So this South Dakota high school kid with some ham radio experience was listening to a college radio station in the early ’70s, only to find it off the air one summer.
“I was maybe 17 at the time. I called ’em up, and they told me the transmitter was broken,” he recalls. “So I asked them if I could try and fix it for them. And I did.”
That’s how KVMR 89.5FM chief engineer Dave “Buzz” Barnett’s first encounter with radio went decades ago. Now in the second year of his first full-time radio engineer job, he’s relishing some of the challenges that are coming with it.
For instance, he’s intimately involved with equipment plans for the Nevada City radio station’s new digs, which are about to arise across the street from the station’s current Spring Street location in the coming months.
“This job is clearly an opportunity to make kind of a difference,” said Barnett, a longtime volunteer engineer at KKUP-FM in Cupertino and seasoned professional in networking, microwave and video engineering. “As far as I’m concerned, KVMR is the epitome of what’s good in radio. It’s live. It’s local.”
“People wouldn’t be volunteering in such numbers here (150 active broadcasters) if they didn’t believe in what this station is doing,” he said.
An engineer at live music festival broadcasts like the Strawberry and High Sierra festivals in recent years, Barnett likes teaching the art of such remote broadcasts to volunteers so they can take over the task.
“The goal of a chief engineer should be to work himself out of a job,” reasons Barnett, 56. “The more information you feed to others, the better off the station is.”
And that leaves him more time to deal with other tasks such as signal issues and interference from nearby stations.
“Our mission is the best possible reception for all listeners,” according to Barnett, who suggested antenna placement, different kinds of radios and possibly different KVMR frequencies as possible solutions.
Since Barnett took the job at the nonprofit, non-commercial station, two new frequencies have been added with a full-power station in El Dorado County near Camino and Placerville at 88.3FM and a low-power station in the Woodland/Davis/West Sacramento area at 104.7.
According to him, KVMR might potentially get up to four more frequencies in the region based on applications the station has made for additional low-power “translators” to fill in troublesome reception areas and add new listener territory.
Oh, and then there’s those pesky studios.
“Just think, we probably have more on-air broadcasters than all commercial stations in Sacramento combined,” said KVMR Program Director Steve Baker.
With so many volunteers broadcasting on air, with widely varying “skill sets,” and with around-the-clock live broadcasts from its studios, Barnett notes, “There’s lots more wear and tear on equipment.”
That includes turntables, a unique feature of the station studios that are long gone from almost all radio stations these days but require special care.
OK, but wait. Where did the moniker “Buzz” come from?
“In a radio drama at a college FM station, I played a character named Professor Buzz Burns who invented a machine that could shrink people down to the size of a transistor. Somehow, the name stuck,” he said.
And what a “buzz” that has created.
KVMR’s cramped and outmoded studios are in for quite the workout this Saturday afternoon.
Host Wesley Robertson has the possibility of four, count ’em, four music groups performing live at the station during his “Rockin’ & Stompin’” program (2-4 p.m. Saturday, 89.5FM, kvmr.org streaming).
Singer-songwriters Michael McNevin and Juliet Gobert are due in at 2, local favorites Paul Kamm and Johnny Mojo, plus Keith Greninger (formerly of City Folk) and bluegrass artist Keith Little play in studio at 2:35 p.m., and the jam bands Poor Man’s Whiskey and The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit are tentatively scheduled for the 3 p.m. hour.
The station’s studios will be 50 percent larger in KVMR’s new headquarters with a separate on-air performance space that could seat up to 40 people.
A weekly wrap-up of news and oddities about community radio station KVMR (89.5 FM, kvmr.org streaming), a noncommercial station offering diverse musical programming, independent news and provocative public affairs from about 150 volunteer “citizen-broadcasters.” A video about the station’s new building is at vimeo.com/63303996 Complete program listings are available at kvmr.org.