CMC Regrouping Without Koning

February 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dirk Koning, founding executive director of the Community Media Center, died last week during routine surgery.

But his spirit will live on in Grand Rapids and other parts of the world as his pioneering work with community media continues.

“We’re the kind of organization where we will continue with our mission,” said GRTV Director Chuck Peterson said. “Dirk is a missionary, that’s his job. One of the things he’s done is always hire mission-oriented people and we all carry on that mission.

“No way we could replace someone like Dirk, but the work will continue.”

Peterson said that all the structures are in place for continued operation. The CMC board already has met to begin restructuring the organization.

But it’s not only the CMC that is left with a void to fill.

Much of Koning’s recent efforts have centered on the proliferation of broadband Internet in an effort to help close the Digital Divide that separates the classes by access to information.

It was through these efforts that Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell first met Koning. Their relationship began during Heartwell’s days with Heartside Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids

Koning helped launch a CMC program there to providing broadband access and e-mail services to the low-income people of that neighborhood.

“I learned the term Digital Divide from Dirk,” Heartwell said. “He taught me that in modern times, the division between the rich and the poor is a digital division, it’s access to information. Information is power and power is wealth. People who don’t have access to the Internet don’t have the same kind of access to information.”

When Heartwell was elected mayor last year, one of his key initiatives was to work against the Digital Divide in the city. The most notable of those efforts has been the citywide Wi-Fi initiative, which Koning had led.

The community has lost a giant,” Heartwell said. “Certainly in his physical stature, and he was literally a giant in this industry.

“Dirk was a consultant to nations, often Third World nations where he was assisting them in providing community media services, setting up community media service, providing national access to broadband Internet services.”

When you called for him at the media center, Heartwell recalled, Koning was as likely to be in Malawi as Kalamazoo

“He had not only a passion for the technology, but he had a passion for making sure that that technology was available to poor people around the world and right here in Grand Rapids where they needed it.”

Headquartered on the second floor of the Grand Rapids Public Library’s West Side Branch, the CMC is a national model for integrated radio, television and Internet applications for community development purposes through public television station GRTV, radio station WYCE, non-profit ISP GrandNet and the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy.

The CMC had recently announced its acquisition of the Wealthy Theatre to continue that organization’s mission and to establish a second CMC location, CMC East, in its

Wealthy Street

While Koning may have downplayed his contributions, few others did.

“He had a huge national reputation,” Peterson said. “E-mails have been pouring in from all over the world. In the community media movement he was an icon. If you go anywhere they have community media in the country, they’ve heard of Grand Rapids and Dirk Koning.

“He’s responsible for Grand Rapids having an enormous reputation for excellence in community media in the country. He communicated to bring communications technology to each and every individual in the world.”

Koning edited the national magazine “Community Media Review” and was president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Communications Democracy.

He consulted on facilities design, wireless networks and fund development and was an invited delegate to the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland. He wrote and spoke internationally on social applications of information technology.

Anthony Riddle, executive director and former chairperson of the communications alliance, described Koning as “Jeffersonian” and said “that a prophet is never famous in his own country.”

“His presence in the movement was similar to his presence in the room,” Riddle said. “A big figure in terms of his vision and its importance to our democracy. He was steadfast in his belief that the way the community media was developed and nurtured would be the way our democracy would flourish.

“That if we didn’t develop and protect this movement, our very society would be in danger.”

Koning is survived by his wife, Ginger, and two children.    

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