KBUU is a community-based LPFM in Malibu, Calif., streaming at www.kbu.fm and radiomalibu.net. We have 55 Watts ERP on 97.5 MHz from 955 feet over some of the best beaches in the United States, and have been on the air 23 months now.
KBUU’s scrounged traffic light box. (The station bought it off a loading dock from a California city that had gone bankrupt and had not taken delivery, Laetz says.)
We put it on the air because Malibu is in a very strange radio location. We are a bedroom community of Los Angeles, but mountains block L.A. FM signals from the 12,000 residents living along 30 miles of scenic Pacific Coast Highway, a major commuter route. We get San Diego and Tijuana FM stations. It’s always good to know that the northbound border wait at San Ysidro is “dos horas.”
In most of Malibu, L.A. market NPR stations KCRW and KPCC are blocked by mountains. Most people who listen to NPR here listen to KPBS, 140 miles over the ocean from San Diego, which is not always a listenable signal.
On my car radio, I have six pushbuttons set to NPR stations in Thousand Oaks, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara and Pasadena. If I am listening to a really good story on “All Things Considered,” I know where to switch between the six stations to follow the story. And I know where no signal is available: at the population center of this 27-mile-long community.
I am a retired TV news operations manager — 10 years in radio and TV news in Arizona, then 25 years in network and local TV news in Los Angeles.
THE PUBLIC RADIO PLAN
So I applied for an LPFM license with the naive idea of putting an NPR station on the air in Malibu.
Malibu is the only municipality in southern California with no usable NPR signal in most of the city. I thought, NPR has tiny affiliates all over Alaska that run the network with volunteer staffs. We could run NPR all day.
We got a CP. But no NPR.
NPR originally was cooperative, then one of the nearby NPR member stations found out and raised objections to NPR programming on a radio station in southern California — its turf. (This was brought up even though that station’s air signal does not cover one inch of Malibu and has made no moves to put a booster or translator here in 60 years of operation.)
After 12 months of hemming and hawing, NPR finally came up with an answer: No NPR member station status, unless KBUU has five full-time employees.
We have 55 Watts; we cover half of Malibu; our annual budget is $10,000; and we have zero paid employees. Given that financial impossibility, NPR said we could instead purchase its programming — but only for broadcast use, not for internet transmission. The huge expense, and the limited use, is an effective “no.”
The author with KBU’s scrounged board, in service for 20 years at KDB(FM) in Santa Barbara, graciously donated by KCRW.
So we went on the air in February 2015 with no NPR content. We carry top-of-the-hour network news (“The California Report”) mornings from KQED in San Francisco. We run “Democracy Now!” from Pacifica evenings at 5. And we run 10 minutes of locally produced, locally written news eight times each weekday. The newscasts are updated all morning, the scripts are posted on the web in several places.
We have gone “all news” four or five times, for major brushfires or traffic crashes that close Pacific Coast Highway and cut the city in half. When PCH was closed at 2 a.m. for a lengthy fatal traffic crash investigation, we took the overnight music format down and ran a three-minute report … over and over again … until our regular news coverage began at 6 a.m.
Frankly, I think NPR needed us more than the other way around. We intended to program music during non-drive, and NPR does not appeal to most of the population. NPR shows are long-form, and our audience listens only for minutes at a time.
Instead of airing NPR programming, we sound like a modern rock station with a heavy local news commitment. We monitor the same music industry journals that the big stations do, and add new AAA music as it drops.
One of our liners is: “With more rock than K-R-O-Q, and more Alt than Alt 98.7, we are LA’s alternative alt music. 97 point 5 K-B-U.”
We play AAA music until 5 p.m. weekdays, a tropical jazz show 6–7 p.m., and then community programmers take over for the evening hours. Sundays and Mondays are superb jazz/blues/Latin jazz shows. Saturday nights are ’60s-’70s rock, which has fans around the world and up and down the beach. We have electronic rock late at night, Americana other nights. High school kids get one night. Local musicians and funk another night.
We carry the L.A. Philharmonic concerts produced by KUSC in Los Angeles Sunday mornings — glorious. We carry “American Parlor Songbook,” a great comedy show from KVCR/San Bernardino. We carry “Le Show” Sunday afternoons.
The studio is located in a bedroom at my house. I think we are the only FCC-licensed house with an LPFM. The license hangs at the front door, per FCC regulation. We have a 25-year-old board from Pacific Research and Electronics that KCRW inherited when it bought KDB in Santa Barbara, and gave to us. (Thanks!)
The program hosts do not come here. They file their music tracks and voice tracks to our secure server via VPN. The ENCO automation machine goes to the server and loads the shows, then plays them back at the proper time. All the backup storage is offsite.
We have 5,500 songs in the library, and use the ENCO music management component Ensemble to program them. They are categorized in 48 music categories, 168 hours a week, each different. New music plays times an hour during the daytime rock hours, it is pre-announced with a zinger and a staff announcer (my sweet wife) front selling “New music now on 97.5 KBU … [artist name/song title].”
If I like the song, or if the song starts getting played on the stations where I watch music adds (KROQ, KFOG, XETRA, WXRT, KCRW, KXRN), then after two weeks I rotate it to a power hits, acoustic hits or just plain hit category, and pull the new music zinger off it. After a month there, it rotates to a recurrent power/acoustic/rock hit rotation. Sometimes we platoon hits out for a rest. We also sprinkle in AAA hits, ’70s FM hits, ’60s top 40 and other “alt” music going back to Louis Prima. If a new song is not a hit, I may keep it or may spike it.
We are breaking many artists. Local musicians go to the head of the line. That’s easy in Malibu, from local garage bands to Tom Petty or Bob Dylan. But garage bands and local singer/songwriters get played here, too.
Technically, we are an amazing station. The FCC has ridiculous second channel requirements. We are pointing out to sea and away from the Malibu civic center with our piddly 55 watts on directional antennae. Our monster signal on 97.5 needs to “protect” east Los Angeles station KLAX(FM) on 97.9 from interference at precisely one house (at the transmitter — our landlord and member of our board) … even though the mountains completely block all reception of 33,000 watt ERP KLAX at any spot in our 36-square-mile coverage area.
There is no internet at the tower site, which I built — it’s a 38-foot wooden pole and a traffic signal switchbox. We bounce an internet local network up there on a three-hop path that zigzags across Zuma Beach from my house to a friend’s house, to a pizza parlor, to the mountain.
Our STL is a trio of unlicensed 5.8 GHz radio hops from Ubiquity — OK, they are Wi-Fi. They run on car batteries and trickle chargers, with four days of backup power. We have 99.8 percent reliability — once in a while, a bush suddenly gets in the way, or a school we shoot over fires up new Wi-Fi gear, and we have to tune the radios.
Total STL cost, three legs: $600. We are building a second Wi-Fi path to the mountain for backup. The fourth leg will cost $200.
The golden California sun on the station’s 55-Watt 2-bay antenna.
THE BACKUP PLANS
We’ve had good luck, but only can afford one of every key component. If ENCO goes down for maintenance (rare — it’s a workhorse), we go to iTunes on a production computer. If the STL goes down, a thumbdrive at the mountain takes over, and we go all-Beatles. That happened in our first week, but not since.
This past fall, the repeated power surges and dips from Southern California Edison took their toll on the otherwise-reliable BW Broadcast TX300 V2 transmitter. It sputtered and went off thrice; we turned it off, called BW Broadcast in London on the toll-free line, and got an engineer out of bed. His diagnosis: not good, ship it back.
Our web feed continued, and we called the dealer, SCMS, to ask if they had a rental or could sell me a spare FM low-power unit fast and cheap. Here’s where it got very strange.
SCMS immediately offered a free loaner, with me required to pay only for freight. Given the large number of AM stations buying FM translators, plus 2,000-plus LPFMs buying gear, the supply pipeline is dry.
Bob Cauthen at SCMS scrounged up a decent but older Gates 50 watt exciter, put it on a test bench, had it calibrated and tested, and it arrived with the same FedEx truck that picked up the ailing BW.
He and I had forgotten in the rush that the exciter does not have the processor and stereo generator that the BW conveniently contains. We could go naked and mono, but that meant creating a baseband feed to get audio into the machine at the mountain. My wiz engineer Jim Toten was shading video on dozens of cameras at Bonnaroo in Tennessee, and I had a screwdriver and some coax connectors, if that would help? (No.)
Bob started calling his clients from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to try to find a processor I could borrow. (Friday afternoon is not a good time to find those guys). He finally grabbed a very cool processor and at his expense (!) shipped it overnight for Saturday delivery.
I plugged everything in, turned it on. Nothing. Aha! — there is a digital connection, just add XLR cable from processor to transmitter, and we were back in operation at 50 watts. (We are shopping for power filters and UPS to even out the third-world electric service we get from SC Edison.)
Mind you, we’d purchased the antenna and transmitter from SCMS 18 months ago, and nothing else since. But we were treated like their best corporate customer, like Cumulus or CBS, instead of an LPFM with $1,400 in the bank. Other equipment companies have been great, too. BSW offered help, and they have been reliable and helpful. But SCMS takes the cake.
So that’s our story.
We’ve got a development director now and plan to start selling underwriting announcements. Malibu reaction has been great.
This summer, I was paid the ultimate compliment. I walked in the Zuma Beach lifeguard tower headquarters on a business visit. A boombox in the corner played an unfamiliar song, then my voice doing a liner: “On the air, on the web, on the beach. We’re 97.5 KBU.”
“Oh yeah,” says the lifeguard. “We always listen to Radio Malibu. It’s dope to have a local radio station.”