Malibu Radio Station Works Around NPR Complications

All things considered, Hans Laetz isn't sure he'd go the NPR route now.

When L.A. Weekly this spring profiled Hans Laetz, owner and operator of tiny Malibu radio station KBUU 97.5 FM, there was this hopeful scenario:

Not only is it the only local radio station in Malibu, but it’s the smallest radio station in Greater Los Angeles in terms of wattage, and will be the smallest NPR affiliate station in the world, once Laetz finds a place to put a 27-foot NPR dish in Malibu. “We’re launching this in stages,” says Laetz.

Eight months later, Laetz is in a holding pattern with regards to what would be a most notable NPR distinction. He’s got the satellite dish, but his ability to possibly complete the hook-up has been hampered by several factors.

“The two NPR member stations closest to us – KCRW/Santa Monica and KCLU/Thousand Oaks – have been most generous to us and supportive of our mission,” Laetz tells FishbowlNY via email. “We are using surplus studio equipment that KCRW generously donated.”

“A third Los Angeles-area NPR member station, which does not put any broadcast signal whatsoever into Malibu, appears to be behind the decision at NPR to deny KBUU reasonable access to NPR News,” he adds. “It has asserted territorial exclusivity for “Southern California” but has, in its 50 years-plus of broadcasting, never extended its signal to Malibu.”

“It has, however, recently purchased a defunct Christian format station in the Santa Barbara-Ventura area and is now supplying them with their fifth NPR signal. Still – no NPR for Malibu. We have offered that station space on our transmitter for a Malibu booster. No response. Amazing!”

The other NPR issue involves the public broadcaster’s membership requirements for radio stations. A minimum of five full-time employees is needed, which for lower-power (LPFM) stations like Laetz’s, is a threshold that cannot feasibly be met. The second option offered by NPR is licensing the programming.

“The NPR stations that control the board have apparently set up a new ‘KBUU rule,’” Laetz says. “Licensed programming cannot be webcast. A large percentage of our listeners are on the Web, because Malibu has mountains and the LPFM signal only covers 70 percent of the city.”

“So, with a six-mile signal range, we would face a gigantic NPR licensing fee to acquire NPR News – and no possibility of ever gaining enough listener support or underwriting support to pay it.”

The good news is that Laetz has moved on and says he is doing quite well without NPR. He carries hourly morning news from KQED’s California Report and also broadcasts Pacifica’s Democracy Now! weekday evenings at 5 p.m. He’s figured out how to pipe in press conferences and such from the White House, and is very proud of how he covered the Paris attacks.

“We carried live reports from English-language radio in Paris and had better coverage than NPR or any other radio station in L.A.,” Laetz says. “Three times now we have gone to an all-news format for local disasters.”

Add in 40 hours spun by various community DJs, weekend L.A. Philharmonic concerts piped in via KUSC, weekly variety show American Parlor Songbook and more, and well, Laetz isn’t sure he would still go the NPR route. “Frankly, if NPR came to us today with a reasonable offer, I would have to do a survey to see which way to go now.” All in all, an eventful and impressive beginning for KBUU-FM, which was licensed and launched in 2014.

For the moment, a donated satellite dish sits in pieces under the KBUU-FM tower, in an olive grove on a ridge that overlooks Malibu. Laetz tells us about $20,000 of gear would be required to make the dish operational, on top of the yearly NPR licensing fee.
[Photos courtesy: Laetz]

@hollywoodspin Richard Horgan is co-editor of Fishbowl.