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Local News

Tea Fire Knocks KCLU’s 102.3 FM Radio Station Off the Air

Listeners can tune in to the NPR station's AM station at 1340. Rock station KJEE also has resumed service.

During the past week, you may have noticed that the news, interviews and talk shows on 102.3 FM — KCLU’s National Public Radio station — have been replaced by the sound of static.

That’s because the station’s tower, antenna and equipment building — like so many homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito — perished last week in the Tea Fire.

The equipment was high up on Gibraltar Road, in an area referred to by radio heads as “Gibraltar Peak.” The station blinked out a few hours after the Tea Fire ignited about 6 p.m. Nov. 13. 

Also affected for a spell was rock station KJEE, but it has been back on the air since Sunday evening, a station employee said.

Although the staff at KCLU expects 102.3 FM to resume airing within a couple of weeks, devotees of the station need not miss a beat. In what turned out to be a fortuitous move, the station’s Thousand Oaks-based parent company, California Lutheran University, purchased what had been Santa Barbara’s KIST-AM (1340), and began broadcasting in October.

“We were never off the air in Santa Barbara,” said Mary Olson, the station’s general manager. “We just kept plugging along.”

Station officials said the equipment has been ordered on fast-track, and crews will rebuild in a spot near the old location, so the quality of the signal should remain intact.

When the station went down about 8 p.m. Nov. 13, Olson said station employees at first figured it was a power outage. Then they got a call from an engineer, who delivered the bad news.

“The roof had caved in on the building,” she said. “Our equipment was all melted and fried.”

Olson said the station has been flooded with calls and e-mails from listeners, many of them unaware that the station now has an AM presence.

The AM and FM stations air most of the same programs, but the schedule isn’t identical. FM listeners, for instance, hear Fresh Air with famed interviewer Terry Gross twice a day — once in the late morning, and once in the early evening — but the AM station airs the show only at 7 p.m. On the other hand, the AM station also airs Talk of the Nation, while the FM station does not.

The quality between the AM and FM stations is also different. In general, the AM station is more powerful, and is better able to penetrate into buildings and homes, whereas the other one — like many FM stations — sometimes cannot, said Jim Rondeau, the station’s director of operations and programming.

“That is why we wanted to get an AM station,” he said. “People would say, ‘I love that show, but I can’t get it in my house.’”

He said this phenomenon is largely because of how FM stations, though generally better for music because of their higher fidelity, use more of a “line of sight” signal, meaning the transmission can be compromised by hillsides and other physical barriers. AM, however, at times can get a little static at night.

KCLU has five full-time employees and one part-timer. Though based in Thousand Oaks, it does have a studio in Goleta.

Olson said purchasing and setting up the new equipment will cost the station about $40,000.

Click here to make a donation to the station, which is a nonprofit organization.

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