Written by Maria Gaura
La Vida Local - La Vida Local
SANTA CRUZ (February 2011) – Even though it’s perched on the banks of Corcoran Lagoon, the expansive front window of radio station KSCO faces inland, taking in a view of Portola Drive and the comings and goings in the station’s parking lot.
The staff at this independent station likes to keep an eye on the community, a focus increasingly rare in the world of radio, where the majority of small stations have eliminated staff and live programming in favor of pre-programmed fare.
“So many radio stations now are just a computer in a hallway – with somebody in Dallas programming it,” said Program Director Rosemary Chalmers. “KSCO has lots of voices, local voices. Because we are locally owned, we are free to do as we like.”
Launched in 1947 as a music station, KSCO is now celebrating its 20th anniversary under local ownership. More precisely, this year marks the station’s return to local ownership. The station was launched by a partnership of local families, including the McPhersons, who then also owned the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The station was sold to out-of-town owners in 1986, but returned to local hands in 1991, when it was purchased by the current owner, Michael Zwerling.
The station building itself is a technology time capsule, remaining virtually unchanged from the original 1947 design. Built from blueprints purchased from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the main performance studio still boasts its original curvaceous walls, built-in speakers, retro “on air” signal lights, and nearly perfect acoustics.
The station still regularly broadcasts live music performances, using the same vintage “ribbon mics” that performers such as Woody Herman, Hilo Hattie, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and others sang into in the 40s and 50s.
Bill Graff demonstrates a vintage ribbon microphone
A bomb shelter was added in the early 1960s, with five-foot-thick concrete walls, emergency power sources, a broadcasting studio … and no bathroom. “When I got hired here I told the boss that I’d go into the shelter in case of a nuclear attack, but I wasn’t going to stay in there for more than ten hours,” said Technical Director Bill Graff. “Any longer than that, and I’m taking my chances with the radiation.”
The station now houses a sister station, KOMY, that transmits a 1,000-watt signal, a fraction of KSCO’s 10,000-watt signal. KSCO can be heard as far away as Sacramento and San Luis Obispo -when the tide is high. The station’s three 280-foot-tall transmitters were built on platforms in the brackish water of Corcoran’s tidal lagoon because salt water enhances the transmission of electricity, Chalmers said.
“When the tide is in, you can hear us much better,” Chalmers said. The station reduces its wattage dramatically at sunset so as not to interfere with the frequency of a station in Dallas, she noted. “We’re basically powered up from sunup to sunset,” she said.
KOMY has remained a music station, while KSCO primarily broadcasts talk radio. Talk radio’s conservative bent has alienated some in liberal Santa Cruz, but owner Zwerling believes he is carrying on a valuable community tradition by offering local commentary, providing local jobs, and supporting local business.
Zwerling was fired from his first broadcasting job, hosting Santa Cruz High School’s weekly radio program on KSCO, for making a raspberry sound on the air. “I lived for that show,” Zwerling said. “I was just crushed.” But the station manager who fired him was later thrilled when the former nerdy high school student eventually bought the station.
“He was so glad to have a local owner who loved the place as much as he had loved it for 39 years,” Zwerling said. “Now we’re celebrating our 20th year – we’re about halfway to that 39-year mark.”