By Scott Christiansen
Two weeks after shuttering Out North Contemporary Art House and laying off all six of their paid employers, the Out North board of directors has pulled the plug on the art house’s radio station, KONR-LP at 106.1 FM. The chairman of the board cited liability concerns. The decision, board president Chrissy Bell said, was to “temporarily” shut down the station while the board plots a long-term strategy for the non-profit that owns Out North.
“We temporarily shut down all operations at Out North, and as part of the process we are working through, we have temporarily taken KONR off the air,” Bell said. “As the board we are responsible and liable for anything that happens over the air.”
When asked whether the station had ever received a complaint from a listener, Bell said it hasn’t. Bell said the Out North board has consulted with the Federal Communications Commission to make sure they could shut the station down without endangering Out North’s FCC license.
Daniel Sparks, one of the KONR’s key volunteers, said today that board members had been trying to convince him to help silence the station for two weeks. Sparks didn’t believe that was necessary. He still doesn’t (at least as of Monday), and on a Facebook page called “Konr Out North” Sparks posted a brief statement: “It’s true the hull has been breached and we have been boarded. The transmitter was disabled by board of directors bringing a shut down order to the tower/transmitter host.”
Sparks has worked about four years to help bring the station to the airwaves. Out North’s founders, Jay Brause and Gene Dugan, were the first to apply for a radio license for Out North in 2002. Sparks said he was still trying to understand why the board would pull the plug on the radio station, and said he believes the board has made a series of public relations mistakes since it closed the playhouse.
“I have this fear that all of the work that Jay and Gene did to make the radio station a reality is just going to be lost,” Sparks said, adding that his volunteer work at KONR has been a central part of his life in the last four or five years. “It has a been a big part of how I have been going about my day and organizing my life, so, well, I’m just sort of processing all this right now,” Sparks said.
Previous posts at the KONR Facebook page spread word about the board’s actions up to this point. The station’s Facebook page has become a gathering place for people interested in news and opinion about the non-profit. It’s also become host to comments questioning the board of directors and their actions (the board has been mostly silent). It is not clear if that discussion made it onto the air—Sparks said he has encouraged the board members to use radio to talk about happenings at Out North, but was unable to convince them to do that.*
The July 29 closing of the Out North Contemporary Art House at 3800 DeBarr Roads came as a surprise to the non-profit’s employees and Out North’s audience. The board cited financial difficulties when they locked the doors and promised to map a path forward. The radio station continued to broadcast, however, because none of the equipment required to keep KONR on the air was housed at Out North’s playhouse. The station took more than a decade to get approval from the FCC and build out its hardware. Its signal debuted midwinter 2012, meeting an FCC deadline by playing an endless stream of rainforest sounds.**
Out North board members pulled the plug without meeting with volunteers who ran the station. The station “host” Sparks referred to on Facebook is a commercial broadcaster called Anchorage Media Group that donates engineering expertise, some space in a transmitter shack, and electricity to the KONR effort. Anchorage Media Group is a division of Morris Communications.
Bell and the board had the station turned off by making direct appeals to Anchorage Media Group. Sparks said he had no say in the matter, and said no one should question AMG and its actions. “They just couldn’t get caught in the middle of any of this. They’ve always supportive for years,” Sparks said.
This week an art exhibit titled “UNmanly” (Featuring several artists and curated by Michael Walsh) will open at Out North Contemporary Art House on Friday. Bell said the art house gallery would be open on a limited basis over the next four weeks to meet Out North’s contractual obligation for the exhibit. “For the foreseeable future this will be the last public event that takes place [at Out North],” Bell said.
*A disclosure: the message, “There is no advantage to silencing the signal” has been shared on Facebook by this reporter. That statement originated from a post authored by Sparks.
**A disclosure: this reporter welcomes rainforest sounds in midwinter in Alaska. The last day of broadcasting included Harry Shearer’s program le Show, which is also welcome.