Lacking local radio?
Nowhere in Big Sky is there a lit sign reading “On Air”
As chief engineer for Yellowstone Public Radio, Jim Nichols is responsible for overcoming any technical challenges blocking Big Sky listeners from their favorite NPR programs, like the “Weekend Edition” news show broadcast until recently at 95.9 FM.
On Saturday morning, June 16 and again the next day, local “Weekend Edition” fans and anyone else tuning into 95.9 were met with dead air.
“There was a little miscommunication with the guys up at the operations at Big Sky (Resort),” explained Nichols, saying he didn’t get the message that the resort planned to shut off power to YPR’s antenna to accommodate Ramcharger construction.
When Nichols got word on Friday, June 15, he sprang into action, running down to Harbor Freight in Billings, where he bought a bunch of solar panels. Nichols then raced up Andesite Mountain and MacGyver-ed a new power system for the translator antenna near the top of the Thunder Wolf Chairlift.
Nichols used a web camera, a propane generator, solar panels and batteries to put NPR back on the air in Big Sky. It took all weekend, and the current system remains flawed, but local NPR fans were not disappointed when they tuned in Monday morning, June 18.
“Got back on the air Monday. It was kind of up and down,” recalled Nichols. “We fired it up at 5 a.m. for ‘Morning Edition.’”
Now, when Big Sky residents listen to Nina Totenberg explain the U.S. Supreme Court or Scott Simon interview an accomplished author (Bozeman’s David Quammen was on Aug. 11), it’s all thanks to an antenna system powered by solar panels, batteries and an RV generator that kicks on when the battery levels drop below a certain level.
Nichols checks battery levels from his office in Billings using the web camera he installed at the site. The antenna shuts down at night in order to save battery power.
“It’s been an interesting summer,” noted YPR General Manager Kurt Wilson. He said current NPR broadcasts into Big Sky shut off between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. because even with sunny days, the solar panels can’t produce enough power. “And sometimes when the sun hasn’t come out, the batteries go low. Then we kick in the propane.”
Once the new eight-pack Ramcharger Chairlift is completed, the YPR translator antenna will again have a dedicated power line and no longer lose juice on cloudy days.
That should happen sometime in October, said Wilson, who announced another big change this summer for Big Sky listeners.
After many years of service to Big Sky on the 95.9 frequency, YPR recently moved to another, nearby slot on the FM dial.
“Last Friday (Aug. 3), we flipped to 96.3,” said Wilson. YPR sent emails to supporters in the Big Sky area, which according to a timeline from the Big Sky Owners Association, first received NPR programming over the airwaves in 1987.
“We put a little notice on air,” added Wilson, detailing how YPR tried to get the word out to Big Sky NPR fans. “We’ve tried to connect with as many people as we can. And we’ve taken some calls.”
Why the move to 96.3? Because another public station—Gallatin Valley Community Radio, KGVM—now occupies the 95.9 FM frequency.
About a decade of volunteer work went into launching KGVM, which started broadcasting from an antenna on High Flat Road in Gallatin Gateway on May 13.
KGVM owes its existence to a core of dedicated founders and financial supporters, including Susie and George Cole. George used to have a show on YPR and the couple helped start a public station in Spokane, Wash.
Their motivation for launching KGVM came from wanting to find a home for the progressive news show “Democracy Now!” with host Amy Goodman.
“In fact, Amy Goodman came to town (Bozeman) and gave a talk. Something like 10 years ago,” said Steve Durbin, board chair for KGVM.
Originally, Gallatin Valley Community Radio didn’t see itself as a Big Sky station. But then, once it took over the 95.9 signal, local listeners up in the mountains started to discover it.
“I heard it does carry up there in Big Sky, which amazes me,” said Durbin, detailing how KGVM is, “Entirely funded by individuals. No foundation support, no government support.”
The station will hold its first pledge drive at the end of August and hopes to attract support from listeners and content producers in Big Sky. KGVM’s offices and studios are housed in a commercial building near the intersection of East Main Street and I-90 in Bozeman, next-door to the new Heeb’s grocery store currently under construction.
This is where Station Manager Carly Dandrea—the only paid staffer at KGVM—oversees a stream of volunteer DJs and others interested in new voices on local radio, including some Big Sky listeners.
“We’ve been getting people asking to advertise in Big Sky,” said Dandrea, who went on to explain how KGVM doesn’t offer advertising, but instead is building a base of underwriter support from businesses who help finance operations in exchange for 10-30 second underwriter shoutouts naming the businesses and describing them in ways that comply with federal rules. These underwriter spots sound similar to those for YPR and Montana Public Television.
Dandrea said KGVM went all in on its transmitter, purchasing one capable of putting out 3,500 watts. It sits in the sagebrush hills above Gallatin Gateway and broadcasts further south down Gallatin Canyon than expected.
“It’s a bigger listener area than we anticipated,” said Dandrea. “It’s unbelievable. It’s somewhere around 75,000 people.”
“We really want to ‘democratize’ this,” continued Dandrea when asked how Big Sky locals might get involved with KGVM. “‘Democratize.’ That’s kind of a buzz word. We want to make it easy for the community to generate content.”
KGVM operates an online, cloud-based system, so it’s possible for volunteer DJs and producers to create live shows in remote locations—like a lecture at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center or a concert at the Town Center Stage. The goal is for KGVM to have at least 50 percent of its programming be non-music, though it has a massive music library. Dandrea said it would take more than 30 days to play every song held by KGVM.
KGVM’s non-music content is still taking shape and depends largely on the ideas and wishes of KGVM content creators.
One of those producers is Steven Harris-Weiel, whose video podcast “You Are Admirable” also runs as a radio show on KGVM. In it, Harris-Weiel interviews people he and those in his circle admire. This includes Jamey Kabisch, board chair of Big Sky’s resort tax district. He was nominated, but Kabisch hasn’t made it on the show yet. Still, he’s a good example of the kind of local personalities, experts/movers-shakers who might find ways to speak to the Gallatin County community through KGVM.
“The project itself came from my desire to have more mentors in my life,” said Harris-Weiel, fleshing out why he started “You Are Admirable.” “I thought, ‘I’ll just start a podcast interviewing the people I admire.’ Then each interviewee gets to nominate someone in their life.”
The podcast turned out to be a good fit for KGVM, said Harris-Weiel, because, “They as a station, they are highlighting local content creators—local people who are trying to make a difference and that sort of thing.”
Harris-Weiel is a realtor, podcaster, radio personality and actor. He attended a drama workshop at WMPAC last summer and said, “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as an actor.”
Last August, in the build up to the eclipse, Harris-Weiel said he also did a reading about eclipses at the Crail Ranch. Then in December, he starred as “Rooster” alongside Big Sky’s Olivia Bulis in the Ellen Theatre production of “Annie.”
Those involved with KGVM like to celebrate these kinds of overlaps between community, art and what’s new. But whether or not KGVM will ever offer programming with a local bent toward Big Sky remains to be seen.
“Other than I had heard the signal was available up there, I really don't know the size of the community of folks who might participate in this,” said Durbin, chair of KGVM’s board. But if there are Big Sky residents interested in producing local content, “We certainly are technically capable of that. I can do it with my phone. Any place with an internet connection.”
And if KGVM doesn’t turn out to be a good avenue for aspiring broadcast radio producers and talent in Big Sky, then Durbin said creating an entirely online radio station dedicated to Big Sky might be more feasible.
“Everything you need to do this is online,” said Durbin. “Everything is free or low-cost.”
Costs can catch up with small radio operators squeezed by a shifting media landscape where music and content pour from all sorts of outlets like podcasts and streaming services. In Bozeman, these and other forces—including an errant backhoe—literally knocked over a family of local commercial radio stations.
For proof, just spin the dial toward any frequency owned by Bozeman’s Reier Broadcasting: KBOZ Hot Country 99.9 FM, KBOZ 1230 AM ESPN radio and three other stations with licenses in Gallatin County are currently “dark,” as radio pros like Ed Donohue say.
Donohue was one of the top morning hosts in Billings and in the 1990s, he was known for his 93.7 “Fun Lovin’ Bob” am show in Bozeman.
A few years ago, he met Bill Reier out at the “Radio Ranch” on Johnson Road, in the Cottonwood-Hyalite area, where massive radio towers rise above Reier’s former offices and studios. Back in the day, said Donohue, “At 8 o’clock in the morning, all the sales people would show up. And they were ready to go sell advertising.”
Then, over the last several years, Reier’s bustling radio operation began to fade, said Donohue, recalling one of his initial meetings about coming back to work for Reier in 2015.
“The guy from the power company comes in and knocks on door and told Bill we’re going to shut you down that day,” said Donohue, who believes it can cost $4,000 per month per tower at the Reier’s Radio Ranch. Five towers stand on the property. Back in 2015, Reier found the funds needed to avoid a shut down, but challenges remained, said Donohue.
When it comes to serving Big Sky, getting a signal from towers in the valley isn’t easy, continued Donohue, who remembered a local station called Mountain 107.7.
“It was a station we put on the air in September 2011. Turned it off in December 2014,” said Donohue. “That (tower) was on High Flat Road, and we had a pretty good signal going into Big Sky.”
Other than that, Donohue said he didn’t recall there ever being a lot of radio produced in Big Sky or about Big Sky.
When asked if the potential sale of Reier’s five local radio licenses might offer an opportunity for the creation of a Big Sky-based commercial or community station, Donohue said, “That’s kind of a tricky question to answer.”
First, there’s the ownership of Reier’s five broadcast licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The Sample Family, which supports Yellowstone Public Radio (“…broadcasting from the Sample Studio at Montana State University Billings”) would like to see them sold. The family owns the towers, land and buildings making up the KBOZ Radio Ranch and on June 1 the family sent a representative from its attorney’s office to the property and told Reier “it was time to go,” because of a significant number of unpaid bills.
At first, said Donohue, Reier refused to leave.
“He built that place in 1975,” continued Donohue, adding how now, looking back it appears Reier’s chain of radio stations started to take a turn for the worse when in 2017, a backhoe accidentally ran into a support wire holding up the KBOZ 1230 tower and knocked it over. This tower wasn’t at the Radio Ranch, but instead near a yellow barn on Kagy Blvd. by the intersection with S. 19th Ave. in Bozeman. It’s now on top of Bozeman Pass, but off the air like Reier’s other four stations.
Could an investor pick up one of these properties and turn it into a locally produced commercial station serving Big Sky and the surrounding area?
The Lookout ran this question by a variety of sources, and heard a few different takes on the possibilities.
Dewey Bruce with the Montana Broadcasters Association, set the table: “If the licenses are dark, then it goes back to the FCC and they can grant the license to a buyer.”
Business remains brisk said Bruce when describing the state of the industry for small, local stations in Montana. Owners are doing, he said, “Actually, very well. My members are telling me that things are going well.”
“Those are some valuable properties,” said Bruce, who didn’t put a price on Reier Broadcasting’s stations.
Donohue said Reier wanted $8 million, but figured the five licenses might be worth only around $2 million. He also emphasized his lack of experience in the numbers involved when horse trading radio stations. Barbara Sample, speaking for her family, said quoting a price for the five stations would be “all speculation.”
Sample went on to express respect and sympathy for the Reier family, while rooting for a local buyer to come through and scoop up one or more of the stations.
“I think we’d be happy if it were” bought by someone local, said Sample.
“There’s some serious interest,” in Gallatin County and beyond, she continued.
If they had to guess, both Sample and Donohue predict the Reier stations will be purchased together.
“We’re in the process of finding a qualified buyer now,” said Sample.
“It’s like buying a loaf bread,” said Donohue. “You don’t buy a slice.”
The sale of Reier could be a test case for the necessary economies of scale to consider when shopping for either a single local station or a chain of them.
Jeff Balding, owner of what he said is Big Sky’s only locally licensed station—The Eagle 104.7—said, “There isn’t another license. It’s all regulated by the FCC. We take great pride in being Big Sky’s radio station. We’re really the only station that even talks about Big Sky.”
The Eagle helps promote Music in the Mountains and supplies Big Sky listeners with an unrivaled local stream of classic rock from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Balding agreed, The Eagle does not fill the same niche as local AM stations in small towns around the state with a bread and butter of high school football broadcasts and other local fare.
“I’m not sure if someone wanted to do that in Big Sky it would be profitable,” said Balding.
Reier’s KBOZ managed to produce local programming for many years. That’s one reason why many, including Balding, were saddened by the turn of events for Reier, whose listed phone number is disconnected. Emails from the Lookout to a posted address for Reier were not returned.
As for the turn of events leading to the end of Reier Broadcasting, Balding said, “I’ve never seen it before and it’s sad that it happened. I’m sad to see our community lose a local broadcaster because so many stations anymore don’t have local ownership.”
But some do, like West Yellowstone’s KWYS 920 and Butte’s 550 KBOW. These spots on the dial offer the radio equivalent of a seat at the town barber shop or civic meeting or high school bleachers. They are a big part of life in rural Montana. William Marcus with Montana Public Radio would tell NPR listeners to tune into the AM waves as they traveled the state, saying, “There’s a conversation happening out there.”
It’s not happening in Big Sky, at least not through broadcast radio. For a small and isolated station to succeed, insists radio veteran Donohue, it needs to lean into its localness.
“That’s what’s going to save local radio is—local content,” said Donohue, who’s been out of a job since Reier Broadcasting went dark almost two months ago. He wonders if consumers would respond well to a station that held a signal through Gallatin Canyon and offered regular traffic updates, along with ski reports and promotions for upcoming concerts and mountain bike races.
This is not a new idea. Jeff Balding and his wife Susan, have served Big Sky listeners for 15 years.
Their story unfolds in a fun-to-read posting on montanassuperstation.com—the site for The Eagle 104. 7 Big Sky.
KBFN in Big Sky went on the air in 1997 “as Fun 104, the ‘fun one,’” explains the post. The promotional copy goes on to describe the mix of tunes at the time as “an accumulation of music from diverse styles, including classic rock, newer bands, an occasional classic country artist as well as a taste of upbeat big band/jazz. After varying degrees of success in its early years of operation, the station went off the air in 2002.”
In autumn 2003, Jeff and Susan bought KBFN and returned the station to the air as The Eagle with call letters KBZM-FM.
Then came a moment that—it appears—has never been repeated in Big Sky radio history: “The new Eagle debuted in our Big Sky studio in the late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003, with our song for good luck, ‘Scotland The Brave,’ and a few choice words from program director and native Montanan, Colter Langan.”
The first song: “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones. Song No. 15: “Takin’ Care Of Business” from BTO.
In June of 2004, KBZM installed a new 60-foot steel tower and new transmitter on the summit of Lone Mountain.
“All of the new components were transported to the mountaintop, tethered under a helicopter, from a staging area behind Big Sky Resort’s Huntley Lodge, a flight time of less than five minutes for a vertical climb of some 4,000 feet,” recalls the station’s website, which next walks readers through what happened during the station’s first July 4 in Big Sky.
“The ‘new and improved’ Eagle at 104.7 was born on July 3, 2004, just in time for a fireworks SkyConcert in Big Sky, and a July 4th outdoor concert event the next night in Big Sky that featured John Fogerty and his band, along with the Allman Brothers Band,” states the post, adding, “The night of July 4th, also produced an intense thunderstorm of epic proportions between the two performances that took the new 104.7 off the air until repairs could be made the next day.”
Since then, “super station” broadcasts have continued. The live broadcasts, with a DJ in a Big Sky studio, stopped in 2004, said KBZM’s Jeff Balding.
“Colter was driving up every morning. And it was winter time. And it was dark. And we were concerned about his safety, really, doing that every morning,” said Balding. “And we found a piece of equipment that allowed him to do his show from the Bozeman Hotel downtown” while still broadcasting from the top of the tram.
To broadcast signals into Big Sky, stations either relay them through a translator—like the one Yellowstone Public Radio is now powering with solar panels—or they can try beaming a broadcast from a tower in Gallatin Gateway up Gallatin Canyon.
Local radio engineer Neil Ramhorst explained this process by comparing it to the way a sunrise or sunset casts light through a canyon—the light hits the canyon walls and casts a shadow as some of the it bends over the rock outcroppings and cliff edges.
Wikipedia offers more, calling this the knife edge effect—how both light and a radio broadcast strike “a well-defined obstacle such as a mountain range or the edge of a building” and bend a little over and around it.
Ramhorst occupies an interesting place in the local radio landscape. He’s engineer for both Big Sky’s mega broadcaster—The Eagle. And he’s a go-to engineer for KGVM, Gallatin Valley Community Radio.
Ramhorst makes sure formatted classic rock programming from The Eagle keeps blasting from the top of Lone Mountain. This allows the station to boast a “regional audience (including the Big Sky area) extending out nearly 100 miles on 104.7,” according to its website.
Meanwhile, KGVM is still trying to fully gauge the size and reach of its tower near Gallatin Gateway, which Ramhorst also looks after.
When asked what he thinks will happen with the five stations once lumped under Reier Broadcasting, Ramhorst said it’s possible one could be peeled off and moved to Big Sky. But that’s not his first guess. Ramhorst heard something about a buyer in Billings at one time, but Reier never closed the deal.
“Someone will buy them,” said Ramhorst.
What’s it going to take for a new owner to step in and fill Reier’s place in the market?
“It would be a wild ass guess, but I would say the five stations would sell for $1 million or $1.5. Then they are going to probably put $2-3 million in for infrastructure.”
Obviously, that’s a big part of the radio business: How many towers and how many watts?
Then there’s this fundamental question: Who will listen when Reier’s five dark stations come back to life?
And will any of those ears be in Big Sky?