Brendan Kelly Has Toured the World, but His Biggest Impact May Be Local

KRSM Brendan Kelly
Brendan Kelly (Brendan Kelly)

KRSM’s Brendan Kelly has toured the world as DJ BK One with famed rapper Brother Ali. Now you can find him working in his current hometown of South Minneapolis, where he’s running a low-power FM radio station, KRSM, where people of all backgrounds can find their voice.

KRSM 98.9 broadcasts throughout Minneapolis and aims to tell the stories of everyday residents who are just as diverse as the city they live in.

The radio station is in the Phillips neighborhood and, according to the its website, features 82 hours of programming a week in six languages: Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Ojibwe, Haitian Creole and English.

Kelly, like many other members of the neighborhood, saw how the media was portraying ethnic groups negatively and knew something had to be done.

There were communities, vulnerable communities in particular, who every time that they would have an interaction with the police that was contentious, we would see their voice created as though they couldn’t be trusted,” Kelly said. “Where those in power were treated as though their side of the story was the truth, and we saw some stories just missing entirely.”

KRSM Briana Santoscoy and Iris Altamirano
Briana Santoscoy and Iris Altamirano of KRSM host “La Educación Es Poder.” (KRSM)

Phillips is home to people from several countries, including El Salvador, northern Mexico and other places in Central and South America. It also has a large East African population, including Oromo and Somali, as well as the Little Earth subsidized housing community, the only federally backed urban housing development focused on American Indians.

“The African-American communities in South Minneapolis have also really responded to this radio station,” Kelly said.

The station signal—owned by Pillsbury United Communities—launched in November 2017 and opened a new chapter for both Kelly and the neighborhood. Pillsbury also funds the North News community newspaper through its Community Media Initiative.

KRSM Lula Saleh
Lula Saleh of KRSM hosts “Afro Euphoria Radio.” (KRSM)

Kelly, who moved to Minneapolis in 1996 at age 18, got his first radio experience working on the University of Minnesota’s radio station, Radio K. The station gave him the opportunity to meet his future labelmates from Rhymesayers Entertainment, including Brother Ali, and it was his first time using digital production tools.

It was my first time seeing a sound wave up on a screen and being able to zoom in on it and chop it and adjust right where you wanted it and rearrange things,” Kelly said. “And I really took to that. And found a lot of joy in that kind of work.”

Little did he know at the time, he would end up teaching others the same skills.

“I threw myself into producing commercials for anyone who wanted one just for the experience of it … and started sneaking in late at night with my friend to use their studio as a recording studio … so it was my first experience in doing audio engineering and production work,” he said. “I had a record collection, but I never had been a DJ before. … They had two turntables and a mixer, and I tried my hand and fell in love with DJing, which then lead to a career that defined my young adulthood.”

Now he’s helping the people of the Phillips community learn how to work with radio, from kids to adults, through free trainings and close mentorships. The station recruits at least 120 volunteers and loans out recording equipment. The shows range from music to news to sports. Being able to have representation in radio is something Kelly holds dear to his heart.

Greg Fields KRSM
Greg Fields of KRSM hosts “The GMusicShow.” (KRSM)

“Having the ability to see and hear and experience people who look like you or whose story sounds like yours,” Kelly explained, “even in little ways, just seeing reflections of that, speaks volumes to what your community thinks of you, and what value your community places on you.”

Now, with the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundations’ $332,000 grant award to the Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives in Media initiative, Kelly can expand his audience. He’ll work alongside established community partners, including Minnesota Public Radio and Hamline University, to put on a two-day conference in 2019. The partners are creating media training materials and reaching out to media outlets statewide.

KRSM Miguel Vargas
KRSM staff member Miguel Vargas trains station interns. (KRSM)

Leading up to the conference, Kelly, in particular, will recruit residents for listening sessions to discuss bias in the media.

“This work is very much in line with our mission and kind of gives us a megaphone to do that,” he said. “I thought we were going to have to spend years and years getting to a place where we were visible enough and significant enough to make an impact. This jumps us to the front of the line.”