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The KNP Complex Fire crosses the General's Highway in this photo posted two days ago at the National Wildfire Coordinating Group website.

published on October 8, 2021 - 2:36 PM
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The KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Forest has already burned tens of thousands of acres, but this past week has been especially devastating for local radio stations whose transmission equipment has been damaged by the fire, resulting in a loss of signal power.

B95, Soft Rock 98.9, New Rock 104.1, Radio Bilingue on 91.5 and KARM on 89.7 have all been threatened by the wildfire. 

John Ostlund, owner of One Putt Broadcasting with several Fresno radio stations, described the fire on Eshom Point, a mountain which hosts several radio stations’ signals. The transmitter for one of his stations, New Rock 104.1, is at Eshom Point, and barely missed the flames this past week. He has been monitoring the fire’s progress multiple times a day since it was five miles away from the transmitter towers about 10 days ago. 


While it didn’t take a direct hit, he said they’re not out of the woods yet. 

“When the fire started, we knew that it potentially could reach Eshom Point, so we watched it when it was five miles away, then three miles away and then a half-mile away,” said Ostlund.

“Our transmitter site was just 50 feet from the B95 site that went up in smoke,” he said Friday. “We thought, ‘There’s no way it’s going to spread that far.’” 

He said that B95 and Soft Rock 98.9 have both been burned to the ground and are operating off of standby transmitters at a weaker signal on a nearby hilltop.

Rychard Withers, general manager at KFCF 88.1 FM in Fresno and member of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, said that it’s been pretty quiet in the radio community as people scramble to figure out their next steps.

“With the FM, height is your favorite friend,” Withers said. 

Ostlund described the high towers being near the trees where fires rage. 

“That fire is pretty devastating,” Ostlund said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ordered PG&E to shut off power near the area

“That was the first big warning that the fire was within striking distance,” Ostlund said. 

Everyone scrambled to make sure standby generators were operating and the fuel tanks were at capacity. The generators conserve the use of fuel, but the signal takes a hit because the radio can’t broadcast as far without full power.

When replacing transmitters, it requires engineers, consultants and contractors — but even then it could take two to three months to get the stations off of the standby transmitters, Ostlund said.

“This is a problem we’re going to be dealing with for many months,” Ostlund said. “It’s devastating to those of us in this industry.” 

A huge factor in the cost and speed of the recovery depends on insurance. The deductible on Eshom Point is $50,000, which will be expensive for everybody involved, Ostlund said.

“The insurance industry, ever since we’ve been having multiple wildfires in the mountains… the insurance industry has tried to protect itself,” he said.

He’s hopeful that the insurance will cover anything beyond the deductible but insurance companies have a way of defining what is coverable, he said.

While Ostlund’s transmitter towers are safe for the time being, he said they could be off air at any moment.

For its 350,000 weekly listeners that tune into One Putt’s five stations, they depend on radio coverage for sports, music and companionship, Ostlund said.

With weaker broadcasting strength on generators, listenership will be affected, and in turn the ratings book — which comes out in the fall — could potentially affect future advertising revenue.

Withers suspects that the three iHeart Radio stations, KSOF, B95 and KFSO, will need to rebuild the facility that houses several pieces of broadcasting equipment. But with the snow in the winter, it could be months before that happens. 

“We are a part of the everyday lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of people,” Ostlund said.

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