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Dance of the Dial 

Jostling for frequencies and throwing elbows in the tight Humboldt market

"There's a lot of radio here, which I guess is good for the consumer. It's maybe not so good for the companies trying to make a living at radio," says Patrick Cleary, who straddles the fence in the local broadcast world. He's interim general manager of campus-based public radio station KHSU and he is CEO of Lost Coast Communications, the Ferndale company that runs three local commercial stations, KHUM, KSLG and KWPT ("The Point").

As Cleary notes, the already crowded field is about to get more crowded. "There are seven applications pending in Humboldt County alone; a whole lot filed for the [non-commercial] portion of the FM band, the part below 92 -- KMUD has one, KHSU has one, some are for Spanish stations, some for Christian stations." A couple of the new Christian additions are supposed to be on the air by March, which should bring the local station count up to 20.

The latest to enter the crowded Humboldt commercial radio market is Trinidad's KZCC-FM, "all new, all hits 95.5," where they promise "more hits than any other station on the planet," with a 10,000 song playlist "from the ’60s to the 2000s," including everything "from '19th Nervous Breakdown' to '1999.'"

The Friday morning before Valentine's Day was a busy one for 95.5's drive time "Breakfast Club," a team made up of station manager Dawne Davis and sidekick John Ford. Between hits they took a call from a couple of comics doing a show at a local casino (and laughed politely at jokes that were not all that funny). A band that was to play at the same casino that night stopped by the studio to plug their show. Then it was time to announce the winner of the Valentine's Day "Relationship Trivia Contest," a thankful man named Dave who would receive a prize package from various sponsors.

It was Dave's lucky day, that cold rainy Friday the 13th, but luck was not with KZCC. Around 10 a.m., an hour after the Breakfast Club ended its shift, the hits gave way to white noise. Trouble with the transmitter put the station off the air for most of the day.

It wasn't the first technical glitch for the station. After an unsteady launch they got permission from the Federal Communication Commission to go off the air in February 2008 so they could "identify and establish a power source more reliable and practical than the generator the station had originally intended to use," according to an FCC filing.

There are some, Ron Kramer -- executive director of Jefferson Public Radio, for example -- who would love to see KZCC stay off the air. Since the NPR-affiliated JPR operates from the campus of Southern Oregon University, Kramer has the state of Oregon's attorney general's office helping with a legal battle against KZCC. Why? It's a long, complicated story, a game of radio musical chairs that starts in McCloud, a small town in southern Siskiyou County.

JPR has had a translator in McCloud serving the southern Siskiyous since 1981, but by FCC rules a full-on station with a transmitter can preempt a translator. For that reason, in 1995 JPR filed an application for a transmitter permit. Another radio company, calling itself Fatima Response, Inc., applied for the same frequency, but let on that they'd be willing to drop their application for a price. JPR discovered that Fatima was "totally fraudulent," having appropriated their name from a religious broadcaster that was no longer operating. Instead of paying Fatima off, JPR opted to bring on their lawyers.

With the legal battle over that frequency moving at what Kramer described as "a glacial pace," JPR decided in 2005 to bid on another McCloud station in one of the FCC's periodic auctions, a station further up the dial at 95.5. When bidding for the license topped the $200,000 JPR was willing to spend, they dropped out. Sacramento-based Airen Broadcasting Company ultimately won the auction with a quarter-million-dollar bid.

Kramer was left wondering why anyone would pay that much for a station in McCloud that would reach perhaps 10,000 listeners.

Under FCC rules, once you get a frequency you have a firm deadline: You must be on the air within three years. After two years had passed, nothing seemed to be happening with 95.5 in McCloud. Kramer learned why when JPR received a letter from the FCC announcing that Airen had been granted a "minor modification" to its construction permit: They were moving their as-yet unbuilt station 160 miles west from McCloud to Trinidad. This is the station that would become KZCC.

JPR was notified because the move set in motion a complex frequency swap scenario: William McCutcheon, a broadcaster out of Los Angeles, had been awarded a construction permit for a McKinleyville station at 95.1 FM (KMDR). Since that's too close to 95.5 for comfort, McCutcheon was supposed to move his allocation from 95.1 to 107.7. That in turn affected JPR's Rio Dell-based classical and news station KNHT; they're supposed to move from 107.3 to 102.5.

As JPR's director of engineering Darin Ransom explained, JPR recently began operating a translator covering Mendocino County, leapfrogging the signal from the Rio Dell station. Because a pre-existing Mendo station is close to 102.5, when (or if) the game of musical chairs forces KNHT to move, JPR will have to shut down that translator and will lose overage in Mendocino all together.

Once again JPR called in its lawyers. A series of appeals to the FCC did not stop KZCC from meeting the three-year deadline to go on the air. It wasn't easy; as noted above, the station runs on a generator. The station's transmitter on Green Diamond Timber Co. land off Murray Road is not served by PG&E. In its most recent FCC filing, one of JPR's engineers describes the facility as "a jerry-built series of inadequate, broken and misused items designed -- like the Acme Corporation products and contraptions of Roadrunner cartoon fame -- to fail catastrophically."

Why would someone spend hundreds of thousands on a radio station that won't last? Kramer figures it's a case of market speculation.

"The radio industry operates on the theory that a channel is a valuable commodity because they're limited in number," he said. "You get hold of a frequency and if you're lucky you operate with a little bit of a profit, but the main idea is to hold onto it until you can sell it and take a capital gain." He compares this sort of speculation to what happened in the housing industry -- and predicts a similar burst of the radio bubble.

What's the "All Hits" take on all this? We're not sure. Station manager Dawne Davis put off talking to us all day Friday due to ongoing technical issues she had to deal with. She promised to call over the weekend but didn't. By Monday she'd been told we will have to speak with Airen Broadcasting's owner Suzanne Rogers, a lawyer based in Sacramento. As of press time we have not heard from Rogers.

The website allhits955.com tells us that ALLHITSFM is a federal trademark of The ComStar Network. Their Web site, allhitsfm.com, rolls out "Radio's Hottest New Format," but refers only to the local station as an example. Calls to ComStar's sales and programming departments were not returned.

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About The Author

Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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Freelance photographer and writer, Arts and Entertainment editor from 1997 to 2013.

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