KPSU recovering from lost signal

At the Plaid Pantry on Southeast 33rd Street and Powell Boulevard in Portland, employee Ben Gilbert has listened to KPSU, Portland State’s student radio station, during all of his shifts; he’s done for the past 15 years.

At the Plaid Pantry on Southeast 33rd Street and Powell Boulevard in Portland, employee Ben Gilbert has listened to KPSU, Portland State’s student radio station, during all of his shifts; he’s done for the past 15 years. However, on June 25, 2010, he turned on the store’s radio at the beginning of his shift and heard static.

He later read in the Portland Mercury that KPSU lost its AM signal. “I’m sure they’ll get it back somehow,” he said.

How KPSU will recover its AM listenership is a question that has occupied the station’s staff members since KBPS, a signal broadcasting from Benson High School, declined to renew its contract with the station. Two weeks before the scheduled termination date, a listener wrote an angry blog comment in reaction to a segment that briefly discussed sodomy, and therefore the station was pulled from the airwaves that day.

The sometimes adult content of KPSU’s shows have long been an issue with KBPS Managing Director Bill Cooper, and therefore the outraged blogger was the “final straw,” said Doug Friend, a PSU senior and the manager of KPSU.

Currently, the station is broadcast from a four-watt transmitter on top of Smith Memorial Student Union. The signal, 98.1 FM, can be heard only on campus.  

“Losing our signal was hard—we’ve definitely gone through a mourning process,” Friend said. However, he noted that the publicity the station gained from the Portland Mercury, the Willamette Week and Channel 12 “revitalized” its presence.

People came out and supported us,” he said. “We need to use that momentum.”

The launching of a new KPSU website is one project spurred by the station’s signal loss. At the KPSU general meeting last Sunday, Web Director Seve Salazar said, “the first time I went to the current website, I couldn’t figure out how to make it stream.”

Although website traffic increased by 30 percent between July and September, the bounce rate is around 36 percent, meaning that many Internet users who visit exit the page quickly, probably due to what the entire KPSU staff agrees to be the website’s slow, confusing setup.

Salazar hopes to bring the bounce rate closer to 25 percent or less.  The new website will offer a pop-out radio player—its current website requires individual shows be downloaded to iTunes—and full integration with Facebook and Twitter.

“I’m trying to leverage social networking to help get a thousand times more traffic,” Salazar said at Sunday’s meeting.  “I personally believe the Internet is the future of all media…I would love for us to be broadcast again, but in 10–15 years, I don’t think anyone will be listening.”

Ultimately, he hopes to expand the KPSU website to iOS and Android application stores.

However, listeners and DJs alike want KPSU to have a signal again. Eric Vandenberg, a guitarist living in Germany who was featured on Guitar Shop on DJ Vicky Mazzone’s show, has always listened to KPSU online but wishes it were still an AM station.

“To me, there still is a difference between clicking through gazillions of streaming radio stations on the web, and being able to switch on your radio,” he said.

Mazzone misses the AM days, too. Recently, she was excited to receive a call from a listener in southeast Portland during her show featuring Portuguese guitar. However, she generally doesn’t hear from online listeners. Before the signal was dropped, she said, listeners would call from their cars to request songs.

Getting an AM signal back is the first priority for Devin James, KPSU’s programming director.

“Not having a signal really undermines our reputation as a Portland radio station,” he said. Every year, KPSU stands before the Student Fee Committee for its budget approval. James is already looking towards the end of the current budget cycle in June.

“The deadline for getting another signal is June—if we don’t get a signal, the money will go away,” he said. He predicts that funding by the SFC will be difficult to obtain unless the station is on the air.

Last week, James was in meetings to discuss leasing an AM station based

in Milwaukie. He’s pursuing other possibilities too, including an FM station.

At the end of the last budget cycle, one of the SFC’s major concerns—besides the station’s then-precarious contract with KBPS—was that too much of the station’s focus was outside of the university. KPSU continues to host shows at venues across Portland, but the station is also working harder to reach out to PSU students. In fact, staff members are finalizing the curriculum for a winter term Chiron Class, a course which allows students to teach classes to other students.

In addition, Promotions Director Aaron Bikis hopes to stage a monthly show at Backspace Café and offer a discount to PSU students. He’s already launched a monthly show at the Great Hall that is open only to PSU students, the last edition of which was a “huge success,” he said.

The rest of the KPSU staff seems to share Bikis’ confidence and dedication.  Friend remembers setting up a booth at last summer’s PDX Pop Now! music festival, where a sign above its booth read, “We Are Alive, Love KPSU Forever” [sic].

“This woman came by and said, ‘You guys are alive? I thought you lost your signal.’ I smiled, gave her a sticker, and told her to tune in online,” Friend said.  

For some Portland-area listeners, however, the station remains a ghost. Plaid Pantry’s Bill Gilbert was surprised to learn that KPSU still existed.

“I heard it’s dead now,” he said. He plans to play only KPSU at his store, as he did for 15 years, if the station returns to the air.