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Kate Smith loves polka. More importantly, she loves to share polka.

As Katerina, Goddess of Polka, Smith goes on the air at community radio station KZUM for two hours every Thursday.

"When people listen, it brightens up their day because it's such upbeat, happy music," she said.

But her polka show and the 80-some other programs on KZUM are in jeopardy.

That's why Smith begged for help on air Thursday during the first day of the station's two-week fall pledge drive.

"Think of what KZUM has done for your life," she said into her microphone. "... We would love to stay on the air."

Ten minutes later, Smith received a $50 pledge from a listener.

"A big danke schoen goes out to Larry," she said.

The pledge drive couldn't come at a better time.

The 31-year-old station is in a financial crisis. Its grant-financed digital conversion is at a standstill.

And to top it off, it's suffering from what one former KZUM executive called a "crisis of spirit," with massive staff turnover over the past three years and recent heated e-mail exchanges among its membership, many of whom are board members and programmers.

"This is totally typical of a community station to have because they are so inclusive of the community," said Carol Pierson, president and CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. "People have such an ownership of the station.

"You get different people with different ideas about what should be done," she said. "People are passionate about it. On one hand, that's exciting. On the other hand, it's what can be really difficult about community radio."

Financial problems

KZUM (89.3 FM), licensed to Lincoln under Sunrise Communications Inc., is Nebraska's first and only community radio station.

In existence since 1978, the nonprofit offers music, news and public affairs programming, much of it hosted by volunteer programmers.

The station will finish well short of its budgeted $283,000 in revenue for the fiscal year, which ended last week.

Treasurer John Gilliam told members last week at KZUM's annual meeting that underwriting by local businesses was down almost 30 percent from projections.

Footloose and Fancy, a longtime underwriter, pulled its financial support because of the recession.

"We pulled back on all of our advertising last year," owner Matt Stricker said. "Radio was the first to go because it was hard to track if it was a good area or not for us."

Still, he believes KZUM is an "important part of the community," and he will return as an underwriter when finances permit.

The KZUM board slashed operating expenses to make up for the revenue shortfall, including dropping health insurance for its four full-time staff members.

"KZUM operates with no fat," Gilliam told members. "There was nothing to cut."

Because of infrastructure issues, the digital conversion and studio remodeling remains on hold, more than a year after the station received several grants to pay for it, including $75,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The conversion will mean a better signal, in addition to more bandwidth for additional programming, especially foreign language fare. The remodeling will give KZUM new production studios, including one for performance.

But the station had to return $4,000 to a local foundation because it didn't meet deadlines, Gilliam said. And digital equipment has sat untouched in boxes for months.

"All of this has been really frustrating," Gilliam said. "One of our mistakes was getting folks to volunteer for the remodel. They, of course, put it on the bottom of their priority lists. It's time for us to pay someone, a project manager, to get it done."

'Difficult to be a manager there'

In 2002, KZUM hired Steve Alvis, a former NET Television executive producer and bigger-than-life personality, to replace Dick Noble, who retired as general manager after 10 years.

Alvis died in an accident while vacationing in Florida in May 2007. Since then, KZUM has had six general managers - two hired and four interim.

Those hired - Gaylen Whited and Jayne Sebby - resigned for reasons undisclosed. KZUM also has had turnover of programming and business managers and development directors.

Last month, interim general manager Martin Wells, a former NET Radio news director, quit after just four weeks, saying it came down "to the culture at KZUM" after he had run-ins with board members and programmers.

The station replaced him with interim business manager Cathy Behrns.

"The culture is that programmers have more power than volunteers in a community organization should have ...," Wells said two weeks after promising to bring stability to the station. "The board also feels it needs to be involved in day-to-day things. Given the circumstances, it's very difficult to be a manager there."

And in some cases, it's been difficult to be a programmer, too.

Longtime volunteer programmer and board member Tom Gardner left after Wells canceled his classic rock show. Wells has said he didn't want programmers playing music found on commercial stations. Gardner learned he lost his show through a posting inside the station, he said.

"The lack of cooperation and simple respect is the reason I resigned, along with resistance to Martin Wells dictating the content of my show," Gardner wrote in an e-mail to the Journal Star.

Two others, John and Kit Keller, hosts of the 13-year-old BookTalk, were suspended after John sent an e-mail to programmers and underwriters critical of board President Hardy Holm. Their status at the station remains in limbo.

"It was a letter of concern," John said. "It did not come cavalierly. I wanted to raise awareness about the managerial and financial issues. Why are we not trying to fix things now?"

Many other programmers, such as polka host Smith, are aware of the unrest but choose to stay out of it.

"I come in and do my show and take care of my stuff," she said. "I volunteer for events. As far as the running of the station ... I don't know."

Hobby or service?

There's no arguing KZUM's uniqueness. Board member Tad Fraizer wondered aloud at a recent meeting if the station "was a radio hobby club" or "a service to the community."

You could say it's a little of both, with foreign language shows peppering the schedule, along with music programs featuring jazz, folk and blues.

There's also niche programming, including shows about dogs and paranormal activity, and syndicated fare, such as Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now."

"Hopefully, Lincoln will hear the message during the fall fund drive and realize what KZUM means to them," said Scott Colburn, who has hosted the popular Saturday morning "Exploring Unexplained Phenomena" since 1984.

"We have a block of blues that is literally world famous and a number of other programs in that mix that couldn't get on the air on another station," he said. "Yes, we're having more difficulty, but, hopefully, people will still find us worthy of their support."

Many shows are programmed by volunteers, who have self-interests in keeping KZUM alive. Seven of the 11 board members - Gardner's seat is still open - are programmers.

"There are a couple of media outlets locally that call themselves 'the community's station,'" 29-year programmer John Schmitz said, naming Lincoln radio station KFOR and Omaha TV station KPTM.

"But neither is truly community-oriented like KZUM," he added. "KZUM is truly run by the community, for the community. It is a precious gift that Lincoln owns. I hope much good comes from the attention currently focused on the station. I'm almost sure it will."

When told of its recent woes, co-founder David Luebbert, now a software developer in Sequim, Wash., wasn't surprised.

Nor was he dismayed.

"What's happening at KZUM has happened over and over again during its entire operation," he said. "It's something people shouldn't be concerned with."

Longtime programmers, who have seen the ebbs and flows, are optimistic.

"(A programmer) took a pledge from a man who had just moved here from Austin, Texas, where there is a fantastic local roots music scene," said Schmitz, who hosts a Western swing show. "He said Austin had nothing to compare to KZUM when it came to radio. He was so impressed with KZUM, he called in a pledge.

"I think KZUM has a bright future, and I look forward to being a part of it," he concluded.

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

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