Al Jazeera's Newshour is live on Kansas City's airwaves. The Qatari network, whose reporting was described as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004, broadcasts on KKFI 90.1 at 9 a.m. Thursdays.
Al Jazeera has come a long way since Rummy's rant. The news organization has expanded to more than 60 bureaus worldwide (and has announced plans for 12 bureaus in the United States) that offer television and radio programs, including an English-language version. Rumsfeld even did an interview with Al Jazeera in 2011. However, the network has yet to fully shed its early-aughts reputation as the favored media outlet of Osama bin Laden's publicity team.
Since Al Jazeera English's launch, it has struggled to find distribution for its television programming in the United States, mainly because the operation is funded by the Qatari government. In an effort to get onto satellite and cable systems, the network purchased Current TV, the relatively unwatched but widely distributed news channel owned in part by Al Gore, in January. After the deal, Time Warner Cable, the United States' second-largest cable provider, dropped the station.
Now, Al Jazeera has found another way to reach American news consumers: through community-radio stations. Pacifica Radio Network, one of the nation's largest distributors of syndicated programming to community stations, began offering Al Jazeera in 2010. That's how Al Jazeera found its way onto KKFI.
Mark Andruss, chairman of KKFI's programming committee, says his station wanted to add a news program to its schedule, and Al Jazeera's Newshour was available. He says the once-a-week airings are a test to see how listeners react to getting their news from the occasionally controversial network.
"Our listeners, we felt, were unlikely to be bothered by Al Jazeera, at least in the 'it comes from the Arab world, therefore it's not worth listening to' reaction," says Andruss, who hosts Foolkiller Folk on the station. "If our listeners like Al Jazeera, if we can hold the Democracy Now! audience, then I think we have to think about making it a Monday–Friday, one-hour-long news segment."
Of approximately 180 stations affiliated with Pacifica, 35 air Al Jazeera. KYRS in Spokane, Washington, airs it twice a day, and WGDR at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, plays it every morning.
Pacifica Affiliates Coordinator Ursula Ruedenberg says the show has been a hit for radio stations since it began distributing the program three years ago.
"It was immediately pretty popular," she says. "We didn't design it this way, but by coincidence, we finalized our negotiations, which had been going on for quite a few years, right when Egypt happened and the Arab Spring started.
"Among those stations, some of them aired it with a little trepidation, and they had great results," Ruedenberg adds. In general, the audience of community-radio stations tends to be interested in Middle Eastern news topics, she says.
"I think that because of all of the political changes in the Middle East, it's very exciting to have a newscast that's literally there on the ground and can report very accurately and immediately," she says.
Andruss believes that KKFI listeners will be sharp critics of the show, when necessary.
"For our listeners, the deeper question may be, 'Does Al Jazeera have the editorial independence to point a spotlight on human-rights abuses in Qatar?' " Andruss says. "I did a little digging on that, and while I maybe wouldn't give them an A, I would at least give them a B-minus or something."
Adding Al Jazeera to the station's lineup didn't arouse much debate within KKFI's programming committee, Andruss says.
"The mission of Al Jazeera might as well be the mission of KKFI," he says. "They say they're interested in telling untold stories [and] provoking debate. But if you read our mission statement, we're basically about the same thing. If there had been a perception that Al Jazeera didn't play the news game reasonably straight by current standards, then I think we might have had issues."