Under New Management: KAZI 88.7 FM’s James Davis Opens Up About His Experience, Vision

Test Drive. Relaxed Black Man Driving Car Listening To Music On Radio Sitting In New Automobile. Shallow Depth, Selective Focus
Last October, just two years shy of its 40th anniversary, Austin radio station KAZI 88.7 began a much-needed overhaul steered by its board of directors.

Founded in 1975 by the late John Warfield, a former African American Studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the station had been under pretty much the same management for decades. While most acknowledge a management change may have been necessary, it’s almost never easy. The newly appointed KAZI FM station manager, James Davis, soon found out how reluctant people can be to embrace change. Despite the fact that he’s been with KAZI off and on since 1996 — he’s held roles from DJ to engineer, on-air personality, and has even served on the board of directors and was interim station manager from 2005-2008 — some have expressed concerns about his ability to led the station. 

KAZI 88.7 Station Manager James Davis

In 2008, Davis took an opportunity to “spread [his] wings” and joined iHeart Media — then Clear Channel — as an engineer. But when he got the call to come back home to KAZI because the station was at risk of going defunct, he agreed to return this June.

“We operated in the red for 15 years,” he said. “At one point, we were one month and one payment away from there not being a KAZI — ever. Because if KAZI lost its license, it’s a ten-year, $100,000 process.” The Board of Directors, led by retired Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and Tony Collier stepped in October 2020, and by March 2021, KAZI’s debt was cleared.

Davis credits Hamilton and the respect he’s garnered from the community for being instrumental in clearing the 15-year operating deficit debt, rebuilding relationships, and severing others. Still, it will be an uphill climb to get back on track, he says. 

“When I left in 2008 we brought in around $330,000. Last year, it was near $200,000. How do you lose 100 thousand a year for over a decade? You lose listenership,” he says. “We weren’t even on the Nielsen rating. That only requires 2,500 listeners a month. So I can’t say that I didn’t inherit a mess in some ways, but the potential outweighs all of that. … The Board handled the financials, (but) now the rest of that real work begins. I now get to focus on getting radio processes back in place, looking for a new broadcast location for us, as our lease is up here (at the Wall St. location), and design some things before I’m comfortable.”

And there’s still the challenge of winning over the community. Davis says he has received numerous attacks — including personal attacks — since he assumed the station manager role. He’s even been accused of being sent in by Governor Abbott “to take the Black man’s voice,” he says, which makes him chuckle. 

KAZI FM is a radio station, not a country club.

“People really didn’t know my history with the station. While I didn’t necessarily make a lot of those hard decisions, I get it. They were critical for the legacy of the station and Dr. John Warfield. Some people had as many as four or five shows. Things had gotten too relaxed,” he says. “KAZI FM is a radio station, not a country club. Change is hard. So I understand many perspectives of it.”

One of his first priorities is to focus on improving programming to help attract new listeners and get the ratings back up. He brought the Rickey Smiley Morning Show to the station and is looking to attract some new on-air personalities, looking into simulcasting, creating a second broadcast stream, and podcasting, among other things. Local favorites, like music and film critic Kahron Spearman and DJ Slyce are there to stay. Davis also jokes about bringing on popular club DJ Hella Yella and finding some women to bring in as well. Overall, though, he’s hoping to build a community-driven approach to programming and welcomes ideas and proposals from listeners. “If people want to have a show, reach out. We’re definitely open,” he says.

“I like goals and benchmarks. This year, our goal is to clear $230,000; it’s my baseline. Then I want to get us back to the numbers we saw in 2008 and maintain it,” he says. 

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to kiss the babies,” Davis says, acknowledging that not everyone is going to be happy with the changes he’s making. “I’m repairing our foundation. And I’m okay with that. Coming from a large radio conglomerate, my team and I know what we have in this little radio station. We get to act independently and serve our purpose — the culture of the diaspora. Do you mean I get to manage a radio station that serves us? Well, that alone is worth the fight.”

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