After more than 33 years of public radio service, KOPN/89.5 FM is aiming to keep up with the latest advances in technology by expanding its offerings and interaction with listeners, most recently launching “Mobi” cell phone updates.
Radio stations have historically been strictly broadcast, but they are now becoming increasingly multimedia operations, said David Owens, the station’s general manager.
“More people are getting information and entertainment from the Internet than from broadcast and print,” said Owens, who joined the station in 1975, two years after KOPN went on the air. “To not move that way would be silly, although the resources to do everything are sometimes hard to come by.”
It has been a challenge for the independent station, which is funded almost entirely through donations, to upgrade its technological proficiency as well as to cover other expenses, including rent and the salaries of the five paid staff members.
KOPN has expanded its Web site, kopn.org, in the past two years through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives the station $5,000 a year for three years. On the Web site, listeners can find a schedule and detailed descriptions of the station’s music and talk programs, a list of upcoming KOPN events, links to national and international news sites and podcasts of KOPN’s local talk programs.
The grant, however, is only a “kick start,” Owens said, and will run out at the end of fiscal year 2007 next October.
Then and Now
For a radio station that began in a studio smaller than an MU dorm room, KOPN has come a long way. College students who came to Columbia from the St. Louis area in the early 1970s had the idea of starting a radio station that could serve as a platform for views not represented on commercial radio — specifically pacifist and environmentalist views — as well as music that couldn’t be found on mainstream stations, Owens said.
On March 3, 1973, KOPN went on the air, becoming the first nonprofit, community radio station in the country based in a town of fewer than 100,000 residents, Owens said.
Three months later, St. Louis’ public radio station, KDNA, went out of business, which benefitted KOPN. The station picked up a new transmitter, a broadcast board and a larger record collection, Owens said. By 1977, KOPN had a budget large enough to pay its first staff member.
Today, KOPN claims as many as 200 volunteers, about 60 or 70 of whom are program disc jockeys, Owens estimated. The station offers music genres as diverse as bluegrass and Arab and African pop, talk shows taking on concerns of Columbia’s minority communities and a program on health issues.
KOPN is different than most radio stations because it attempts to appeal to as many different niches as possible, whereas most commercial stations pick one market — like top 40 pop or classic rock — and go after that market alone, Owens said.
“There are a lot of different tastes in the community to be satisfied, as far as information people need and want to know, and entertainment they want to pursue,” he said. “In Columbia, for example, there is no full-time theater station, no full-time Spanish language station, no full-time blues station and no full-time jazz station. There are all sorts of music and perspectives that you simply cannot find on commercial radio.”
Still, there are always more opportunities for KOPN to serve underrepresented populations of the community, Owens said.
“We’ve been slicing up our time for years to provide access to people who have something to say, but the idea of giving time to everyone who walks through the doors is impossible,” he said.
As part of its mission to serve and educate the community, KOPN is making an effort to adapt to the exploding technological frontier, which has taken radio onto the Internet in the past decade with the advent of streaming and podcasts.
“The Internet has been called the ‘infinite dial’ because there is no limit to the number of channels it can hold, whereas FM radio only has 100 channels,” said Charlie Turner, KOPN’s volunteer webmaster. “Technology is just going to keep moving forward, and I’ve got to believe we are able to take advantage of it.”
Archives of KOPN’s local talk programs are available for download as podcasts on the station’s Web site. Podcasts are saveable copies of audio recordings, and Turner must cut out all music portions on the talk programs before uploading the podcasts to comply with the federal licensing limitations on “sharing” of music files.
The “exorbitant” licensing costs of streaming — the unsavable, online version of current radio programming — has been one factor preventing KOPN from streaming on its Web site up to this point, Owens said.
“There are also murky legal issues around streaming that have made us approach it slowly,” he said.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, prohibits the distribution or copying of music online without paying licensing fees to the record companies. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is negotiating licensing deals for its client stations, including KOPN, to legally stream music online.
After the legal issues are resolved, however, there would still remain the question of what quality of streaming service KOPN would be able to provide: The higher the quality, the more it costs.
“We will have to watch out for price versus quality,” Turner said. “There’s always that dotted line of going so cheap that it doesn’t work right.”
One technology front KOPN has had success with is allowing cell phone users to view the station’s current programming on their phones. Through the three-month-old “Mobi” service, listeners with Internet connections on their cell phones can see what is currently airing on KOPN, what program is coming up next and access a station directory, by going to “kopn.mobi” on the phone’s URL browser.
Turner, a retired MU computer programmer who called the Mobi service his “pet project,” said he thinks KOPN is doing the best it can to keep up with advances in technology under its budget..
“Ultimately, new technology makes something better than it was before, especially in our ability to communicate,” Turner said. “In our case, that means reaching out to listeners who in turn are willing to support us.”
As the technological possibilities of the future continue to abound, KOPN will search for more ways to interact with the community and provide a forum for free speech, Owens said. The survival of noncommercial media entities is becoming especially critical as more media are being owned by fewer people, he said.
“As population density grows and resources diminish, the struggle for ideas and resources is going to intensify,” Owens said. “My personal belief is that in order for us to arrive at solutions, we must have the widest currency of ideas and have forums to exchange ideas. Either that, or it’s coercion and authoritarianism, and that doesn’t have a very good track record.”