Radio Free Kansas – Back to Those Days Again?
The Kansas City Star
Say you grew up in Kansas City, got married, and the next thing you know you’re moving out to western Kansas to take a job in a small town. Your new home is Lakin, west of Garden City on the Arkansas River, population 2000.
At first you might feel like you’ve moved to Mars, but after a while you realize it’s not such a bad place. The air feels different, and the folks around you seem a little tougher than your old city friends, but in time you don’t notice that anymore. Maybe you’re getting tougher too, who knows.
One thing you like to do is get in the car with your new wife and drive. You explore the lay of the land, and you turn the radio on. Only nothing seems to be out there. You even extend the antennae with a coat hanger, but it doesn’t help, unless you drive late at night. You start calling it “Radio-Free Kansas.”
All you can find are those farm reports, reeling off the prices for pork bellies, which is kind of interesting at first but after a while makes a person feel pretty lonesome, if not insane.
Then imagine one morning, driving down the Sand Hills, suddenly tuning into a station playing Bob Dylan. And after that it’s Bill Monroe, then some classical thing, then there’s Frank Zappa, Patsy Cline, and out of nowhere Bob Marley singing “Old pirates yes they rob I, sold I to the merchants ships.”
Where is this coming from you wonder? Mars?
What you’d found that day was the High Plains Public Radio station, broadcasting from of an old school house outside Garden City. And you never knew what kind of tunes it would bring: local western-swing, blues, jazz, folk, classical.
You might hear Bob Wills, followed by Scriabin, with a mellow voice in between telling you what the winter weather was doing from St. Francis down to Liberal.
On the weekends they produced local programs, maybe taping a local fiddler’s jam or recording some old timer who’d lived through the dust bowl days.
It made you feel not so alone. On the big prairie it was one thing that reached all of us equally, and made us feel a bit more allied with each other, though it wasn’t something we talked about, thankfully. (Let’s face it, what is scarier than hearing somebody start a sentence with “I heard on NPR…”)
We don’t live out west anymore, and public radio is now taken for granted. Here in Kansas City there are multiple public stations to choose from. But to this day when we’re in western Kansas I always find High Plains Public Radio, which now reaches from Nebraska to Texas. Driving across 36 highway late at night, and hearing a Hank Snow tune coming from HPPR, I find myself scanning the starry sky for the satellite that is beaming it back down to earth.
Why am I writing this? Because once again some of our tone deaf Kansas state politicians, starting with Governor Brownback, want big cuts in the funding that helps keep High Plains Radio on the air.
What’s really sad is the amount of money involved. The latest proposed cuts of 40 percent would save Kansas a whopping $400,000. Most of the funding for Kansas public radio comes from private donations, but taking away the state’s backbone support, especially for the rural stations, would probably do them in.
I don’t know these politicians, but I get the feeling they probably don’t listen to music much. Which makes me not trust them. To them this all just “artsy-fartsy” fluff, no different than wasting public money on museums or historical sites or art projects. You want that crap, let the private sector pay, they’ll tell you.
Do you ever get the feeling that if these boys get their way, all the soul will be sucked right out of Kansas?
Maybe someday the only people left on the high plains will be the itinerant hirelings working the corporate farms. Left in between will be the Walmarts, the grain silos, and the gas station convenience stores. And wind turbines, millions of them, generating energy for California and money for no one.
And if you happen to be in that future space and turn on the radio, the only thing you will hear will be the price of pork bellies. And you’ll get the feeling nobody but you is listening.