How to start a radio station: Step one… KAVZ-FM the big voice of the Foothills communities

How to start a radio station: Step one…
KAVZ-FM the big voice of the Foothills communities

Matthew Thuney - Whatcom Independent

VAN ZANDT – “For me, it’s been a lifelong dream,” mused retired Motorola technician Marcus Burton. It was Sunday afternoon, March 25, at the Van Zandt Community Hall, and Burton had just completed his presentation about the do’s, don’ts, and how-to’s of producing a music show for radio broadcast. The following Sunday, April 1, KAVZ-FMLP 102.5 would switch on its transmitter and officially begin broadcasting.

What does this brand-spanking new community radio station’s alphabet soup of call letters stand for? You probably already know that any station’s signal west of the Mississippi begins with a K rather than a W. Ditto that FM refers to the broader bandwidth of frequency modulation as opposed to the more directional amplitude modulation of AM radio. The LP stands for low power, as in KAVZ’s signal will only reach out about ten miles. And the AVZ initials refer to the very roots of this community effort, that it’s centered around the towns of Acme and Van Zandt in the Mount Baker Foothills.

The process that led to the birth of KAVZ has been neither quick nor cheap. Indeed, earlier this year it looked like the station might be stillborn for lack of funds.

Brian Allen, who has been involved in promoting and producing community radio since 1984, began the project after he met up with Holly O’Neil while visiting the River Farm collective a few years back (yes, that old “hippie commune” as some neighboring farmers still refer to it, out at the south end of Hillside Road in Van Zandt). In 1999, the Clinton Administration had, much to the consternation of certain corporate media interests, passed legislation paving the way for low-power community radio. Allen and O’Neil sought to take advantage of this new opportunity by proposing just such a radio outlet along the Nooksack River in the Mount Baker Foothills.

In June 2001, an application was filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The project languished for a while, until it became more and more clear the priceless FCC license would expire unless KAVZ actually got on the air. A construction permit was acquired for the station’s studio at the Van Zandt Community Hall in April 2004. That’s when the “fun” began. A base had to be built for the antenna mast. Improvements to the Community Hall’s septic system were suddenly required. As Allen recalled, “the whole permit process was a crazy thing.”

Then there was the problem of money. It may seem as though a radio station magically appears out of a freewheeling ether of voices and music. But it takes big bucks and loads of equipment to generate and transmit those ethereal sounds. Such as: the aforementioned mast and antenna, an FM transmitter, a decoder and receivers, computer hardware and software, iPod technology, a gaggle of cable and connectors, phone line, and on and on.

How much does that add up to? Let’s see…add, multiply, divide by pi, carry the six…roughly $8,000 worth of equipment. Not so much, you say? Well, to a valleyful of cattlemen and organic farmers, that’s a lot of hay and herbs. Silicon Valley, this ain’t.

As 2007 dawned and the expiration date of KAVZ’s license application loomed, financial panic set in. Holly O’Neil, longtime River Farm resident and community organizer, quickly cobbled together a fundraising drive, reaching out to everyone she could touch in the Foothills, their friends and family from afar, and those with an abiding interest in community radio in general. A deadline of Feb. 28 was set to raise a minimum of $5,000. The supporters of “South Fork Community Radio,” as O’Neil calls it (as in, the South Fork of the Nooksack River) gathered in the Van Zandt Community Hall that evening, anxiously awaiting the results of their networking efforts. Would KAVZ receive the actual dollars it needed to make the dream reality?

As mail envelopes were opened, checks counted, and walk-in cash wandered through the door, the donations poured in. The money had come, the station was saved. Apparently this was one lifelong dream/crazy thing whose time had come, septic tank and all.

While the physical parts of the low-power FM station were purchased and put together, a vision began to take shape regarding the content of its broadcasts. “I believe some core values of this station would be celebration and honor,” commented O’Neil in a recent email message to supporters, “It’s going to be a really cool thing.”

The supporters of KAVZ would like everyone in the community to get into the act and onto the air. Longtime community radio booster Dennis Lane likened the licensing of local low-power radio to “a kind of Homestead Act of the airwaves,” noting after five years of successful broadcasting, such a station’s license will actually belong to the entire community. “It’s a way of giving communities a voice,” observed Lane.

According to Dudley and Dean Evenson, proprietors of the Deming-based music production company “Soundings of the Planet,” KAVZ will begin with entirely pre-recorded, automated programming which will include music (much of it by local performers) ranging from bluegrass to alternative rock, political discussion, public affairs, news from the Nooksack Tribe, and some shows borrowed from fellow low-power FM station KMRE in Bellingham. That’s the beginning, but much more is planned, such as an effort to involve Mount Baker High School. “We need to bring the kids in and get them involved,” advised Dudley Evenson. A KAVZ Web site is also in the works. “Eventually,” said Evenson, “we’ll reach the whole world through the Internet.”

Apart from the Web presence, the physical broadcast (currently 100 watts) may soon increase as well. If KAVZ goes to full power in the future, it could reach well beyond the small communities of Acme, Van Zandt, Wickersham and Deming. So what begins life as a community’s simple desire to have its voice heard may grow into a greater commitment with a broader expression. There’s a lot at stake in this tiny effort, and Allen is well aware of the overall implications. “Without independent media,” he asserted, “we’re going to lose our democracy.”

So next time you’re taking the scenic route through eastern Whatcom County, tooling south toward Skagit County on Highway 9, you might want to reach over to your car radio and scan to 102.5 FM. What’ll you hear? Maybe some new local music, maybe some Native American voices, maybe an amusing or informative interview…or just maybe the heartbeat of a community you never heard from before.

Donations: Community radio stations welcome tax-deductible contributions. Donations to KAVZ may be made out to “Van Zandt Community Hall Association” and mailed to P.O. Box 242, Acme, WA 98220.
Coming Up:
April 7: KAVZ’s official “Launch Day,” when it begins broadcasting its initial regularly scheduled programming.
April 28, 8:00 p.m. in the Van Zandt Community Hall: “KAVZ: Making Waves,” a gala celebration of the station’s successful birth.


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