An Open Letter to the University of Minnesota

by Richard Winkler

This last Friday, (February 13, 2020), I read a DNT front-page newspaper article “UMD explores sale of KUMD radio station”. I thought I’d take the time to offer you a perspective from someone who had a good experience with KUMD, graduated from UMD, has continued to live in this community, and has felt that KUMD has “had my back” in standing up for citizen values that I feel essential in being an American.  

I was a volunteer at KUMD-FM Radio (in the late '60's, reading the news). This was a time when there were demonstrations at college campuses across the U.S. over the Viet Nam War. About 1,000(?) students (UMD student population of about 5,200 then) marched-in-protest, en masse, from UMD to the Western Union telegraph office on Superior Street to protest our nation's involvement in that war. This was a time where college student involvement, bolstered by non-censored news reporting, made a significant difference in the outcome of our national policies. KUMD was there reporting: "Young people speakin' their minds, gettin' so much resistance, from behind." It was real, here in Duluth.  

In what follows, I am asking you to make sure to keep UMD’s KUMD-FM radio station independent. The issue is not just Freedom of Speech. The issue is also The Ability to Get the Truth TO The People!  

Here’s how I see it:  

KUMD is a college campus radio station that has been in operation since 1957, which offers programing to the college campus and to the outlying surrounding communities that are near enough to pick up its signal (today, roughly a 55 to77 mile out-lying radius: e.g., Tofte, Ashland WI, Sandstone, MacGregor, Virginia MN). KUMD describes itself as “The Duluth Alternative — Local independent public radio for Duluth, with a music, arts, and community focus.”  

In the article The Corporate Dictatorship of PBS & NPR, dated May 22, 2013 by the Thom Hartman Program: The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 states: It is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes… it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States.  

When public broadcasting in America was first established, the intent was that Congress would provide funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would in turn divide that funding up among the various public television and radio stations across the country. This worked great for years. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) brought educational programming, and independent news and political analysis to millions of Americans.  

But, with the onset of “Reaganomics” 33 years ago [now: 40 years ago], federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has since been slashed. As a result, public broadcasting institutions now rely more and more on corporate and billionaire cash to operate, which is probably why PBS and NPR now filter what they play on their airwaves, so that they don’t anger their wealthy backers.       

[Thus: de facto censorship.]  

PBS has blown their integrity; their decision not to air a documentary “Citizen Koch” on the Koch brothers is pretty horrifying proof of it. (“Citizen Koch” is a documentary about money and politics, focusing heavily on the uprising that took place in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012. It talks about how the Citizens United decision paved the way for secretive political spending by major players, including the Koch Brothers.) As Brendan Fischer (at the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch) points out, the documentary was originally supposed to air on PBS stations nationwide, but its funding was abruptly cut off when, it appears, David Koch was offended.  

Why would PBS care if David Koch didn’t like one of their documentaries? Because, according to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, David Koch has donated upwards of $23 million to public television. And when you donate $23 million dollars to public television, you get more than just a tote bag or a coffee mug – you get to dictate the on-air programming. This is the kind of influence and control that we see in mainstream media today too. Thanks to the giant transnational corporations that own them, mainstream media outlets tailor their programming to appease their corporate backers. We can’t do anything about the big corporations that own our so-called “mainstream” media, but Public Broadcasting is still, at least in part, both legally and morally a part of our commons.  

In operating KUMD-FM Radio at UMD, the University of Minnesota has been fulfilling Congress’s intent to create “the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio to bring educational programming, independent news and political analysis to millions of Americans”, and the U of M’s KUMD (at UMD) has been a beacon, lighting the way ten years before the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 ever became law. Kudos, Minnesota!  

The University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents Mission Statement states: Feb 8, 2008 - The University of Minnesota (University), founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people ...  

I believe it is essential to maintain and protect our public airwaves, keep them truly independent, and prevent corporate and billionaire control over them, so that political entities (e.g., the Koch Brothers) don’t get to choose what you watch on TV and listen to on radio. And the only way to do that is to fully fund public radio and television. This is a Freedom of Speech issue and it is also a Freedom of Access Issue for the public!  

Therein lies the rub: UMD has a budget shortfall, department budgets are being cut, programs eliminated, and KUMD has been targeted by cost-analysts. I’m guessing that you, who have been put in charge of UMD’s KUMD-FM Radio, have probably been tasked with finding a “solution”. So, you have “explored” the possibility of a sale to the Duluth-Superior Area Television Corporation (commonly known as WDSE-WIRT), which is affiliated with PBS.  

And therein lies the other rub. PBS has already demonstrated their inability to resist the Corporate Dictatorship of David Koch’s contributions. WDSE airs PBS programs. So, how is KUMD (if under control of WDSE) going to resist corporate/elitist billionaire pressure through PBS? Priorities have been drawn by the University of Minnesota, and it appears that an independent college radio station at UMD is no longer highly prioritized by current decision-makers.  

But isn’t that why the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967? As stated in The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 above: “…it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States.”  

And doesn’t that coincide with the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents Mission Statement (above), which states that:  

The University of Minnesota (University), founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people ...  

This is why the University created the radio station in the first place. This is what an independent radio station has the potential to do.  

On the other hand, it has been written: “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.”  

So, whereas Freedom of Speech is guarded by the Constitution, one could severely frustrate the ability of the journalists to get the truth to the people by purchasing and/or controlling all of the media, right? And thus, “those rights and freedoms... [get] …removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed”. And there it is:     

de facto censorship achieved by “textbook” fascism.  

The stakes have never been higher. As attacks on women’s rights, health care, the environment (e.g., the reckless endangerment of proposed Copper-Nickel Mining tailings basins to Northeast Minnesota) and democracy intensify (i.e., the U.S. Senate’s recent vote to NOT allow witnesses to testify during a US President Impeachment Hearing), we’re going to need truth-telling journalists more than ever with the ability to get the truth TO the people of Minnesota.  

This is where KUMD-FM Radio at UMD becomes so important: To be a beacon for independent thought and analysis. As I see it, your charge — your responsibility — is to ensure KUMD’s (the University’s radio station) continued independence. This is why I have taken the time to write to you: To impress upon you WHY a college radio station’s continued independence is THAT important; because the University cannot allow its integrity to be compromised or silenced.  

The U of M’s Board of Regents is going to meet on March 13th, 2020, to discuss this very issue. What shall your recommendation be?  

Be well. Please contemplate the above. What happens here is important for the continued existence of our government (as we have known it).  

I leave you now with this:             

ON PURPOSE “Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.”     ~ St. Francis of Assisi    

If I can be of any help to you, you are welcome to contact me. Thank you for reading this.  

Sincerely,  

Richard Winkler  

P.S.: fyi, One of the 11 co-founding committee members of the John Birch Society was Fred C. Koch, the father of the current right-wing Koch Brothers. The independently wealthy Koch was a friend of the Birch Society’s authoritarian originator, the equally wealthy Robert Welch, Jr.