Low Power to the People
Costa Mesa’s KOCI-FM 101.5 may not be ready to make us forget Indie 103.1, but it seems like its heart is in the right place
As Alan Thicke can tell you, growing pains can be a very real thing. Especially with new endeavors, such as, say, starting up an FM radio station from scratch and trying to figure out how to fill those 168 hours each week. So that might explain awkward moments such as this one on Jan. 31, during Costa Mesa-based, 6-month-old, low-power broadcaster KOCI-FM’s weekly local music show, Backstage Pass.
Host Barry “Dr. Barry” Jorgensen is interviewing the front man of Huntington Beach’s endearingly quirky Matt Kollar and the Angry Mob. While a song off the band’s Farewell Adventure plays, a caller requests the Animals’ iconic 1964 version of folk classic “House of the Rising Sun.” (The station plays predominantly classic rock during the rest of the week, y’see.)
“Have you heard the Cat Power version of that song?” asks Kollar, who’s probably four decades younger than Jorgensen.
“Who? Cat Stevens?” Jorgensen answers.
Yes, it is a bit strange to have someone like Jorgensen—a middle-aged, Riverside-based attorney—interviewing these acts. Other bands on Backstage Pass that Saturday afternoon included soon-to-be South By Southwest performers Japanese Motors, Parker Macy Blues, the Growlers and Starving for Gravity, all crammed into a three-hour program. And the cramming isn’t just chronological; it’s also spatial. There are about a dozen people in the KOCI studio during the Growlers’ segment—band members, photographers, Jorgensen and show producer Don “Foosh” Fuschetti. To their credit, all the live performances that day actually sound pretty good, given the conditions. But there’s still the lingering weirdness of hearing them have conversations with the host that sound like the types of talks you would have with a distant uncle over the holidays. It’s as odd a fit as casting Harrison Ford as the lead in High School Musical 4.
The new station’s all-volunteer brain trust realizes that Backstage Pass, like the rest of the programming, is a work in progress: On Feb. 3, Brent Khalen, the station’s chief engineer and chief financial officer, told me they were putting the show on hiatus for a couple of weeks to discuss its future. Later that same day, Fuschetti contacted me to to let me know the show will resume on Feb. 21, but with a new host (as yet unnamed) and that live performances will be pretaped at an off-site recording studio.
The story of KOCI goes back nearly a decade to the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, which enabled the FCC to license low-power FM stations. Brian Helvey, KOCI’s now-57-year-old founder, originally wrote the proposal for the station that year; voluminous bureaucratic red tape and protests from groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters kept things from moving forward.
“When you’re talking about the commercial radio stations out there, they weren’t particularly in love with the idea of little nonprofits,” Helvey says. “Everything’s been taking off recently.”
What kept him focused? “We have one of the most dynamic areas in the world,” he says. “It’s about time that there’s a media that showcases that and promotes that.”
KOCI—you can probably hear its 50-watt signal on 101.5 FM if you’re in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Irvine or Tustin—is a true labor of love for Helvey, a retired public-policy analyst. Not only has he been waiting for this for years, but he has also invested quite a bit out-of-pocket. He sees the station as a place for music as well as a vehicle for doing good in central/coastal Orange County. The FCC requires low-power FM stations to have community-service aspects; Helvey’s nonprofit StarTree Foundation, which operates KOCI, aims to benefit children, veterans, the environment and local businesses.
“We’ve been working our way toward serving those groups with public-service announcements and covering key events,” he says. “We’re going to start doing some programming that provides local impetus and visibility in [these] areas.”
And Kahlen has something Helvey does not: previous experience in radio—though, as a debt consolidator by day, he hadn’t actually worked in the business since 1980. Jorgensen worked with Kahlen back in their radio days; the reason why “Dr. Barry” sounds like an old-school rock-radio DJ is because he is one.
“We all agreed that as we started out, Dr. Barry was the most skilled and capable person,” says Helvey.
Other than Backstage Pass, there isn’t much live, hosted programming yet on KOCI. Jorgensen does a blues show (a genre in which he has a rich background) on Sundays. “Jimmy Rabbit,” another former radio guy, anchors a show from his home on Saturdays. Sales manager Larry Cano’s teenage daughter Corey has recently begun hosting a Thursday-night show called Our Generation. Other than that, it’s about 1,100 classic-rock tunes playing at random through automated software.
Helvey is encouraged by the feedback he has received so far, and Kahlen and Fuschetti both speak of the desire to capitalize on some of the void left by Indie 103.1—but for a 50-watt station, the emphasis is on “some.”
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“We thought it was too late for this,” says Kahlen, of starting something as old-fashioned as a radio station in the age of iPods. Let’s hope he’s wrong.
Visit KOCI online at www.kociradio.com.