KOOP is the little station that could.
In a city full of broadcasters owned by big corporations with deep pockets, community-oriented 91.7 FM gets by with a staff of just two full-time employees and one part-timer. Volunteers do the rest.
"It's a big family of people here who really care about the community," says David Kobierowski, who's been volunteering at KOOP for almost five years. "Volunteers walk in off the street, and six to eight months later they've got their own show."
Almost 100 Austin-area residents donate their time to the station, performing tasks big and small – everything from cataloging music to fixing equipment to hosting shows. The station's lineup currently features 68 volunteer-hosted programs — almost all of them live — prompting Paste magazine to name it one of the "40 Best Little Radio Stations in the U.S."
"Everyone's got their own unique idea of what a show is for them," says Kim McCarson, the station's executive director. "We let people handcraft their shows. They've got complete autonomy."
Tune in weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends to hear an eclectic mix of programming that includes Canadian, Chinese, Czech and Jamaican music, as well as programs devoted to the local film industry, soccer and issues facing disabled Central Texans. (KVRX, a station run by University of Texas students, can be heard on 91.7 FM during the times when KOOP's not on the air.)
"The deejays work really hard on these shows, spending hours getting prepared," Kobierowski says. "It's all very well done."
Community members are also integral to the station's success and growth over the past 16 years, donating cash that provides just over half the station's operating budget during two annual pledge drives. The rest of the money comes from a mix of underwriters, foundations and local, state and federal grants.
KOOP's latest fundraiser, a Sweet 16 party earlier this month at Antone's featuring performances by Slaid Cleaves, Sara Hickman and Kelly Willis, drew around 300 listeners and raised $12,125.
"This is one of the worst economic times in generations, and we are doing better than ever," Kobierowski says. "People want to give."
Times haven't always been so good to KOOP. A pair of accidental fires in 2006 forced a move from East Fifth Street to Airport Boulevard. Then, in 2008, a volunteer set fire to the KOOP studios, causing more than $200,000 in damage. Paul Webster 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.
"When I heard about the fire at our new studios, I thought, ‘Wow, we are done for,' " says KOOP veteran Charlie Martin, who handles accounting and other tasks for the station.
Thankfully, that wasn't the case. Insurance covered some of the costs to rebuild and community members helped fill in the gaps, offering cash and free labor. Two-plus years later, volunteers are still working their way through the station's massive collection of CDs, cleaning each one by hand.
"A lot of people didn't think we were going to be able to pull it off," McCarson says, "but every time KOOP has faced a challenge, we've met it, exceeded it and become a stronger station."
Concerned about KUT
Changes at Austin's NPR affiliate have riled some longtime listeners.
One is even exploring the notion of challenging KUT's license when it comes up for renewal in 2013.
"I think the current management at KUT has forgotten what public radio is supposed to be about: serving audiences that aren't being served by the commercial market," says Mark Bryant, who has supported the station financially for years, and insists he couldn't live without NPR's programming.
The end of "Blue Monday" and a shift in the type of music being played are just some of Bryant's complaints.
"I listen to KUT all the time now, but I always know exactly what I'm going to hear," he says. "At least for the music programming, KUT has become KGSR without commercials."
"We never take license renewal lightly," says station spokeswoman Erin Geisler, "so it's helpful to know how some folks view our public service."
Will Bryant actually go through with a challenge? That remains to be seen.
"We're a long way from license renewal time," he reminds me. "This is just an idea that I floated more than any serious effort at this point."
Around the dial ...
Bucky Godbolt has moved back to 1300 AM the Zone (KVET-AM) after spending the past three years at sister station KVET-FM. At the Zone, Godbolt has revived his "Buck on Sports" show. Catch it weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. ... "The Music Meeting" has joined KGSR's lineup. The show, airing at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday on 93.3 FM, promises "a solid hour of brand new music — from the week's big releases, from albums not out for months and from Austin's best artists," according to Andy Langer, who hosts Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mark Abuzzahab helms the show Mondays and Wednesdays. The station continues to air "Lonestar State of Mind," a show focused on Texas music, in the 10 p.m. slot Fridays.