COLVILLE – Sandwiched between U.S. 395 and a vacant double-wide splitting at the seams, North Country Broadcasting operates out of a modest one-story building bearing two radio stations’ call letters spelled out in plywood.
“Glamorous” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
Yet company owner Eric Carpenter insists the adjective still fits an industry that’s more than a half-century past its golden age.
KCVL-AM (1240) offers local news, sports, weather, talk and country music, along with bingo and an on-air flea market. Sister station KCRK-FM (92.1) favors contemporary rock, and features Seattle Seahawks football.
If the radio industry has an endangered species list, locally owned small-market broadcasters like North Country are at the top.
During a recent interview, Carpenter recalled his introduction to the business, how it has evolved, and what keeps his listeners in northeast Washington – and all over the country, via the Internet – tuning in.
S-R: Where were you raised?
Carpenter: Newport, Washington. My parents owned the local weekly – the Newport Miner – and growing up I did everything from writing and photography to running the presses. Then during my junior and senior years in high school, I worked for a Sandpoint radio station and discovered I enjoyed broadcasting more than print.
S-R: Where did you attend college?
Carpenter: Eastern. I earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and TV management. I got a master’s at Whitworth to teach communications, but never taught much.
S-R: When did you buy KCVL?
Carpenter: In 1980, back when it was a daytime-only station. A couple of years later we converted to a 24-hour operation.
S-R: Then what?
Carpenter: I bought the stations in Omak. The only way I could run them was to fly back and forth almost every day, because even though it’s only 70 miles from Colville to Omak, it takes two-and-a-half hours to drive. In my little Cessna 150, I was over there in 45 minutes. Three years later, I sold the Omak stations to a local group, and soon after sold my plane.
S-R: Was radio lucrative back then?
Carpenter: A lot more than it is now. But it’s still a solid, year-after-year business. I also own two mobile home parks and more than 100 rental properties.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Carpenter: December. Christmas ads.
S-R: How about election season?
Carpenter: That used to be huge, but not so much anymore. We’re such a small market that our votes mean absolutely nothing in a governor’s race or presidential race. Big campaigns rarely spend money into rural areas.
S-R: What did you pay for KCVL?
Carpenter: About $500,000.
S-R: What would it cost to start a station now?
Carpenter: It couldn’t be done, because the government isn’t accepting applications for new frequencies.
S-R: So, roughly, what’s North Country worth today?
Carpenter: Around $1 million.
S-R: Do you still enjoy the business?
Carpenter: Yes, but radio used to be a lot more fun – more on-air personalities. Now it’s all computers and digital crap.
S-R: What else do you recall about your early days at KCVL?
Carpenter: Back in 1982, we were the only radio station in the state with a satellite reception dish. The first program we downloaded was talk radio, and the producers assumed we were located in a big city because of the number of responses they were getting from this market.
S-R: How do you keep up with innovations?
Carpenter: I’ve been involved with the National Association of Broadcasters for more than 30 years. I always attend their annual convention in Las Vegas and check out the latest gizmos.
S-R: When you look around the convention hall, do small, independent companies like yours resemble dinosaurs?
Carpenter: Yes. There are very few of us left. They either sell out to big corporations or shut down because they’re not profitable enough.
S-R: What will happen to your stations when you retire?
Carpenter: They’ll probably transfer to one of my two sons when he leaves the Army. The other son would do it, but he’s involved in Republican politics and likes running campaigns.
S-R: Did the recession have much impact on North Country?
Carpenter: Not really, because we’re such an isolated market. What’s hurt us is the shift from locally owned businesses to big box stores that don’t advertise at all. On the other hand, because the McDonald’s and Taco Time franchises are locally owned, they’re heavy on the radio.
S-R: Does satellite radio cut into your audience share?
Carpenter: No, because a lot of what we offer isn’t available on satellite. This week we’ll broadcast six American Legion baseball games so parents and grandparents here can listen to what their kid is doing down at Northwest Christian or Freeman. And we stream those games on the Internet. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I read thank-you cards from people who’d love to go to the games, but can’t. High school sports also generate a big part of our revenue.
S-R: What sports do you cover?
Carpenter: Football, basketball, softball, baseball, volleyball, wrestling – even soccer, although I’ll never do that again. The play-by-play is impossible.
S-R: Who announces the games?
Carpenter: People who love sports and volunteer to do them. We have a retired school teacher who started doing it for me 30 years ago.
S-R: How is the workload divided at the station?
Carpenter: One employee does sales, one does billing and one does sports. I do most of the reporting, and everything else. If lightning hits the antenna or fries something in the studio, I can fix it, although I rely on phone support more than I used to.
S-R: How do you gather local news?
Carpenter: I just know it. I spent three hours last night playing cards with a county commissioner. Commissioners … the couple of City Council members I get along with – they know how to get hold of me.
S-R: And they give you the news?
Carpenter: They give me information about where to find it.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Carpenter: I still enjoy exposing crooked politicians. When I heard lies about plans for a new airport, we ran real heavy with it.
S-R: What do you like least?
Carpenter: Dealing with the government. Radio stations are extremely regulated, and fees and taxes have changed dramatically in the past five years. Of course, we have a governor who really despises the broadcast industry.
S-R: What’s the career outlook in this industry?
Carpenter: You better know computers, because everything revolves around them.
S-R: How do you relax?
Carpenter: I gamble. Three years ago, I bought a house in Las Vegas, and until some recent health issues, I would fly down there every weekend to play blackjack and video poker. Most people would find that stressful, but it relaxes me.
S-R: Who’s winning?
Carpenter: This year, I am. Last year, they won. The year before, I won.
S-R: If people here who don’t know you hear your voice in a public setting, do they recognize it?
Carpenter: All the time. I can’t say anything in line at the grocery store without someone saying, “You’re the guy on the radio!”
S-R: Is that fun?
Carpenter: On the whole, yes.
S-R: Do people think radio is a glamorous job?
S-R: Is it?
Carpenter: In a sense. Can I sit in the owner’s box at Mariners games? Yes. Can I watch Seahawks games from the press box? Yes. Can I go to whatever concert I want to? Yes. Do I anymore? No. I’m too old and tired. (laugh) But I used to.
This interview was edited and condensed.