Greg Hanson in June 1999, KKFI's board of directors ran the station for nearly a year while searching for a replacement. Robert Barrientos, former director of marketing and development at KCUR 89.3, Kansas City's mainstream public station, stepped forward.
Barrientos had sued KCUR and his manager, Patty Cahill, in 1995 for lost wages and commissions after his resignation. Barrientos asked in the same lawsuit for an additional $600,000 for discrimination against his Hispanic origin and -- because he was subsequently replaced by a woman at the station -- sexual discrimination.
After nearly a year of legal wrangling between Barrientos' and KCUR's attorneys, the suit was quietly settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Learning these few facts, KKFI board members were undaunted. They wanted Barrientos.
"Robert explained the lawsuit to us," says Karen Wright, who was president of the KKFI board at the time. "We were told by others that Patty Cahill wouldn't talk to us, so no one called her."
Barrientos, who declined to discuss the lawsuit with the Pitch, went to work last June as KKFI's new general manager. Some volunteers soon came to regard him as inflexible after he demanded that the annual June board election be postponed until April 2001 so he could continue working with the same people who had penned his contract.
Within three months of his hire, Barrientos announced that KKFI would be referred to as "public" radio rather than "community" radio. Barrientos insists that potential listeners are more likely to look up "public" radio on the Internet. But veterans at KKFI feared that the community station they had worked so hard to build had been handed over to a man who didn't understand its basic concept.
Rumors circulated that Barrientos wanted to homogenize the station's exotic fare into a more profitable blend of jazz and blues. Some speculated -- apparently without evidence -- that he intended to sell the station and pocket a commission for himself. More and more people at the station began to wonder about the details of that secret lawsuit settlement with KCUR. Barrientos seems unfazed by the opposition.
"There is just a small group of people that's making all this trouble," he says. "The major power struggle is limited to three or four people who were in power for a while and don't like the way things are being done." Barrientos insists he has no plans to pull the station away from its community roots. If anything, he intends to make KKFI a more vital community resource.
He points to an October letter from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting explaining that KKFI must show a measurable listening audience and significant financial support from the community to maintain its community service grant. KKFI didn't meet the requirements, and its $12,000 grant was reduced by 25 percent last fall. The grant will be reduced 25 percent each year unless KKFI meets the audience requirements. Missing the requirements also would put the station's FCC license at risk, Barrientos says.
"We have to show the FCC we're serving the community and its listeners," Barrientos says, alluding again to the "radio club" model, which he says allowed some programmers to pursue their own narrow interests on the air. "Years ago, they just brought anybody in and gave them a show. There is that kind of attitude here, that 'This is my show, and I don't have to do anything else.'
"I'm not trying to change the programming," Barrientos insists. "I've never asked any programmer to do anything different on the air." But off the air, changes at KKFI are plentiful.
Barrientos now requires volunteer programmers at KKFI to put in four volunteer hours at the station each month in addition to time spent doing shows. Those who don't will lose their programs.
Two shows offering an African-American perspective on local news were among the first cuts under the new requirements. Ron McMillan's "What's Going On" and Trudie Hall's "Legacy" had been on KKFI for more than a decade. Hall says she was told after receiving a cancellation letter that the only volunteer hours available were on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Hall wasn't able to volunteer on those nights but says she would have done press releases or some other work at home had KKFI agreed.
"My show allowed for major access to an underrepresented community," says Hall, who volunteers at other community organizations. She says she is saddened not for her own personal loss but for the African-American community's loss of another media voice.
"Trudie Hall and Ron McMillan were invited to come back and volunteer to catch up, but they said they didn't have time," says Barrientos. "I brought it to their attention two or three times. I have to enforce the policy, no matter where [the violations] lie." The volunteer policy was approved by the board, says Barrientos, and he will continue to enforce it.
The policy, which was established to enlist volunteers during the station's early bingo nights, hasn't been enforced for years. The bingo games were discontinued long ago, says Hall, and the policy should be reviewed.
"Do you serve the community well when you get caught up in procedures?" Hall asks. "At a small station when you're working with mostly volunteers, you really need to try to work with people as opposed to being dogmatic."
While board members bicker over bylaws and programmers ponder the station's future, the show must go on. On a Friday afternoon, Lynne Greenamyre and Tex Houston come clomping into the station with big shoes, short skirts and a milk crate full of CDs. They're dressed in black, not because they're mourning the departed spirit of community radio, but just because.
Their show, Rockabilly Mood Swing -- a mix of rockabilly, psychobilly (rockabilly meets punk), hillbilly and classic country music -- is about to begin. The phone starts ringing with the very first song, "Loved on Look," by the Sadies. Tex answers the phone while Lynne digs through the crate.
"I'm not announcing a marijuana march on the radio!" Tex laughs into the phone. "Are you kidding?" Soon two regulars, "the two Heathers," call and request "Skullbucket," a twangy roots-rock song, as they weave through I-35 traffic. Tex -- whose black hair, Bettie Page bangs (Page was a pinup girl in the 1950s) and 1959 Ford Galaxy Fairlane all broadcast her rockabilly lifestyle -- says people love American roots music.
"Hot rods, music and girls in tight skirts," says Tex. "It's not just the music, it's the lifestyle." As Rockabilly Mood Swing continues with local band Sister Mary Rotten Crotch in the background, Tex fields requests from callers every few minutes.
"If it's getting played on commercial radio, it's probably not getting played here," says Lynne, a stand-up comedian whose "real job" is behind the scenes at a commercial radio station. "If we had this kind of show on commercial radio, we'd be lucky to get this time slot [2 to 4 p.m. on Friday]." Most likely, the Rockabilly show has no shot at commercial radio. And even if it did, says Tex, "We wouldn't be able to play the music we wanted to play. We play lots of local stuff on our show."
Maybe today, their 86-year-old rockabilly fan will call in with a request. "She calls in all the time," says Lynne. "She likes the way we banter back and forth." For these DJs, community radio is interactive. "We could really use some coffee right now," Tex quips into the microphone between songs. Suddenly, there is a tap on the studio door, and a man in a Hawaiian shirt walks in with coffee for the rockabilly goddesses. He'd heard their request for refreshment.
"We ask for food and coffee every week on our show, and people comply," says Lynne. Sometimes men trudge up the creaky stairs at KKFI and push their faces against the glass, peering in as the women do their show. Lynne admits there is some turmoil at KKFI, but she says she and Tex, who have had their show for a year and a half, are relatively new to the station. Some people at KKFI have been involved for a long time, she says, so they're very protective of their shows and want things to go a certain way.
"I come in and do what they ask me to do," Lynne says. "I haven't ever been asked to do anything that would conflict with my personal integrity." Barrientos has a different style from those of previous managers, Lynne admits, but she doesn't mind putting in a few extra volunteer hours to keep her show.
"We earned the right to have this show," says Lynne. "It's not like they're just handing these shifts out. We had to demonstrate a commitment to the show."
(Food critic Charles Ferruzza of the Pitch hosts a show on the station, but he had no involvement in this article.)
KKFI, which is staffed by volunteers and activists from many walks of life, has often been contentious. Board members and managers have resigned abruptly more than once. A few programmers couldn't be bothered with rules while "doing their art." But the station has always allowed community voices that otherwise would go unheard. Now some say that KKFI hears only one voice -- that of Barrientos.
Three weeks ago, Barry Lee resigned on the air from his show, Signal to Noise. For thirteen years, he'd enjoyed the freedom to air an eclectic blend of music styles -- from '30s string bands and swing tunes to alternative country songs to local bands' live performances in the studio. On his final night, after playing nearly two hours of music that offered an allegorical goodbye, Lee finally spoke.
"When this station began, it was a tight-knit community of creative artists who respected each other's work and respected each other. This used to be a damn good station. I don't believe it is now," Lee told KKFI listeners just three weeks before the station's pledge drive. "I can't honestly come before you and ask for your support because I no longer believe in or support what's been going on here. I would be both a liar and a hypocrite if I did that."
Lee, whose on-air resignation came as a surprise to Barrientos, doesn't believe that Barrientos shares the philosophies upon which the station was founded.
"KKFI was set up much like an underground artist co-op," says Lee. "The station is not supposed to pander to a large audience. It was created to serve the audience that is not being served by corporate radio." Some groups in the community aren't going to be heard any other way, says Lee. "I just see that eroding at KKFI, and I see that ending. That always happens after a few years of creative explosion. Then corporate types come in and destroy it."
At the April board meeting, following the controversial election of KKFI's board of directors, the newly elected board members weren't even introduced. Exiting board members weren't thanked for their three long years of service. That meeting had oozed such hostility that one former member later recalled it as "a coup de main in all but the open display of weaponry."
Barrientos had recruited personal friends to run for the board. He recruited more friends to volunteer at the station and become active members. Then former programmer George Biswell, a Barrientos ally, sent a "Vote for These Candidates" list to a select group of active members (only active members at KKFI can vote). Biswell's board candidates won the six open seats, and Biswell, who had listed himself as a candidate for active members chairman, also won.
Now some at KKFI are concerned that Barrientos' bosses on the board are mainly yes-people handpicked to give him free rein with the station. Barrientos says he pushed for particular candidates because they possess business and community skills sorely needed at KKFI. Still, not everyone believes that KKFI is on a path to greater things.
"This is a classic example of a community organization with noble ideals that has been out-organized and taken over," says Crane, who has devoted more than twenty years to the community station he helped found. "I'm sad because I don't know what's going to happen to the station."
Board President Chuck Tackett is in a good mood. It's "volunteer night" at KKFI. He grabs a plateful of pizza from a table and heads toward another room for an interview with the Pitch. But he won't face questions alone: Biswell, the active member chairman, follows him.
"Oh, I asked George to sit in on the interview," Tackett says. "I hope that's okay."
But Biswell finds it difficult to simply "sit in." Whenever Tackett can't -- or won't -- answer a question to Biswell's satisfaction, Biswell jumps in to explain what Tackett is really trying to say. When Tackett is asked who created the list of preferred candidates sent to some active members, he replies, "I made it up."
"No, this was a list I made up on my own," Biswell corrects him. "We were trying to keep from printing up forty résumés for everybody." Biswell knows his list stirred controversy, but he says there's nothing illegal about it.
"Me and Chuck and some other members were very organized," says Biswell. "We got the individuals in that will move us to a higher level of commitment."
But Tackett has a reputation around KKFI as a puppet who dances when Barrientos pulls the strings. He once served as vice president of a labor union and is now on the chapter board for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and western Missouri, but he doesn't have any management experience. He doesn't hold a college degree.
When Tackett -- who had coldly dismissed Kamali at the last board meeting -- is asked about station policy concerning the grievance committee's findings on the Shabahang group, he picks up the policy manual, thumbs through it and begins to read policies aloud. Biswell quickly jumps in, since he had served on the five-member grievance committee. In fact, he had been the lone vote against reinstating the Shabahang group. FCC rules dictate the radio station policies, says Biswell. For example, "If someone says 'fuck' on the air, it's immediate termination."
(In 1991, Biswell was suspended for thirty days from his Vietnam veterans show for saying "pissed" on the air. When he later was denied access to the station's public file, he filed a complaint with the FCC and continued to show up at the station, where he and his Vietnam-vet buddies roamed the halls of KKFI clad in combat fatigues with duct tape plastered over their mouths. Eventually, the FCC fined KKFI $6,000 for not allowing access to the public file.)
Whether he knows the rules, Tackett is just happy that someone is finally enforcing them. "I think Robert is a refreshing drink of water for this station," says Tackett. "We're trying to grow to the next level, to be a professional station." He admits there is "a small group of people who want to keep KKFI as a radio club." A lot of them are disgruntled programmers, Tackett says, "who may not be with us much longer." Tackett attributes much of KKFI's current dissension to racism among the white programmers toward himself and Barrientos.
"I feel when a person of color is in authority here, we get put under a microscope," says Tackett. "I didn't see that happen here when white people were in charge.
"Some of this small group of people think the station serves their needs and not the needs of the listeners," Tackett continues. Whatever his detractors may think of Tackett, he's racked up more than 300 volunteer hours in the past year. And Barrientos couldn't be happier with his performance as board president. He and Chuck have worked side by side scraping baseboards and painting walls at the station on volunteer nights, he says.
"He may not have the experience that some of our board members have, but his heart is in the right place," says Barrientos. "I'm very proud to have Chuck as my boss because when the dirty work has to be done, Chuck is right there with us."
While Tackett, Barrientos and Biswell busied themselves painting KKFI a new shade of professional a few weeks ago, one of the "disgruntled" pecked away at a keyboard with some work of his own. Steve Peters, a former board member after April's election, has had enough of Barrientos' dictatorial rule.
Although Peters had been a close friend of Barrientos' and initially recommended him for the job of general manager, recent events changed his mind. He recently sent "An Open Letter to Robert Barrientos," a scathing attack on Barrientos' performance during the past year, to all active members and volunteers at KKFI.
"The lack of preparedness for the near future and the open hostility being displayed by many programmers toward your management style indicates to me that KKFI is no more than sixteen months from failure.... The sentiment of the programmers and volunteers is that if failure is in our future, we would rather fail on our own terms than fail on your terms.... You lack the temperament to lead an egalitarian organization such as KKFI," Peters wrote.
Peters says that once he stepped back from his position on the board, it became clear to him that Barrientos' management style was doing more harm than good. "KKFI has lost quite a number of programmers because of strict application of a set of rules," says Peters, who adds that the station ran for a long time with no paid staff at all, only volunteers who wedged their time in at KKFI between real jobs. Turmoil is the norm at KKFI, where eighty or so activists each have their own ideas about how the station should serve the community. Still, he says, since Barrientos started making changes, "people are individually reaching the conclusion that they're being manipulated out of the radio station."
The removal of Shabahang has drawn the attention of many at KKFI who don't understand why Barrientos won't give the group a chance to correct its mistakes and continue the show. Barrientos says the Shabahang group harassed program director Wendy Neutzler and signed program logs even though they weren't certified to do so and that Ali Kamali pushed fellow programmer Majid Shahbazkhani down the stairs after the two quarreled over the format of the radio show. (Shahbazkhani told the Pitch that he was not pushed down the stairs but that he called police after Kamali pushed him during an argument at the studio. Kamali did not return phone calls regarding the incident.) Shahbazkhani was kicked out of Shabahang after he informed Barrientos of the group's FCC violations, the general manager says.
A couple of days before the ruckus at the station, Shahbazkhani had fired off a threatening and offensive e-mail to Kamali. Even after the vile e-mail and the altercation between Kamali and Shahbazkhani, Barrientos insisted that Shahbazkhani be allowed to participate in the Shabahang program. Neutzler got in on the power struggle as well after the Shabahang group questioned her decision to let Shahbazkhani and Shabahang broadcast on alternate weeks.
The four remaining members of Shabahang are upset over their recent treatment by KKFI, which has given Shahbazkhani a weekly show during Shabahang's former Sunday time slot.
"How is it that we never violated any rules for eleven years, and suddenly we have all these violations in the last three months?" asks Kamali, who, like the other three, holds a doctoral degree. "This situation should have been handled more wisely, patiently and less dictatorial."
Still, Barrientos refuses to budge.
"An FCC violation at any other station means immediate dismissal with no coming back," Barrientos says. But Phil LeVota from the grievance committee says Barrientos represents just one side of the conflict.
"From what Robert told us about this group, I thought some thugs would be coming in here to talk to us. But these were very professional people," says LeVota, a Jackson County prosecutor who knows a thug when he sees one. "When they left the room, everyone on the grievance committee said, 'We didn't hear the whole story [from Barrientos].'" LeVota says the grievance committee never heard anything about the plugola/payola until Barrientos suddenly brought it up at the May board meeting.
"He saw it wasn't going his way," says LeVota. "My personal opinion is that Robert doesn't like his authority questioned."
As the drama at KKFI worsened in May, the spring pledge drive kicked in with the theme "The Power of One." Programmers, Barrientos and a number of guests pleaded for funding and tried to remind Kansas City why it needs KKFI radio.
"KKFI has supported local artists ever since it's been here," said Sonny Kenner, the now-deceased famed Kansas City guitarist, in a taped appeal from the past. "I know I wouldn't have had any records played on the radio if KKFI hadn't been here."
Karen Wright, who was president of the board that hired Barrientos and who hosts the Heartland Labor Forum on KKFI, says she still believes in the station she's been involved with for the past twelve years.
"Nowhere else in Kansas City are you going to hear Democracy Now, WINGS [Women's International News Gathering Service], several shows of women's information and Hispanic programming," says Wright. "We have all kinds of news programs that give an alternative view of what's happening in the world."
KKFI is in transition, she says, admitting that Barrientos' style of management differs from what people at the station are accustomed to. But KKFI's equipment is in better shape than it's been in a long time. And KKFI has long gotten significant mileage from its money.
"I've attended radio meetings in other states, and when people from other community stations find out we have 100,000 watts and are doing all of this on a budget of less than $200,000, they're amazed," says Wright. Madison, Wisconsin's community station, WORT 89.9, broadcasts at just 2,000 watts but pays six full-time staff people and has a $375,000 annual budget. KKFI has two full-time and two part-time employees. Everyone else is a volunteer.
"Those other stations are continually amazed that we've been on the air for twelve years," says Wright, and that shows the commitment of the people at KKFI. "Even though we disagree on things, we always seem to come together to keep things going."
By the time KKFI's spring pledge drive ended, listeners had pledged $54,000 to the station, two-thirds of which had already been fulfilled. A silent fundraising campaign brought in an additional $18,000. The station costs about $15,000 per month to operate and must move in fifteen months (when the station's lease is up) to a handicap-accessible location.
"When I got here, they only had $1,200 saved up to go toward this move," says Barrientos, who estimates that the move will cost at least $100,000. He says the upcoming move is a top priority, along with making sure the station abides by FCC regulations.
If people don't like the way things are going right now at KKFI, they should get involved, says Wright. Many of the rumors circulating through KKFI are due to misunderstandings, she says, and decisions have been made that volunteers could have participated in had they attended active member meetings. In fact, the most widely repeated accusation -- that Barrientos has bartered underwriting airtime for restaurant meals -- is hardly a compelling story of graft, considering that he earns about $30,000 per year and often conducts business meetings at the restaurants.
According to Wright, those who don't become involved lose the right to complain about the changes at KKFI. "There are people who are not personally involved in running the station, who only come in to do a particular show," says Wright. "They don't pick up their mail, they don't respond to postings and then months later, they ask you, 'What happened?'
"It's up to people to get involved and organized and make those changes they want or the changes will be on the other side," Wright continues. "It's a wake-up call, a kick in the butt." It's never too early to start organizing, she says. "The next board election is in June 2002."
Immediately after the directors' meeting, Ali Kamali seems upbeat. The board has voted to reinstate Shabahang. He trusted the process at KKFI and expects Shabahang soon will be back on the air.
"You won," a fellow programmer congratulates him.
Even LeVota, who butted heads with Barrientos over the grievance committee's decision, seems relieved. He expects Shabahang programmers soon will set up appointments to come down to the station and get recertified.
But the vote means almost nothing. None of the Shabahang proponents realizes Barrientos plans to disregard the board's decision. Of course, James Olenick knows. Although his motion had resulted in the board's vote to reinstate Shabahang, he would admit later that he had made the motion only "to shut Mr. LeVota up."
After a week, Kamali still thinks the vote counted: "I'm just waiting for Mr. Barrientos to call me and go over the details," he says.