MARCH 1996 (Marisa Lencioni; The News Tribune) – General manager/part-owner Steve West is talking about another close call in the life of Tacoma’s new radio station, KHHO-AM.
“We needed to raise this huge 22-foot-by-22-foot steel-beam platform (for the news satellite dish) to the top of the building,” West says, his eyes growing wide at the memory. “We lifted it up by helicopter, which was scary enough, but I noticed the helicopter blades were getting pretty close to the light standards on the ascent. It ended up getting in place without a hitch, but the helicopter eventually came within a foot of the light standards.”
West is standing in the nearly completed engineering room of the station, located on the 12th floor of the Seafirst Building at Ninth and Pacific in downtown Tacoma. The air smells of new carpeting and shellac; computer screens, knots of wires and electronic equipment galore crowd the station space, which itself is a subdued atmosphere of gray-green walls and burgundy furniture.
That kind of close-call-that-came-out-OK with the satellite platform seems to personify the concept-to-completion journey of the station at 850-AM that likes to be known as KH2O. There have been a couple of close calls in getting what station part-owners West and Dan Walker describe as “a news, talk and sports station for the South Sound community.”
For example, though they’re nearly upon Monday’s projected opening air date, West has learned there’s a glitch in the station’s main computer that could affect the electronic programming.
“We’re still going on the air Monday,” says West, ever the optimist. “We’ll just have a two-day open house, have some politicians or community leaders come by and talk. If you have a radio commercial for your business made up, come on by and we’ll play it.”
It’s that kind of response to the “glitches,” West feels, that reinforces the strong commitment to the South Sound area professed by the station.
West says the idea for a news-talk station based in Tacoma came about in November 1994, when he and Walker were driving down Ruston Way.
“We were wondering why no one was doing a news-type of station here for the area,” Walker remembers. “Why no one was involved in the community in that way. Eventually we thought ‘why not us?’ Now it’s like coming home, an idea near and dear to us.”
West and Walker have both been involved in Northwest radio for years. They were both at Tacoma station KTAC in the early ’70s, and moved on to work at different stations around Puget Sound. West initiated rock stations KISW and KXRX, and it was after his involvement at KXRX that he decided to pursue a station for the south end.
“I was talking to Dan about how the market in the South Sound is larger than Las Vegas or Nashville or Honolulu,” West says. “This market has not been served for news.”
West and Walker set out to change that. After making a firm commitment in November 1994 to get their idea off the ground, they began the task of finding ownership partners, of which there now are 15. Walker declines to identify the current ownership partners, outside of himself and West, saying only that “they are individuals, not corporations, many of which have strong ties to the South Sound community.”
After the money was secured, came the task of creating the programming.
West says the format will be news, talk and sports 24 hours a day. The projected local schedule is to begin at 5:30 a.m., with local news and talk hosted by personality Bruce Cannon.
At 10 a.m., KH2O news director Charlie Johnson (formerly news director at KSTW-TV) will host a two-hour local news-and-issues talk show. Listeners will be invited to call in and join the discussion.
Nationally syndicated programming from the Business News Network will air from noon to 3 p.m. At 3, personalities Manda Culbertson and Jeff Walker host news and talk until 6:30 p.m. The rest of the evening will be devoted to sports programming from the national Sports By-Line Network. More Business News Network is to be broadcast from 3 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.
But the local programming on KH2O is what West and Johnson are most excited about, especially their coverage of local sports and traffic.
“Traffic for Tacoma is usually a small bit at the end of other station’s mostly Seattle traffic reports,” West says. “We, on the other hand, have a fleet of 183 buses at our disposal.”
West is talking about an arrangement KH2O has made with Pierce County Transit. Because the transit system, with its 183 buses, has a huge dispatch center where traffic problems and concerns are called in by bus drivers, KH2O will use two dispatchers from the base to deliver local traffic reports on-air. West has also arranged for a fixed-wing plane from Davis Aviation to deliver traffic reports from the sky. Local sports will be covered by veteran sports radio personality Bob Robertson.
“Our main commitment here is to be a voice for the community,” West says. “We want to serve that need for local news, traffic, and discussing the issues.”
All told, serving that need and getting KH2O off the ground has become one of “nine-day weeks and 35-hour days,” West says.
“I’m probably the only guy in town whose kids tuck him into bed at night,” Johnson says, alluding to his day that begins at 4:30 a.m.
“I parallel this to a basketball team,” West says. “You have a bunch of people who know how to play, but just haven’t played together. On this team, we’ve been practicing, and our first game is Monday.”
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