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KRTS(FM) Opens West Texas Frontier

Marfa Brings Public Radio to a 'Giant' Swath of the Big State

According to most historians, the western frontier closed down more than a century ago. But until last year, a huge swath of West Texas remained relatively untamed by local terrestrial radio. Now, KRTS(FM) in Marfa has brought one of the trappings of civilization to this territory by providing public radio coverage.

“Our signal covers about 15,000 square miles, with a population of about one person for each of those miles. Like the country here, these individuals are rugged and interesting,” said Tom Michael, KRTS’ general manager

KRTS launched in September 2007 following five years’ work to bring it into being. With just three full-time employees, the station depends largely on volunteers.

Tapping the tales and talents of a “rugged and interesting” audience is key to Michael’s strategy for building and sustaining the new station. Except for the NPR staples including “Morning Edition,” “Talk of the Nation” and “All Things Considered,” programming is produced in-house, ranging from a daily interview show “Talk at Ten” to music shows.

“Two-thirds of our programming is local, and though we’re small compared to other Texas NPR affiliates, we have more original programming than most,” said Michael. “KRTS does not use any satellite services for our music. It is all hand-picked by our volunteers.”

Finding the support — both creative and financial — necessary for bringing a largely self-programmed public broadcaster into such a remote area sounds problematic.

Michael’s previous work in consulting and grant writing for public media pioneer Tom Livingston gives him the requisite background. Another asset is Marfa’s unique cultural heritage and history, like the time in 1955 when James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and a massive production entourage descended on the town to film “Giant.”

GM Tom Michael Today, it is home to a vibrant art scene started by the arrival of Donald Judd in the 1970s. The celebrated artist rediscovered the town and opened the door for other creative spirits to follow. Now the connection between Marfa and the New York art scene is significant, extending listening and support from far beyond the reach of the 50 kW ERP signal.

Rival as ally

Seed money for the station came from private funding as well as from a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant for $433,000 in 2005. But initial planning for the station seemed a loss when organizers lost out on the bid for the license that year.

Austin-based Matinee Media won, but then turned around and offered the 93.5 dial position on an LMA basis. It has been a major funder throughout the startup; last December it donated the frequency to the fledgling community licensee.

“With Matinee’s financial backing, we’ve been able to build the station from scratch without being burdened by huge debt,” said Michael. “They’ve made an extraordinary gift to the community.”

Start-up engineering work was done by Greg Shapiro and Ben Rippy of Austin; recent assistance has been provided by Jim Reese of KUT(FM), the Austin NPR affiliate, which has been supportive.

Initial equipment purchases include a Broadcast Electronics solid-state transmitter and an ERI antenna and self-supporting tower located on nearly Brown Mountain, part of the Davis Mountains. At the station, on-air studio and production include a live-assist/automation system from Google. The studios, named for donor Kay Burnett, have matching Radio Systems Millenium Digital consoles. A Marantz PMD-660 solid-state field recorder is used for ENG as well as various recording tasks in the station.

Community support for KRTS has exceeded expectations. An initial fundraiser was expected to raise $25,000; instead, it brought in over $60,000. According to Michael, that’s a good sign for sustaining the annual $225,000 budget. In addition, the search for grants and federal funding is underway, and Marfa recently secured a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant.

Harry Hudson, volunteer DJ, hosts the ‘Rock Til One’ oldies music show on Fridays. Another key outreach is for programming contributions. Several volunteers bring a professional radio background into the mix. This includes Dallas Baxter, a voiceover artist who hosts “Nature Notes,” a weekly feature on environmental stories from the region. Veteran KERA(FM) broadcaster Harry Hudson is at the helm midday with his “Rock Til One” oldies show.

Tapping into such pre-existing talent is the tip of an iceberg. Training and education in basic skills is a core part of KRTS’ mission and will grow the talent roster. Michael is exploring various strategies for gathering audio contributions from residents. Already, they can FTP audio files to the station. This technical infrastructure is a start.

The trick is recruiting and training the audience to gather stories and features to send. Building a base of support in nearby Fort Davis and Alpine is a given. Fort Davis is home to University of Texas McDonald Observatory, home of one of the premier astronomical research facilities in the world and source of the longest-running daily science program on public radio, “Star Date” (Michael says it’s “a treat to be able to broadcast ‘Star Date’ to its originators finally”). Alpine has Sul Ross State University, part of the Texas State University System, a natural recruiting ground for finding those interested in a hands-on media experience.

For Michael, this adds up to realizing the power of radio to give voice to a community that hearkens to the Golden Age for the medium.

“We play a unique role here because of the lack of other real-time, regional media outlets. Besides satellite radio, we’re all you can get continuously across the region — and you can’t get local from them,” Michael said.