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Public, community broadcasters reevaluating futures

Sun., Jan. 18, 2009, midnight

Remember those PBS documentaries about explorers venturing off into the unknown? As 2009 begins, Spokane’s public and community broadcasting stations are doing that themselves. Here’s a roundup of the many changes on the horizon at KPBX-FM, Spokane Public Radio; KSPS-7 Public Television; and KYRS-FM, Thin Air Community Radio:

Spokane Public Radio, KPBX-FM, 91.1 and KSFC-FM, 91.9 – Spokane Public Radio is staring hard at several major initiatives:

• Adding a third FM station to its lineup – and deciding what kind of station it should be.

• Adding HD radio streams.

• Converting most of its rural translators to small radio stations with their own call letters.

• And biggest of all, building a modern, larger studio – but first raising enough money to pay for it.

Spokane Public Radio has been operating out of cramped studios on North Monroe almost since its inception. General manager Dick Kunkel said the station would like to build a technologically up-to-date studio, upwards of 16,500 square feet, complete with a space suitable for live performances.

A design company has already done preliminary design work on the project, and the station has looked at three possible locations, all of them in central Spokane. Their preference is to find an existing building and renovate it.

However, the current economic conditions have slowed the process down.

“It’s very much alive, but we have not announced a public fund drive and won’t, until we’re a very long way down the road from here,” said Kunkel.

He said the station wants to have at least 50 percent of the funding in place from major donors before going to the public for the remainder. It doesn’t even know yet how much money will be needed, but that will total in the millions.

So a new studio is still probably several years away, said Kunkel.

A third radio station may arrive much sooner – probably this year or next year.

Spokane Public Radio applied for and received a permit for a new station at 90.3 FM, which is presently KWRS-FM, the Whitworth University station. For a variety of reasons, Whitworth had to relinquish the rights to this station and Spokane Public Radio was granted the frequency by the FCC, under the call letters KPBZ-FM.

Now, Spokane Public Radio will need to install a new transmitter, operating at approximately the same power as its KSFC-FM (meaning fairly low). Then it will have to decide what kind of station it will be. It could be a Native American station or an adult album alternative music station, or any number of other possibilities.

Meanwhile, KSFC has already launched a new kind of signal – an HD radio signal. KPBX-FM will add an HD signal later in the year.

HD radio provides a clearer, cleaner sound, but you must have an HD receiver to pick it up (meanwhile, the regular FM signal remains intact for those without HD). It also will give the station the option to multistream, i.e., to add more channels later.

Of particular note to Spokane Public Radio’s far-flung listeners will be the switch from translators to full-power FM stations. Presently, the KPBX signal is picked up by translators in rural locations and boosted to provide better reception.

Most of those translators are being phased out, but in their place, Spokane Public Radio can substitute a small local radio station, with its own call letters, which will carry KPBX programming. It could also carry some strictly local programming. It would, in essence, create a regional network of Spokane Public Radio stations.

Kunkel said construction permits have been issued for Kellogg, Omak, Oroville and Twisp, with others expected soon.

Finally, Spokane Public Radio is hoping to weather a downturn in national and local underwriting, due to the tough economy. Balanced against that is an increase in membership – although members are tending to give slightly less.

“The overall budget is about 4 or 5 percent behind,” said Kunkel. “That’s not too bad, considering everything.”

KSPS-7 Public Television – Spokane’s PBS station has several crucial issues on the horizon, possibly none more important than resolving what you might call its “Canadian conundrum.”

When the cable companies in Alberta and British Columbia started developing HD channel packages, they decided to pick up Seattle’s PBS-HD stations instead of Spokane’s. That’s not a huge problem yet, but it will be later as more viewers switch to HD televisions.

Why? Because KSPS gets a whopping 51 to 52 percent of its members and revenue from Canada, primarily Alberta.

“There is some positive news there,” said general manager Claude Kistler. “We’re still not on the HD tier in Canada, but we’re optimistic that we will be. We’re developing a fiber-optic delivery system to get it there.”

Kistler said he thinks that both the Seattle and Spokane HD packages will end up on the Canadian cable lineups, and a resolution should come within the next six months

Another key issue looms on the horizon: the relationship between the station and Spokane School District.

The station was launched in 1967 under the school district’s umbrella, but evolved to be increasingly funded and operated by its own members, in the form of its support group, the Friends of Seven. KSPS still gets about $300,000 of its revenue from the school district.

Losing that support “would be a financial concern,” said Kistler.

He said that the Friends of Seven and the district have formed a joint planning committee to come up with the most “efficient and effective operating model” for the future. He expects those discussions to continue at least through 2009.

Finally, KSPS continues to struggle with the problems facing virtually every PBS affiliate: lower viewership and reduced underwriting support. The station’s $5.1 million budget is down about $350,000.

Kistler framed the key question this way: “How do you maintain relevance through both your national and local segments in the face of this budget crunch and the rise of new technology?”

Thin Air Community Radio, KYRS-FM, 92.3 and 89.9 – This 5-year-old, low-power FM community radio station is poised to take a big step up.

“We’re waiting to hear from the FCC about our application to go to a full-power FM station at 6,000 watts,” said station manager Lupito Flores.

Thin Air operates at a mere 100 watts on 89.9, and 50 watts on the Spokane translator at 92.3. Going full-power would mean that the station would cover the Spokane metro area fully, and also reach north to Colville.

Flores said KYRS is confident it will get FCC approval in just a few months. Even then, it may take awhile to get the new signal up and blasting on the new frequency, 88.1.

“We need a new 50-foot tower, and a new transmitter and receiver and all of the stuff that goes with it,” he said.

That’s a tall order for a station with only one full-time staffer (Flores) and an annual budget that only this year has crept above $100,000.

“We’re estimating the cost of construction to be about $200,000, or even more like $230,000, so right now we’re developing a campaign to come up with the money,” he said.

The FCC permit will give them three years to build the tower, Flores said, and “it could take us that long.”

Once that happens, listeners can expect the same eclectic, volunteer-driven programming that has caused membership to nearly double in just a year to 900 members.

Flores said the station already has the region’s only local Native American programming. Thin Air Radio might emphasize Native American programming even more, since the new signal will cover most of the Spokane and Colville reservations.

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