Local

Whatcom radio listeners hearing more local stations, less Seattle

Don Kurtis is pictured in his office at Cascade Radio Group on Tuesday, July 15, 2016 in Bellingham. Kurtis recently oversaw the addition of FM translators for the group’s three AM stations.
Don Kurtis is pictured in his office at Cascade Radio Group on Tuesday, July 15, 2016 in Bellingham. Kurtis recently oversaw the addition of FM translators for the group’s three AM stations. eabell@bhamherald.com

Whatcom County residents are getting more opportunities to listen to local news and sports, but at a cost of losing some Seattle stations.

Last week 97.3 FM switched from being KIRO’s Seattle news talk radio station to the local KPUG sports talk station for listeners in Whatcom County. The Cascade Radio Group, which broadcasts KPUG on 1170 AM, received permission earlier this year from the Federal Communications Commission to set up an FM translator through the agency’s AM Revitalization program. The program allows stations on the AM dial to take over an available slot on the FM dial in a local market in order to broaden its audience, since more people are listening to FM stations.

Technically, 97.3 FM was available for KPUG in Whatcom County because KIRO serves the Seattle market. The KIRO signal is strong enough, however, that people can tune in throughout much of Western Washington and into Canada, said Carl Gardner, vice president and general manager at the station for the Bonneville Seattle Media Group. Gardner said they’ve received dozens of calls from Whatcom County listeners wondering what happened in the first few days since the switch.

The Cascade Radio Group, which is owned by Saga Communications, operates three AM stations locally and all of them now have FM translators, said Don Kurtis, Cascade’s president and general manager. KBAI can now be heard on 930 AM and 98.9 FM, while KGMI can be heard on 790 AM and 96.5 FM. Both of those FM stations focus on music in Seattle, but don’t have as strong a signal into Whatcom County as KIRO 97.3 FM.

Kurtis said the focus of the revitalization program is to make it easier for local AM stations to better serve their local market and remain a viable source for news, information, sports and entertainment. He said an extensive investigation was done on the possible dial positions to make sure Cascade met all the technical specifications. Complicating matters for Cascade was the fact they had to make sure they were in compliance with Canadian regulations as well.

These FM signals allow us to better and more conveniently cover our local market, which was the intent of the FCC program.

Don Kurtis, Cascade Media Group.

“These FM signals allow us to better and more conveniently cover our local market, which was the intent of the FCC program,” Kurtis said.

Gardner said he wishes no ill will on the Cascade Radio Group and certainly empathizes with the situation. KIRO itself made the switch from AM to FM in 2008 in order to increase its own reach. He also knows that KIRO has a solid base of Whatcom County listeners and is hoping to hear from them. He plans to take the feedback he gets from Whatcom County listeners and present it to the FCC with the hopes of moving KPUG to another spot on the FM dial.

“We support KPUG in what they are doing; we just want them to do it on another channel,” Gardner said.

Kurtis said the three translators slots they selected were the best fit to make sure they are not over the interference levels allowed, which is a challenge being between the major markets of Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

Catherine Ousselin of Bellingham is one of the listeners disappointed by the change. Along with regularly listening to the radio on her commute to work in Mount Vernon, she also regularly listens to it at home. Along with the Seattle news, she likes the talk shows, especially Dave Ross in the morning.

“It’s a good station for local issues presented through different opinions,” she said. Ousselin noted she is also a fan of the NPR station KNKX, which is on 88.7 FM in Bellingham. She enjoys switching back and forth between it and KIRO to get different angles and not hear stories repeated.

Jeff Kelton of Ferndale commutes to Seattle twice a week and said he mainly listens to KIRO for the talk shows, particularly in the afternoon. He prefers the local perspective those KIRO talk shows offer, noting that the Bellingham radio news talk shows tend to have national hosts in the early afternoon. He also likes the expanded Seahawks coverage that KIRO offers.

Kelton looked into the idea of listening to KIRO through his phone, but found he would have to buy some equipment to listen in that manner.

Kurtis said he’s not sure how much of a boost the three Whatcom AM stations will get by having FM translators, but he believes it will be easier for listeners who spend more time on the FM dial to switch between stations.

“We do know that we run extremely successful promotions and advertising campaigns on both our AM and our FM stations, so we know we have a substantial number listening to each,” he said.

To contact Gardner with questions about having KIRO’s signal in Whatcom County, email cgardner@bonneville.com. To talk to Kurtis about the Cascade Radio Group’s FM changes, email dkurtis@cascaderadiogroup.com.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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