On Saturday, community station KOOP Radio, 91.7 FM, celebrates its 25th anniversary with a blowout bash at Antone’s featuring A Giant Dog, Dale Watson and Cilantro Boombox. The party’s diverse lineup reflects the station’s eclectic programming, in which shows centered around jazz, blues, punk and salsa bump up against theme shows devoted to everything from Beatles-influenced bands to dead celebrities, with a liberal sprinkling of talk shows livening the mix.
With just three paid staffers, KOOP primarily is run by a cohort of dedicated volunteer DJs and engineers. Over the years, the station has allowed hundreds of music lovers and community activists to share the airwaves. (Including, full disclosure, yours truly. I did a brief stint as a DJ on the local music show Around the Town Sounds between 2004-2007.)
As the station marks a quarter of a century, we talked to several longtime KOOPers to outline the station’s colorful (and often contentious) history.
Dec. 17, 1983
At the University of Texas-area Whitehall Cooperative, the oldest housing co-op in Texas, Jim Ellinger, a community radio enthusiast and advocate of the international cooperative movement, celebrated his 30th birthday.
"After a night of carousing and merriment," talk turned to "how bad Austin radio was," he said. "I said to a crowd, ‘Austin radio is so bad, I could probably put a better station on the air.’"
He was being flippant, sarcastic, but his statement contained the kernel of a vision for a cooperatively run community radio station.
Soon, "I had people pressuring me, pursuing me, encouraging me to do that," he said.
Ellinger began to explore the feasibility of putting a station on the air and learned "it would be exceedingly difficult," he said.
Beyond the bureaucratic red tape involved in dealing with the FCC, because of Austin’s proximity to the Mexican border, the city’s airwaves were subject to restrictions written into a 1972 treaty enacted to combat so-called "border blaster" stations that broadcast from Mexico into the United States.
Undeterred, Ellinger and a group of like-minded individuals decided to pursue their co-op radio vision. They connected with a staffer for Texas’ Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and successfully lobbied to modify the treaty, freeing up 91.7 FM, the last available non-commercial frequency in Central Texas.
In 1986, they filed an application for the frequency with the FCC. Two years later, as Ellinger’s group was finalizing construction plans just before the deadline, the UT regents filed a competing application for the frequency for its student radio station, KTSB, which had been broadcasting as a cable-only radio station.
The two groups engaged in several years of "protracted and bitter negotiating, much of which got played out in the press," Ellinger said.
In a 1992 ruling that American-Statesman columnist John Herndon said "read like a joint-custody agreement," the two groups were ordered to share the frequency. In September 1993, they finalized a timeshare agreement that gave the frequency to KOOP from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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Dec. 17, 1994
Eleven years after Ellinger announced his idea for the station, KOOP went on the air from a small corner office contributed by a friend of Ellinger’s family, downtown on San Jacinto Street. According to a Statesman report from the time, the block between Fifth and Sixth streets was closed from 2 to 5 p.m. as the station hosted a drum circle, inviting percussionists from local bands to join in. The mood was jubilant. Ellinger was the first voice on the air. He quoted Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
KOOP’s first year was a blissful honeymoon. Scott Gardner, who went on the air as part of KOOP’s original roster and now programs the weekly Saturday night show, Stronger Than Dirt, said the atmosphere was euphoric. "That first year was amazing," he said.
"KOOP's ideas for programming often sounded vague when they were still in the planning stages. But now that they're on the air, you can hear exactly what they mean. And hey, it's cool," Herndon wrote in January 1995.
In December, volunteers and supporters celebrated the station’s first anniversary at a club around the corner from the station called the Green Room, "and everyone was excited," Gardner said. But shortly after, he said, "some issues started to percolate to the top."
Gardner describes the early days of KOOP as "the Wild West."
"We did kind of have a programming committee, but we met sporadically, and how shows were placed was kind of a mystery," he said.
By mid-1996, friction was building as various factions in the collective fought to take the station in different directions. It thrust the organization into a period of turmoil that lasted several years and claimed significant casualties.
"We had good people on both sides," Charlie Martin, a longtime programmer and employee of the station, said.
A board of trustees elected in 1997 made several controversial programming decisions and in July 1998 dismissed original station manager Jenny Wong, who was popular among volunteers.
A group of volunteers who called themselves Friends of KOOP organized to seize control of the station. By early 1999, their battle with the trustees landed in a district court. As the lawsuit dragged on, Ellinger was suspended indefinitely from the station by the trustees, allegedly for failing to sign off properly. Ellinger told the Statesman at the time that he believed his ouster was for defying a "gag order" and discussing the trial on the air.
Eventually, a judge requested that an organization called the Nonprofit Center monitor KOOP’s board elections. By the time the dust settled, the chaos had driven many volunteers and programmers from the station.
"We lost a lot of good people who just said, ‘Screw this. This is not fun. I can’t do this,’ because it was bitter," Gardner said.
Ellinger assumed that he'd be invited back when the dust settled. It never happened. Ellinger, who now calls his effort to get the station on the air "the biggest mistake of my life," spent many years as one of the station’s most outspoken public adversaries.
With a new board and new bylaws in place, KOOP had reached a period of relative calm. Then, on the morning of Feb. 4, the station’s team awoke to shocking news: "The building that housed their community radio station, the station they had poured blood, sweat and tears into for more than 11 years, was on fire," Joe Gross wrote in the Statesman.
After a short stint in their original office, KOOP had moved into in a ramshackle building on East Fifth Street that also housed storied Austin punk label, Sweatbox Studios, and numerous rehearsal spaces.
Though there were roaches in the hallways, shared bathrooms with dubious plumbing and booming bass from metal and punk bands that made meetings in the station’s "big room" challenging, the space felt like "our own little clubhouse," Martin said.
The relationship with Sweatbox was symbiotic. "Producers like Tim Kerr or Mike Maraconda, they would bring up bands they just recorded that were big for my audience and they’d come up with freshly recorded music, and that was pretty cool," Gardner said.
The February fire, which officials said began with a malfunction in a heating and air conditioning unit at a club down the street, was the second to strike the building that year. A smaller fire in January had done $600,000 damage to the building and taken the station off the air for a week. The February fire rendered the building a total loss.
KOOP was only off the air for a few weeks. Classical radio station KMFA subleased a small studio to the KOOP-ers, while station manager Amy Wright diligently worked to secure a new location. She found a space on Airport Boulevard. It wasn’t as quirky or fun as the downtown studio, but thanks to a grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and support from the community, they were able to outfit the station’s two studios with state-of the art gear.
"We were like, ’Oh my gosh, real equipment,’" Gardner said.
In December, KOOP signed on at the new studio.
In the new studio, with the controversies of the past largely behind them and a spirit of unity fostered by the effort to get back on the air, KOOP had never seemed more stable. Then, early in the morning on Jan. 6, almost two years to the day from the first fire at their downtown location, a third blaze took the station off the air.
Alerted to the possibility of arson by a trained dog, Pearl, who smelled something suspicious at the scene, the Austin Fire Department refused the volunteers who gathered outside the studio access to the building. Kim McCarson, who had taken over as station manager in 2006, was the lone KOOP-er allowed in. She walked through the building and took photos for insurance purposes.
"It was haunting. It was devastating. It was emotional," she said. The station had used some hired help, but the bulk of the work on the studio had been completed by volunteers.
"They really came together and gave it their all to rebuild the studios, and then this happened. So it was devastating to see the damage," McCarson said.
A few weeks later, station volunteers and staff weathered another emotional blow when they learned that a former volunteer, Paul Webster Feinstein, had been charged with felony arson. The fire battalion chief told the Statesman that on the night of Jan. 5, the 24-year-old aspiring DJ had waited until everyone left before entering the studio with a key he had secretly copied. He poured gasoline on the control panels in two different studios and started the fire, the chief said.
Feinstein pleaded guilty to arson and criminal mischief in July 2009, telling prosecutors that he was upset music he had picked for an overnight internet program had been changed, according to a 2011 Statesman report.
"To find out it was someone who had been a volunteer. I can’t describe how hurtful that was," McCarson said.
Once again her spirits were buoyed by the community response. The massive radio conglomerate Entercom Communications donated an interim studio space, and KOOP was back on the air in 19 days. Meanwhile, contributions from the community poured in, and an army of volunteers donated time the new studio.
"The dedication and the passion of that community was just amazing," McCarson said. "Every time KOOP faced a challenge, that community pulled together and they came back stronger and better."
"The community, they always lift my spirits," Gardner said. "Without our listeners, we wouldn’t be here. I know that sounds hokey but it’s the truth."
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The last decade of KOOP has been its smoothest by far.
"We cannot erase our past," said Federico Pacheco, who took over as station manager a year ago. But he thinks of the struggles KOOP endured through its early years as natural growing pains. Getting volunteers with strong personalities and passionate ideas to focus on a unified vision was never going to be easy.
"It’s a real challenge," he said. "Despite that, this is an organization that has prevailed for 25 years."
He believes the actions taken to resolve issues through the years have made KOOP a better organization. These days, KOOP has clear governance procedures and external mediators when conflicts arise.
Moving forward, Pacheco’s main goal for the station is to build its reach, in part, by organizing more events. Last year, the station hosted a celebration of the Beatles’ final performance that packed the Austin Public Library’s downtown location at lunchtime on a Wednesday.
He’s excited that the station is attracting a new generation of younger volunteers, and as people move to Austin from all over the world, he is looking for ways to reach them. The station recently updated their logo to reflect a new vision.
"For those people who know KOOP, they need to know that we are working on refreshing ourselves," he said. "(We are) not just worried about our current audience but also making sure that new people come."
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify when Federico Pacheco took over as KOOP’s general manager.