RezRadio reaches the world

And no car or beer ads.

RezRadio soundboard
  • RezRadio soundboard
  • Image by Irvin Gavidor

It’s late Sunday night on Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean where the U.S. military maintains operations. With the click of a mouse, a sailor tunes in to Brunch with Bob and Friends streaming live from a San Diego station. Reggae fills the lonely sea air.

For Marines and sailors stationed on the isolated island, the show is not about the music — it’s about the connection to San Diego they feel when host Tommy Hough talks about the town where many have families, or where they trained before shipping out.

Brunch with Bob broadcasts from RezRadio 91.3 (KOPA) on the Pala reservation in northern San Diego County. The 100-watt signal reaches only about five miles. Due to topographical factors — the antenna sits amid a ring of mountains that includes Palomar — that’s as far as it goes. But with the help of internet streaming, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, RezRadio has a worldwide audience.

Aside from servicemembers on Diego Garcia, armed forces personnel have tuned in to Brunch with Bob from posts in Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, and “pretty much anywhere the U.S. military has a presence,” said Hough. He tells of an email he received from aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, where the show regularly cheered up the chow hall and helped the sailors through mess duty. Civilian listeners in the Cleveland, Ohio, area make frequent requests, and a listening party has sprung up in São Paulo, Brazil. Tommy gets emails from Great Britain and France and once received a note from Sarajevo, Bosnia. The show’s app draws listeners from English-speaking Liberia and other locations in West Africa. Some South Africans are fans, too. That means people thousands of miles away are tuning in live to a signal from Pala: the voice of a 3000-member local community heard around the globe.

And there’s a good chance far-away listeners really do hear the voices of the Pala Band of Mission Indians: station identification and hourly time checks are done in Pa’enexily, the Cupa language. Short for Kuupangaxwichem, or “people who slept here,” “Cupa” is the name the Spanish gave to the people who in 1903 were forcibly relocated from what is now Warner Springs to Pala. They joined the Luiseños on the reservation but remain a distinct band. Their language survives thanks to native speaker Rosinda Nolasquez, the last survivor of the 1903 relocation. Recordings of her voice teach speakers of this generation. Now RezRadio is teaching the next.

But to be on the radio, the ancient language needed an update: the concept of digital time did not exist in Pa’exenily, so station manager John Fox and assistant Eric Ortega had to figure it out. A native speaker recorded all the numbers, and then the pair wrote software that strings the words together to tell time at the top of each hour. Ortega also produces “Word of the Day,” featuring Pa’exenily vocabulary.

“I had one individual tell me,” said Ortega, “they never learned the language, but hearing it on the station they would very much like their children to learn it.”

Ortega, whose family name graces a street that intersects with Pala Mission Road just west of the 1816 church, had no previous radio experience when he met station manager Fox. But he learned quickly: his show, Pala Life: Past and Present,, won the 2013 San Diego Press Club award for Best in Show. Known in local circles as the “Radio Guy,” Eric said he pretty much goes around “knocking on doors” to find participants to visit the studio and talk about their lives.

After the 2007 Witch Creek and Rice fires, members of the tribe recognized the need for a signal on which they could rely in emergencies. During the fires, cable and the two TV signals that reach the Pala valley went out, leaving residents little access to information as they watched the smoke and flames get closer. But the tribe was not in agreement about the necessity: the radio station failed its first tribal council vote.

John Fox and Tommy Hough

John Fox and Tommy Hough

Image courtesty of Tommy Hough

Eventually convinced, the council applied for one of a few non-commercial/educational licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The license allows the station to broadcast at just 100 watts (FM radio can go up to 100,000) to keep the signal from interfering with other frequencies. The tribe built a 60-foot antenna on a hill and converted a former wastewater treatment facility into a state-of-the-art studio. Fox said he cannot discuss tribal business and specific budget, but “in general, construction of a two-studio radio station, transmitter, and tower would start in the $80–100k range,” plus cost of the facility to house it and licensing fees.

The tribe made the investment, likely with monies accrued from casino profits that fund civic improvements in Pala, but they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with the new signal. Creating hours of non-emergency content was not on the list of priorities. Then along came Mr. Fox.

When the Pala Band put out an advertisement for a station manager for 91.3, John Fox was retired from radio. After a 30-year broadcasting career that included gigs in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino, he thought he was finished. But the Pala station seemed to be calling him. At the end of a road trip to honor his mother’s memory, Fox and his wife stopped at the casino. One of his mother’s last requests — Bananas Foster — was the dessert special. Answering the ad seemed like the right thing to do, especially considering the fact that his mother had lost her Fallbrook home, where Fox grew up, in the 2007 Rice Fire. Fox’s application caught the attention of tribal council member Kilma Lattin, who headed the broadcasting effort for the Pala Band. It so happened that, as a kid growing up in La Jolla, Lattin had listened to Fox on B100 in th ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s.

Since Fox assumed management in 2011, RezRadio has won nine awards. Not too shabby for a station with a signal that doesn’t go over 100 watts. The non-commercial designation means Fox doesn’t have to court advertisers to meet budgetary needs, so he can focus on programming. The tribe pays for everything — no advertising, no donors, no private funds.

“On the reservation they have a saying,” Fox chuckled, “‘B.C. — before casino.’’’

Pala Casino and Resort hosts a 500-room hotel, 2000 slot machines, 40,000 square feet of convention space, and a 10,000-square-foot spa. Casinos are not required to disclose annual income, but Pala generates enough to pay thousands of dollars in stipends for each of the band’s members, provide health care and college, and build homes for families on the reservation. A new fire station and learning center went up several years ago. Statewide Indian gaming generated over $6.9 billion in 2013.

When he took the job, Fox was unsure how to reach the Pala community. He met resident Eric Ortega, who would eventually become RezRadio’s only other employee, at a meeting. He asked the young man how he thought the station could better serve the area.

They started broadcasting Inter-Tribal League softball tournaments. Word started to get out about the station’s existence. Fox polled a panel of residents and found that reggae, country, classic rock, and native music were all in the top ten of what people wanted to hear. Now he tries to “do a little bit of everything without sounding ridiculous.” Birdsong-style music, old-timey radio drama, long-form newscast, electronica, reggae, rock, and local talk all find a home on RezRadio.

“John is the perfect person at the perfect station,” said Chris Carmichael, veteran DJ and host of Jack’s Tracks. A “local outlet for local artists,” the show mixes San Diego and Southern California bands with alternative rock, Delta blues, and other music that doesn’t get much radio play time. Jack, Carmichael’s dog who “picks the tracks,” also has international fans — a listener in Holland made a request and asked for his “pawtograph.”

“I hear our leaders talk about the station and say how it has exceeded all their expectations,” said Ortega, “and that makes me feel that we are definitely accomplishing something great. People from surrounding communities say that they like to hear our station when they are in the area.”

Sports broadcasting has also worked well to attract listeners to another local station, KRLY in Alpine. Mountain Country 107.9 is a low-power FM station, a designation that allows it to operate on the dial squeezed between two much higher power frequencies. The Federal Communications Commission introduced low-power FM service in 2000 in response to grassroots groups, like Prometheus Radio Project, working to give nonprofit entities a shot at the airwaves.

Full-power FM stations can cost millions to build and maintain. They generally operate at about 50,000 watts (some are much more) and range about 30 miles. Low-power stations are 100 watts maximum and the signal can reach up to about five miles, depending on topography. A minimal studio setup with inexpensive equipment (i.e., soundboard, microphones, CD players, and headphones) costs around $2000. Add $2500 for the Emergency Alert System decoder, required by the Federal Communications Commission for all radio stations. A very basic transmitting system, including antenna, runs about $5000. Factor in rent for studio space, people power, electricity bills, and other operating costs, and getting a bare-bones low-power FM station up and running costs about $15,000. That price tag is more attainable for non-profits and community groups that would otherwise have no opportunity to get a voice on the air.

The Federal Communications Commission licenses all radio and television broadcasting in the United States, and it also controls when and where new licenses can be granted. Filing windows for low-power FM are limited and occur infrequently. The first window opened in 2000 right after low-power service was approved. The next chance to apply didn’t come along until 2013, and applications were only accepted from July to October. It’s not known if or when another opening will happen.

Shortly after low-power licenses came on the scene in 2000, lobbyists for media conglomerates (i.e., iHeartRadio) convinced Congress to pass the Broadcasting Preservation Act. The law required a study to ensure that low-power stations did not interfere with licensed full-power frequencies. The results showed that the little guys wouldn’t block the big guys. Though the study was terminated early because the results so clearly discredited any claims of signal interference and Congress did not see the need to spend any more on it, legislation to reinstate low-power FM licenses stalled. Finally, in 2011, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act.

Chris Torrick

Chris Torrick

Mountain Country radio reaches Alpine...parts of it

In the meantime, 107.9 LPFM Alpine had been operating with one of the few low-power licenses granted in the early 2000s. Current manager Chris Torrick, who grew up in El Cajon but had been doing radio in Oklahoma City, moved to Alpine to take over operations in 2012. KRLY was about to go off the air when a friend invited Torrick to take a look. He spent the first year repairing the station’s reputation, or what little was known of it in the mountain town it serves.

“When I got here,” Torrick said, “we had an eclectic station that either people did not know about or didn’t listen to because it was not what they wanted. We had no community support.”

Appearing at local sports games — sometimes with Padres statistician and former KOGO sports guy Steve Dolan — helped build rapport with the community. Like Fox did in Pala, Torrick formed a focus group to find out what his audience would like to hear. Due to popular demand, 107.9 has, in the words of singer Alan Jackson, “gone country.”

Big metal dinosaur outside Alpine Garden and Gifts

Big metal dinosaur outside Alpine Garden and Gifts

When I wandered into Alpine Garden and Gifts, home of the big metal dinosaur on the town’s main drag, country music was indeed wafting over the grounds — appropriately twangy amid the rustic (and rusty) steel sculptures and art made of recycled glass bottles. I thought the music might be coming from a radio tuned to 107.9. But when I asked around if the proprietors and artists working there were listening to Mountain Country, I got blank looks.

“Oh, yeah…I don’t think we get that station here,” the business owner informed me, “but I think I was listening to it in the car the other day.”

Alpine Garden and Gifts

2442 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine

He was right — despite the fact that the station was practically across the street, 107.9 was fuzzy in the little hollow that houses the cottage shop and its rambling gardens.

Similar pockets of blocked reception exist all over Alpine, and Torrick is working to fix that. Right now the signal, licensed at 100, only cranks out about 4 watts. Tucked away in a tiny office above the Alpine library, across from the post office, the station puts out microwaves that are picked up by an antenna just below Viejas Mountain about three miles northeast.

If he can raise the money, Torrick will purchase the license for another nearby station (currently owned by a company in Idaho that is not using it) that will retransmit the signal and help 107.9 cover more of Alpine. Torrick has appealed to residents of the mountain town to donate.

The silver-mustachioed Rexx Hunter, Alpine resident and TV, movie, and voiceover actor, donates his time on a new show playing country classics. Tech guy Tim Higgins takes calls on air from listeners having trouble with their iPads and smartphones.

Volunteers don’t make any money assisting the station, but underwriting is permitted on low-power FM. “Underwriting” is the euphemism given to advertising on non-commercial television and radio: it means sponsors can give money in exchange for spots on the air, but the rules of what they can say during those spots are a bit stricter than what’s permitted in commercials.

FM 107.9 operates with about $50,000 worth of underwriting each year. Announcers and DJs are allowed to mention business names and state facts about location and services, but any talk of prices, sales, promotions, and incentives to buy products is prohibited. Corporations, small businesses, philanthropic organizations, charitable trusts, and individuals can all be underwriters for non-commercial stations. Sponsors are permitted to make statements of appreciation about the station, and the station can thank its underwriters.

Bound by the same rules as KOPA and KPBS, Mountain Country is not permitted to air car and beer commercials that make most of us want to mess with the dial. Torrick says car dealerships were interested at first but have shied away, and nearby Viejas and Sycuan don’t contact him because they can’t advertise casino buffet specials and giveaways. But the “nonprofit” exposure has benefitted some Alpine commerce.

Becky Dyrick, of Alpine Motorsports and Equipment Repair, said underwriting on 107.9 “has helped out our business.” One day she was getting out of her car in the parking lot of the shop, and a passer-by yelled from across the street, “I hear your ad on the radio every day!”

Farmers Insurance agent Rod Galloway, whose office is across the hall from the station, tells Torrick he gets more calls now that he has a spot on 107.9. In a town of 16,000, the broadcasted word gets around.

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