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Tiny Radio Station’s Use of Volunteer DJs Not Music to Feds’ Ears

August 2, 1995

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ For years, co-workers told Jerry Kleen he had the voice of a disc jockey. So when a bankrupt radio station reopened next door to the blue-jeans plant where he works, Kleen walked in and asked for a job.

Though he had no experience, Kleen was hired as an announcer at KTOZ-AM, a tiny 500-watt station that plays big-band music, swing, jazz and blues from the 1920s to the ’90s.

For his once-a-week, four-hour stint at the microphone, Kleen is paid the same as other disc jockeys at the station _ nothing.

``I’m having fun. I know as a rule DJs aren’t paid much anyway,″ Kleen said, punching up a Pete Fountain cover of ``Georgia.″ ``So I don’t see that I’m losing out on much.″

The U.S. Labor Department doesn’t see it that way. The agency, which is investigating KTOZ’s use of about two dozen volunteer announcers and office workers, contends a for-profit business can’t legally be run by volunteer labor. A local inspector stumbled onto the situation during a routine visit in May.

KTOZ general manager Ron Johnson expects the government to sue the station to force it to cough up about $20,000 in back wages for the past year, plus taxes and penalties, and make him start paying his volunteers.

That could be the death of KTOZ, which was bought out of bankruptcy 14 months ago for $40,000 by Johnson and 18 other investors who share a love of big-band music.

``As a U.S. citizen, why can’t you do with your time what you want?″ asked Johnson, a businessman and one-time big-band leader. ``We’re not hurting anybody, we’re not ripping anybody off. We’re bringing a lot of enjoyment to people. What’s wrong with that?″

Johnson insisted the station is no sweatshop. He said neither he nor any other investor _ several of whom are volunteer DJs _ has made a cent since they bought the station. KTOZ, whose signal on a good day reaches 40 miles across the Ozark Mountains, is on the air from sunup to sundown.

As soon as KTOZ becomes profitable, the volunteers _ including himself _ will be paid minimum wage or more, Johnson said.

And things are looking up financially. Advertising income has risen from $120 a month to about $1,500 _ just barely enough to pay the rent, utilities and other expenses, but not salaries, he said.

Terry Burger, district director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in Kansas City, Kan., refused to discuss specifics of the KTOZ investigation.

But under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, for-profit businesses must pay those who work for them at least minimum wage, he said.

``The general rule is the employer cannot accept volunteer employment because the obligation is on the employer to pay for it, not on whether the volunteer wants to get paid,″ Burger said.

KTOZ’s 19 disc jockeys range in age from 24 to 71. They include a mechanic, cook, flight school student, gas station attendant, librarian, prison guard, bricklayer, roofer, pregnant mother and a retired Kansas City vice cop.

Some are more polished than others, but all share a love of the old standards.

``We don’t have a playlist,″ Kleen said. ``You play what you want when you want to. It’s a pretty cool deal.″

Joyce Adams, a retiree who recently moved to Springfield from California, started volunteering in the KTOZ office after discovering the station on the AM dial. Of the 30 radio stations in the Springfield market, KTOZ is the only one that plays big-band music.

``I said, `Oh, I found the best station.′ Every radio in the house and all three cars are turned to 1060,″ Adams said. ``I don’t know what we’ll do if we lose it.″

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