Bill Kelley

BARBARA LONGO WAS working at home last Thursday morning when she turned on her radio and hit the preset button for 770 AM (Radio K) and heard the unmistakable sound of dead air. An employee of Roadrunner Records, which is a sponsor of Radio K, Longo listens to the station regularly; this time, something was amiss. "All I got was this really weak country music station instead of Radio K," she says. "I just kept hitting the reset button. I'm pretty new to town and I was wondering if I missed something."

Getting a clean signal at 770 is already an exercise in antenna manipulation, but on Wednesday, October 7, the University of Minnesota's student-staffed station faded from the airwaves entirely, leaving confused college radioheads futilely twisting their knobs amid a din of static and twang. The blackout continued for three-and-a-half days. Apparently, much of Radio K's problem had to do with a miscommunication over scheduling for technical fine-tuning being performed on the station's transmitter, which is shared with the FM jazz station KBEM (88.5).

But the problem also has root in a transmitter service industry whose tower technicians are in increasing demand as the use of cell phones and personal communication services grows, and television stations scramble to convert from satellite to digital technology. KBEM hired ERI Installations of Indiana to design and install improved transmitting hardware. Work began in July, but a critical piece of the new apparatus wasn't finished until mid-September. Last week was the first available time for the tower crew to get to Minneapolis to finish the installation.

"I'm sure we still have a few people scratching their heads," says Station Manager Andy Marlow. Adding Alanis Morissette-esque irony to injury, the station's signal cut out just as staffers were preparing to kick off K's fifth-anniversary fundraising drive, "Powersurge." With local bands like Love Cars, Dylan Hicks, and Florida scheduled to appear on behalf of Radio K during the biannual fundraiser, station administrators had high hopes for record pledges to help fill the public station's coffers. The mood at the station swung between panic and disappointed calm Tuesday night as its staff figured out that they wouldn't be able to broadcast starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday. "Everyone was pretty well devastated by this," says Marlow.

KBEM's head engineer, Wayne Selly, attributes Radio K's hiatus to a "communication breakdown" between the two stations. "We didn't know it was pledge week at Radio K. But, that said, it wasn't an accident that Radio K was off the air; you simply can't put men on a hot tower. When we got out on the transmitter there was some sparking going on." With possible injuries to the tower workers to consider, KBEM station officials pulled the plug. Marlow contends that when Radio K staffers asked to have the work postponed, their request was met with a flat refusal.

"Actually what they said was that the only opening they had was next September," Marlow says. Yet he also concedes that KBEM was prey to the whims of a tight market and that it had almost no leeway in scheduling a time for repair.

Barb Houdek, the executive director of Tim's Tower Service, a company that has often done transmitter work for Radio K, confirms that tower crews are increasingly busy as the transmitter service industry has blossomed. "A lot of people have jumped into the business. Where before there were just a few companies doing what we did, now there are four or five up and down our street."

Selly assures K fans that KBEM's equipment changes are complete and Radio K won't have to worry about shutting down anytime soon. Marlow concurs, going on to say that the next work done on the Radio K transmitter will probably amount to little more than the application of a fresh coat of paint. "But that won't be for a few years yet."

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