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Radio Station Visit #120 – KABF in Little Rock, Arkansas

When I arrived at community radio station KABF in Little Rock, Arkansas on the afternoon of October 7, 2016, I was embarking on my fifth radio station visit in a 24-hour period. A bit delirious from my cross-country and cross-state travels, I became immediately re-energized after spotting a trio of friends waiting for me outside the station. Radio advocate Kenya Lewis and ARTxFM‘s Sharon Scott and Sean Selby (General Manager and Chief Operator, respectively) greeted me in the parking lot and we all headed upstairs to see KABF.

Sticker-covered bucket at KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Sticker-covered bucket at KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Located on the upper floor of a house that was home to the original ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), KABF’s history has close ties to the community-focused organization and ACORN’s co-founder Wade Rathke also co-founded KABF and serves as its Station Manager. Launched in 1984, KABF broadcasts over FM at an astonishing 100,000 watts of power.

KABF's building in Little Rock. Photo: J. Waits

KABF’s building in Little Rock. Photo: J. Waits

KABF’s history is nicely documented on its website and it’s interesting to see how the work of ACORN inspired the creation of the station. KABF writes,

The real roots of KABF lie in a nonpartisan political effort to establish ‘lifeline’ utility rates in the City of Little Rock through an initiated referendum petition that came to a vote in 1976. Arkansas ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a membership organization of low and modern income families founded in Little Rock on June 18, 1970 had been leading the fights at the Public Service Commission to halt inflationary increases in utility costs for gas, telephone, and electricity that were hammering their members. ACORN had made some progress but much of their success had been in whittling down huge proposed increases, which even in ‘victory,’ still meant higher bills for their members. Finally, they struck upon a strategy of advocating a ‘lifeline’ rate that would freeze the costs for the first 400 kilowatts of electricity at a fixed level so that lower income families would always be able to afford basic utilities in their homes. By getting a valid number of signatures for an initiated petition ACORN could put the issue on the ballot and if the voters agreed, enact lifeline rates.”

Vinyl LPs and paperwork at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Vinyl LPs and paperwork at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Through its work advocating for low income families, ACORN came to realize the power of the media and ultimately worked to launch a community radio station. According to KABF,

ACORN in analyzing its experience with the lifeline elections in Arkansas came to the conclusion that it would never have the money to allow its members to have the kind of media voice that money had bought the utilities with a membership of lower income families. On the other hand in extensive conversations with Lorenzo Milam became convinced that there might be accessible opportunities to create a ‘voice of the people’ in noncommercial, community radio. Milam, often called the ‘father of community radio’ at that time was establishing a 100,000 watt station in Dallas called KCHU that was working with the Dallas chapter of ACORN. Discussions between Milam and the founder and chief organizer of ACORN, Wade Rathke, led in subsequent years to ACORN helping found the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM)…”

The glow of the on-air sign at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

The glow of the on-air sign at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Rathke elaborated on this radio past, telling me, “I got started via Lorenzo Milam…and we [built] WMNF in Tampa, applied for and eventually went on the air in Little Rock with KABF, and not long after brought KNON on the air in Dallas, all in the early 1980’s.” Today, Rathke is also working in New Orleans, bringing WAMF-LP to the airwaves this year.

KABF sign. Photo: J. Waits

KABF sign. Photo: J. Waits

A KABF fact sheet explains that the station is a “grassroots community radio station with a primary goal of attracting, servicing and empowering low and moderate-income people.” Rathke added, that, “our stations are ‘voice of the people’ stations. We see ourselves as providing a 100,000 watt megaphone for lower income families, minorities, and others who are not normally on the air or hearing their voices and music. We do block programming within that empowerment philosophy.”

Artwork at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Artwork at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

KABF’s diverse schedule includes a mix of talk and music programming, including local news and public affairs shows, syndicated news from Democracy Now, and a range of music shows that play jazz, gospel, rock, blues, world music and more.

CDs in the KABF music library. Photo: J. Waits

CDs in the KABF music library. Photo: J. Waits

Additionally, KABF provides some of its music and public affairs programming (around 1300 hours worth) for free to other non-commercial radio stations, including the Peoples’ Daily News (a three minute daily update) and the Chief Organizer’s Report. This is facilitated through the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM).

Paper playlist at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Paper playlist at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

When I stopped by, several long-time KABF participants were at the station, including Program Manager John Cain and Station Manager Wade Rathke. Cain, who has also been with the station since 1984, gave me a quick tour around KABF. Located on the upper floor of a house, KABF’s landlord and downstairs neighbor is Arkansas Community Organizations, whose mission is similar to that of the original ACORN.

Kenya Lewis, KABF volunteer, Wade Rathke, and Join Cain at KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Kenya Lewis, KABF Board President Toney Orr, KABF Station Manager Wade Rathke, and KABF Program Manager Join Cain at KABF. Photo: J. Waits

The KABF space contains a large open office area, a smaller office and on-air studio. The well-loved office was full of radio station staples like awards, a cabinet plastered with community radio station stickers, a smattering of LPs, dusty cassettes, and a cart labeled “Cowboy Pie Poet.” Whimsical decor included a pirate carved out of a coconut, an armadillo stuffed animal, a lavender-haired troll doll, and a vintage poster of “The World According to Ronald Reagan.”

KABF office. Photo: J. Waits

KABF office. Photo: J. Waits

Music is stashed away in locked hallway cabinets, that when opened revealed stacks of vinyl records and CDs. Live shows generally take place from around 5am to midnight (sometimes until 2am or later) and there are approximately 80 to 100 volunteer participants at KABF. In the overnight hours, KABF plays a mixture of “the best of” the station, including pre-recorded jazz, blues and rock music shows.

John Cain in the KABF studio. Photo: J. Waits

John Cain in the KABF studio. Photo: J. Waits

Cain was hosting a blues show during my visit and I was excited to hear some unexpected surprises, including a blues song from Iceland. After a quick chat, I wrapped up my visit as many of us, including a bunch of KABF staffers, were preparing to head to Hot Springs, Arkansas for the Grassroots Radio Conference that evening (read my recap in Radio World and listen to more tidbits on Radio Survivor Podcast #68).

PSAs at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

PSAs at community radio station KABF. Photo: J. Waits

Thanks to everyone at KABF for the warm welcome and tour. This is my 120th radio station field trip report. I have one more Arkansas tour to write up and then we’ll move on to my Pennsylvania travels. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and peruse a full list of my station tour reports on Spinning Indie.


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