Public radio explodes in Santa Barbara

Doc Searls Weblog 2014-09-12

sb-radioWhen we moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, the public radio pickings were pretty slim:

  • 88.3 KCLU, a faint signal from Thousand Oaks.
  • 88.7 KQSC, a strong local station on Gibraltar Peak carrying the classical music programming of Los Angeles’ KUSC. Meanwhile, Santa Barbara also had classical KDB on 93.7, an equal-sized signal on Gibraltar Peak.
  • 89.1 KCRU, a weak signal from Oxnard carrying Santa Monica’s KCLW.
  • 89.5 KPBS, San Diego’s public station, which came and went depending on weather conditions over the 200 miles of Pacific Ocean it crossed on the way.
  • 89.9 KCBX from San Luis Obispo, via a 10-watt translator on Gibralter Peak
  • 102.3 KCLU’s 4-watt translator on Gibraltar Peak

So Santa Barbara had two strong local classical stations and no local public station, other than KCLU’s translator. Credit where due: KCLU devoted a large percentage of its local news coverage to Santa Barbara. Also, in those days, KEYT, the TV station, also had a local AM news station on 1250am, with Morning Drive held down by local news star John Palminteri.

In the years since then, the following happened:

  • KEYT disappeared on 1250am, which became a Spanish station.
  • KCLU bought 1340am, which radiates from downtown, and cranked up local coverage for Santa Barbara, in effect becoming Santa Barbara’s first real public radio station. They used John Palminteri a lot too.
  • KCBX left its translator on 89.9 and started a repeater station, KSBX, on 89.5, a signal with 50 watts to the west and south about 10 watts to the east, from Gibraltar Peak. The old 89.9 signal went to a religious broadcaster. Local Santa Barbara coverage was minimal.
  • KCRW got a translator on 106.9, to reach Goleta and the western parts of Santa Barbara from a site on West Camino Cielo radiating 10 watts toward town and as little as 1.35 watts in other directions.
  • KDB got saved when it was bought by the Santa Barbara Foundation, and converted to a noncommercial station.
  • Bob Newhart sold his station at 1290am, effectively, to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which made it KZSB, A 24-hour local news and talk station. At just 500 watts by day and 120 watts at night, it’s small but covers the city itself just fine.

And that was the status quo until just recently, when all this happened:

  • KCLU cranked up the power of its 102.3 translator to 115 watts toward downtown, with nulls to the east and west (across hills and mountains) of 5.4 watts, which is still better than the old 4-watt signal.
  • KPCC, Los Angeles’ main all-news/talk public station from Pasadena, displaced the religious broadcaster on the 89.9 translator. It puts out 10 watts to the west from Gibraltar Peak, and less in other directions.
  • A set of deals went down (see links below) by which KDB’s staff got fired and programming replaced by KUSC’s, which moved up the dial to 93.7 from 88.7, where KCRW appeared with the call letters KDRW. The KQSC call letters were dropped, so the call letters on 93.7 are still KDB, but the station is really KUSC.

As a result, Santa Barbara now has all three main Los Angeles public stations — KUSC, KCRW and KPCC — along with KCLU and KCBX. And that’s in addition to a pair of non-NPR public stations: KCSB/91.9 from UCSB (radiating from Broadcast Peak west of the city, home of nearly all the locals that aren’t on Gibraltar Peak), and a 10-watt translator for KPFK, the Pacifica station from Los Angeles, on 98.7 from Gibraltar Peak.

As Nick Welsh asks in the Independent, NPR Saturation in Santa Barbara?

As a listener, I’m glad to have so many choices. (Even the mostly-news-talk stations are hardly clones of each other; and KCRW is heavily into music and a younger demographic slant.) But if I were KCLU or KCBX, I’d be pissed to find my stations playing Bambi in a fight with three big-city Godzillas.

So here’s a bunch of additional stuff you probably won’t read anywhere else.

First, Santa Barbara’s terrain is weird for FM. There is no perfect transmitter site.

At our house, on the city side of the Riviera, we have line of sight to none of the local stations, which is what you need for a clear signal. So they all sound like crap there.

The Gibraltar Peak site is good for covering most of the South Coast, but is well below the crest of the mountains, block signals toward the Santa Ynez valley. They all sound awful there, or are gone completely.

Power matters less than line-of-sight. This is why KCLU, with just four watts on 102.3fm for all those years, did very well in the ratings I’ve seen for it.

The Broadcast Peak site is much higher (over 4000 feet), with a view from San Luis Obispo to Ventura. Signals from there are advantaged by that, but the distance from Santa Barbara is also a factor. They are way out of town. The killer signal there, by the way, is KVYB on 103.3fm. It’s 105,000 watts, making it one of the most powerful stations in the whole country. KYGA, a noncommercial Christian rock station on 97.5, is also huge with 17,500 watts. KCSB is just 620 watts up there, which is why it’s strong in Goleta but getting weak in Santa Barbara. KFYZ doesn’t do much better from the same site, with 810 watts. KCBX also has a 10-watt translator on Broadcast Peak on 90.9, but it’s only full-power south toward Gaviota Beach and northwest toward Solvang and Los Olivos.

These FM problems are why KCLU’s AM signal on 1340 is a big winner. The signal isn’t big (only 600 watts), but AM waves flow over terrain that messes up FM. A transmitter site near salt water does wonders for AM signals as well. (KCLU radiates from a red and white pole standing in the city equipment yard on Yanonali, a few hundred feet from the ocean.) So there are no “holes” in its coverage, from Carpinteria to Capitola Beach.

The big loser, hate to say, is KCBX. Their old Santa Barbara signal on 89.9, now occupied by KPCC, had the advantage of nobody else on that channel in the area. By moving to 89.5, their signal has to compete with KPBS, which recently moved closer to Santa Barbara and raised its power. At our Riviera home on KPBS blows KCBX away on 89.5. KCBX knew they had problems, and tried to move back to 89.9 with a bigger signal, but that fell through.

I expect the result will be a lot more public radio listening in Santa Barbara, with KCLU remaining the local favorite, simply because it remains local.

Meanwhile, some other moves on the South Coast:

  • 106.3, which radiated from Gibraltar Peak for many years, moved to Ventura, where it is now a country station.
  • KSBL/101.7, which moved from Gibraltar Peak to West Camino Cielo a while back, and dropped its power in the process to 890 watts (a bad move, in my opinion), has a construction permit to move the transmitter to Santa Cruz Island. This involves a raise in the class of the station, meaning technically it’ll be bigger. Santa Cruz Island has great line-of-sight to all of coastal Southern California. But the station will now be more than 30 miles from Santa Barbara. And the signal is directional, meaning it will only be full power toward the islands and the coast west of Santa Barbara. Toward the east it will be way less.
  • KRZA-LP is a new 100-watt station on 96.5. The construction permit is licensed to La Casa de la Raza, and will broadcast from downtown Santa Barbara. Says the site, “The mission of La Casa de la Raza is to develop and empower the Latino community by affirming and preserving the Latino cultural heritage, providing an umbrella for services and by advocating for participation in the larger community.” So: a true community station. Says here the transmitter will be at the corner of Montecito and Salsipuedes Streets.
  • KTYD/99.9, which has the biggest signal on Gibraltar Peak (34,000 watts), is getting a new 250-watt translator in Goleta on 104.1, radiating from Platform Holly, off the coast of Isla Vista.
Some bonus links