Visitors randomly twisting the radio dial while driving through Hot Springs, Arkansas may be surprised to hear psych rock. Or Ozark folk music. Or a guy philosophizing about sci-fi books. Depending what time of day a listener tunes in to KUHS-LP, they could hear scores of music genres as well as a few talk shows.
The quirky radio station operates out of a building that also houses SQZBX Brewery & Pizza Joint. It boasts more than 60 volunteer deejays and has been on air since 2015. The station is audible for about 5 miles from the tower’s position on West Mountain overlooking Hot Springs, give or take a bit due to the topography of the area around Hot Springs National Park. KUHS-LP also holds the distinction of being Arkansas’ only solar-powered radio station.
Low-power FM radio
The dream of KUHS-LP started long before the station. Back in 1999, Zac Smith was underemployed and living in Winston-Salem. While hanging out in a coffee shop, he read about low-power FM radio (LPFM). The LPFM laws were drafted in response to telecommunication consolidation and the rise of massive conglomerates that bought up radio properties across America and then programmed them centrally. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was issuing licenses for LPFM stations, allowing local community members to cover the gaps between the bigger coverage areas on the dial.
“As we all sat around drinking strong espressos and smoking filterless cigarettes, we thought we were solving the world’s problems and teasing out the essence of what it was to be alive,” Smith remembered. “I thought wow, gee, how cool would it be if there was a deejay booth right here in a coffee shop and we could like drop a tune, or talk about our latest philosophical revelation? And that was literally the seed of the idea.”
He then embarked on a career as a tuba player in a duo with his wife, Cheryl Roorda, who plays the accordion. “But fast forward a dozen years,” he said. “I’m now living in Hot Springs. Married. Kids. I now owned this piece of property that was underdeveloped and was looking for an over-arching concept of how to move forward.”
When Smith learned that the FCC was opening another LPFM application filing window, he jumped on it. He partnered with Bill Solleder, founder of Hot Springs nonprofit Low Key Arts, and radio engineer Bob Nagy to file for a spot on the airwaves in 2013. The FCC granted them the license to build a station, and they spent the next 18 months fundraising $35,000 and preparing to go on air.
How solar energy powers a radio station
Every radio station needs a tower. West Mountain overlooking Hot Springs was the obvious choice. Radio, cell phone and emergency service towers already dotted the mountaintop. The KUHS-LP team found a former AT&T microwave relay building that was standing empty. “The power was off,” Smith said. “So me and Nagy were up there, and we’re like, oh, man, we’ve got to get the power on. And you know, dealing with Entergy, a commercial account, all of this stuff. Geez, it’s a low-power station. Our power needs are low by definition, right? So we did the math. And we’re like, well, what would it take for us to make it solar? And not actually turn the power on?” Hot Springs is a sunny place. They figured it would take about two years to break even on solar.
Because it’s an off-grid installation, the radio station needed a battery bank. The batteries charge during the day, then discharge at night. KUHS-LP has already changed batteries once, the second time choosing 200 Ah, sealed lead acid batteries, which are less corrosive than their original choice. “It is kind of expensive and batteries turn out to be much like toner cartridges in that they’re consumable and they don’t last forever,” Smith said. The battery bank can hold enough energy to power the station through a cloudy winter week.
The mountaintop off-grid system runs the radio station equipment such as the transmitter, a digital-to-analog decoder and a battery charge controller. KUHS-LP also has solar panels on its building in downtown Hot Springs that power lights, studio equipment and a fraction of the HVAC. Because this in-town system is tied to the grid, excess power is used by others.
Community programming by volunteers
KUHS-LP’s programming is largely music, with a smattering of talk and information about public events. Checked Out’s three deejays — Drew Bradbury, Brent Carroll and Erin Baber — keep Hot Springs informed about Garland County Library news and play music available for free download from the library website. Adam Woodworth, host of Sunday’s The Groking Hour, talks about science-fiction. “He’s also a meditator,” Smith said, “so sort of with a mindful bent. And like the philosophical parts of sci-fi, not so much the space gun battles.” Several local high school students have their own music shows as well.
Prospective deejays fill out an online form expressing their interest. “Deejays come who have a particular love of a genre of music or a type of music that they think is underrepresented on the airwaves in Hot Springs,” Smith said. “My general concept for what we’re doing with our piece of real estate on the FM dial is I use the analogy of a community garden. We’re not maximizing our piece of the radio spectrum for money, but we’re maximizing it for access.”
One of KUHS-LP’s keys to success is that everybody who works there is a volunteer, including Smith and Nagy, for whom KUHS is his fourth station. “Nagy was really adamant about that,” Smith said. “He said at every volunteer station that he’s been at, the moment you raise enough money to get one person on part-time, then everybody quits putting in the effort. They’re like, ‘Well, let the paid person do it.’”
KUHS-LP now manages to run on about $12,000 per year, thanks to the many volunteers who have found a special place to hang out and express themselves. After being on air for 5 years, Smith is still energetic and passionate about community radio. “We don’t think of it, but the airwaves are one of our national properties,” he said. “They are like our national parks. They are something that belong to all of us. The federal government is their steward to make sure that all of us have a reasonable amount of access.” In Hot Springs, that access is only the click of an online form away for anybody with a sonic dream, be it a love of Celtic tunes or a mania for metal.
Images via KUHS-LP and Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat