A few miles and a world away from my home was KDIF 102.9 FM, a low-power FM station in South Phoenix. My ride to the station took me from the thriving and developing neighborhoods of Phoenix to the neglected neighborhoods of South Phoenix. The streets and businesses changed as I drove further south, but my radio picked up the sound of live DJs spinning their favorite funk records instead of the syndicated religious satellite radio station. I went to KDIF thinking that I would focus my thesis on the station’s transition to digital media, but realized that KDIF and community radio were doing something more important than going digital. KDIF created a sense of community, and that’s something the people of South Phoenix needed.
I study human communication and spend a lot of time explaining how communication is not quite the same as journalism. My research has focused on social movements and digital media. My master’s thesis examined the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-language website and my interest in how groups use digital media to foster social movements. My time in the Peace Corps and volunteering for various arts and community organizations made me interested in volunteer work. I visited KDIF as part of a short research methods course, thinking it would be a quick project. But I realized that community radio work was a way to connect my interests in media, volunteering, social movements and community building.
However, the most compelling lesson I learned from KDIF artists and volunteers was how they would use community radio to build a different future for South Phoenix. The region has faced a long history of discrimination and neglect. If you’ve ever heard the term “environmental racism” — the idea that groups facing racial discrimination are coerced into going to places that are environmentally unsafe — early research that developed the term used South Phoenix as an example. South Phoenix’s current “development” plans focus on bringing in new wealthy residents and businesses while failing to invest in those already there. Local media covers some of the issues facing South Phoenix, but often portrays the area as a desperate place of crime and poverty. National or syndicated broadcast stations focus on news, talk, and music that has national rather than local interests. The broadcast media doesn’t let them speak or represent them, so it’s no surprise that South Phoenix residents feel estranged from the radio.
Phoenix music critics complain that most radio stations use the same playlists. DJ Balo agrees. “There’s a whole world of music out there, and people only hear a small part of it,” said Balo, former host of About Da Music on KDIF and now owner of Phoenix WUBI radio station. “If the music isn’t really new or in that 2% of old songs approved by the big companies, it’s not on the radio.”
I think of how Anjelica, a DJ who co-hosted the all-vinyl show Rosewax Vinyl Club, talked about having the kind of music on the radio “where you can have grandmas, mothers, and daughters listening together.” Commercial radio often segments by age groups, but community radio like KDIF eschews segmentation in favor of bringing people together.
The goal of KDIF is not just local but hyperlocal. As a low-power FM station, KDIF has a broadcast radius of approximately three miles. Its FCC license requires it to stream a certain amount of locally produced content every day. “Locally produced” means the content must be made within 10 miles of the station. KDIF is licensed to use 102.9 as its broadcast frequency, but the low-power license does not protect KDIF from interference from a commercial radio station with the same frequency.
In 2000, the FCC licensed a new class of radio stations called Low Power FM (LPFM) stations in an effort to serve smaller communities and underrepresented groups. Media reformers across the political spectrum had argued that the concentration of media in a few hands homogenized radio, and that this homogenization reduced radio’s effectiveness as an outlet for local communities.
The LPFM designation was immediately opposed by commercial and public broadcasters, and lobbying on behalf of commercial radio and NPR in Congress worked to stifle LPFM’s growth. Many lawmakers, including the late Arizona Senator John McCain, spent nearly a decade struggling to define how the LPFM would work. When the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 allowed more LPFM stations to broadcast, Phoenix organizers asked for dial space. In 2013, the group that would become KDIF was granted an LPFM license to transmit in South Phoenix and parts of downtown Phoenix. These organizers believed that radio had a unique power that was most effective when tied to particular geography and people.
Community radio brings people together by helping locals discuss local issues. For example, a high school in South Phoenix found that its mostly white teachers had trouble understanding how nonwhite students used slurs and insults between friends. The students teamed up with the station’s executive director, Franco Hernandez, to create a radio show where they could solve problems. The show allowed students to express their concerns about the loss of their linguistic community, and they were challenged to reflect on how their language creates complexity around racial issues. The radio amplified their perspectives and provided nuances that did not occur in face-to-face conversations. The immediacy of the radio broadcast forced teachers to focus on the students as they spoke. KDIF changed the power dynamic between the students and used the radio to solve a problem in their high school. Unionized national programs cannot solve the problems at the local high school.
KDIF taught me how community radio fills a need that commercial advocacy and digital audio will not completely replace. Community radio is a space where people who lack power, access or agency can talk to those in power, and community radio is where a community can talk with itself. “Hearing people like us on the radio when you walk into a restaurant or an auto shop,” Hernandez says, “makes you feel like South Phoenix is yours too.” The power of radio is to create a sense of belonging, and community radios like KDIF support belonging where other stations falter.
Commercial radio creates fantastic programming, but the nationalization of many commercial stations takes away the local character just as much as a restaurant chain. Public radio supports great local work, but public radio has a complex relationship with localism. Christina Dunbar-Hester, author of Little power to the people, argues that public radio lobbyists have collapsed the distinction between content that serves residents and stations controlled by residents. Dunbar-Hester acknowledges the comments made by public radio officials in favor of local media, but his research acknowledges that the position of public radio supports the same practices of nationalization and consolidation of commercial radio. College stations bring in new voices, but college radio ignores people over 25. Community radio is not a threat to any of them. It exists as a place for people who don’t have a place in the media, and they should have a part of the airwaves for their church, their school, their small group of people.
KDIF is an institution for the non-institutional. Sunday service, a show that’s no longer on the air, spent every Sunday morning pumping out funk, soul and hip-hop for leisurely strolls around the avenues of southern Phoenix. “There are organizations and places to go [to] in South Phoenix,” said a KDIF staffer, “but they only welcome you if you fit a certain type of respectability. If you’re a kid, you don’t go to church or sports, and you don’t have the right background, then there’s not much for you. I sat in the studio with all kinds of people, the kind of people who didn’t belong in other places, quietly shaking their heads over the bass. Their fellowship was no less valuable than the services held in neighboring churches on Sunday mornings, and Sunday service connected the people of South Phoenix to each other and to people around the world. Community radio is not just broadcasting but a sense of belonging.
A feeling of belonging or connection emanates from community radio, but community radio struggles to maintain this feeling for long. KDIF hosts and staff are all unpaid volunteers. Sunday service ceased broadcasting after its hosts left, but the Sunday morning timeslot remains an active venue for new shows and programming. Two of the three hosts of Rosewax Vinyl Club recently passed away, but their memory lives on at KDIF. Hernandez and a local artist transformed the KDIF Lounge into the La Dama Community Lounge, an inviting space where friends and family of DJs can hang out while the DJs host their shows. Community radio is a place where belonging and change often go hand in hand.
A friend told me that most people study something either because they want to fix the world or because they want to fix themselves. I studied community radio because I thought I could “fix” this station. Every afternoon or evening when I came home from watching a show or a long budget meeting, I tuned into KDIF until the peaceful medley of reggae turned into a shrill monologue. of the syndicated religious station that shares KDIF’s frequency. The hardest part of listening to KDIF was that moment when the belonging and closeness to a hyperlocal station I felt was subsumed by a national station that didn’t care about me. I wanted that sense of community, a place where I fit in, to last a little longer. I came to understand belonging, but realized that I also needed a place to belong. KDIF gave me that in a way no radio station has in a long time, and membership is something every radio listener deserves.
Ian Derk is a lecturer in communication at the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. He teaches courses on popular culture and graphic novels. Her research explores the connection between sound and community activism. He can be contacted at [email protected] You can find KDIF 102.9 online and follow it on Instagram.