Redding Radio, at 3360 Alta Mesa Drive Redding, CA. Photo by Joe Giambrone
Several blocks from my house is a radio station, which I had never thought to enter until I was assigned this story. I don’t listen to the station, although my daughter does. What I was interested in primarily was the station’s approach to news.
Looking at the website for KQMS, “news talk 1400,” I didn’t notice at first how the font mashes together the two words “news” and “talk” into a hybrid thing, “newstalk.” I was actually quite shocked at first sight of Glenn Beck being announced “On Air Now” with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity waiting in the wings for their daily slots. Of course they aren’t “news,” are they?
I would keep those more controversial questions saved up for the latter part of the interview.
Similarly, I kept the discussion of the ownership of the five channels that broadcast out of the Alta Mesa building in waiting, so as to get the preliminaries out of the way.
The five stations are:
KSHA-FM 104.3 “Soft Rock Favorites”
KRDG-FM 105.3 “Good Times Great Oldies”
KNNN-FM 99.3 “Plays Everything Country”
KRRX-FM 106.1 “Redding’s Rock”
KQMS-AM 1400 “News Talk 1400”
“Redding Radio” is said to be a “Mapleton Communications Company.”
Steve Gibson has a deep radio voice with lots of resonance and bass. We talked in his office, next to a crackling police scanner. The scanner transmissions, I learned, are important to the job of a radio newsperson. Steve is a longtime veteran of the airwaves, and quite sharp.
I brought along my new Zoom H4N digital sound recorder, so as to get accurate quotes. Here they are.
STEVE: So, what do you want to know?
JOE: Well, what is your title here? What do you do?
STEVE: Reporter. And I do the five o’clock news.
JOE: On air from here?
STEVE: Mmm, hmmm.
JOE: Do you have an editor? Do you have someone, a boss?
STEVE: There’s a news director, but she– I’m pretty much the only one here all day.
JOE: She’s not here?
STEVE: No. She comes in at 3AM. Works the early shift.
JOE: She goes on air?
STEVE: Yeah, she does the morning news.
JOE: It’s a very scaled down staff.
STEVE: Much more scaled down than it was when I started, yeah.
JOE: Does she check your work before you go on the air, that sort of thing?
STEVE: No. No. That’s impossible, ha ha, ha.
JOE: Couldn’t be done, huh? … So what kind of stories are you covering right now?
STEVE: Well, there’s this fatal crash down in Corning area last night. The way we get our stories, either they come as press releases, but usually we know about stuff before the press release comes ’cause we hear about it on the scanner.
JOE: So you listen to the scanner a lot?
STEVE: Yeah, constantly. So we usually hear about it before it comes to us, but, and the newspaper writes stories directly off the scanner all the time. Because they can, but we can’t because we’re governed by FCC laws, because we talk on the air. The feds have control on what we do because we’re regulated. Newspapers are unregulated because of the First Amendment. We don’t have as many First Amendment rights as the newspaper because we broadcast, and the air is considered public domain. So, we’re a regulated industry. It’s illegal for us to hear something on the scanner and then go on the air and repeat it strictly from on the scanner. We have to confirm it in some way.
JOE: You have to confirm, that’s the law?
STEVE: Either by a witness, or by witnessing ourselves, or talking to a cop, or like talking to an official. There has to be something besides the scanner before we can put it on the air.
JOE: What about using people’s real names on the air. Is that affected? Can you name people by name and then say stuff about ’em on the air?
STEVE: It depends on the nature of the story. The only time that we would decline to name somebody is if they’re dead and they’re awaiting notification of next of kin. Suicides as a rule, I mean journalism-wide, suicides are not covered. We don’t report suicides.
JOE: At all?
STEVE: Out of respect for families. It’s an odd ethical standard, but it’s an industry standard. It really is. I mean unless, unless, somebody, someone takes someone out with them, it’s if a murder-suicide, certainly we name them. Or if they do it in a very public manner. But then we still probably wouldn’t name them. I mean like for example when the guy hung himself from the Sundial Bridge. This was a couple of years ago. We certainly reported that a man hung himself from the Sundial Bridge. We just didn’t say who he was. The newspaper went ahead and said who he was, which I think is unethical. I think it’s wrong. The idea behind that, at least I’ve thought long and hard on this, and I think that the idea behind it is that there are a lot of people out there. Shasta County, I don’t know if you know or not. Shasta County is much higher than the national average of suicides.
JOE: Really? Do you report that?
STEVE: Certainly. I mean, it’s a problem. It’s an epidemic problem in Shasta County. There are a lot of people who are on the fence. Lot of people who are out there who are thinking about it, who are day to day contemplating suicide, thinking about snuffing it, and one little thing like: Well, at least I’ll get my name in the paper. At least I’ll be on the radio. At least I’ll get some notoriety to my otherwise meaningless and empty existence when I kill myself.
JOE: So you don’t want to encourage them.
JOE: I noticed your site doesn’t have any live streaming on the web. Have you guys talked about that?
STEVE: The talk shows. The syndicated, syndicators charge double if you want to stream them on the web. It’s a matter of money.
JOE: So you wouldn’t have enough of your own content?
STEVE: I think they are streaming the news live in the morning.
JOE: Oh, are they?
STEVE: But not the five o clock news in the afternoon.
JOE: Okay. Do you work with other media like the TV stations and the newspaper, or any of those?
STEVE: Only incidentally if we run into them at a scene of a story.
JOE: So you’re running over with a microphone, and you’re elbowing them out of the way.
STEVE: No, it’s not that competitive. I mean sometimes–
JOE: Just joking.
STEVE: Sometimes we’ll share information at a scene, but it’s only if we like each other. I mean. There’s some reporters I like and some reporters I don’t like. And reporters I like, I’ll give ’em a tip. The action’s over there, or here’s what they said. Usually if I do give ’em a tip it’s more to help out the cops or the firemen not having to repeat themselves, than–
STEVE: There’s a professional courtesy.
JOE: Is this a large network? I see there are six stations here in the building right [sic, five]?
JOE: And then what about outside this building, are there more?
STEVE: Yeah. It’s uh. There’s only– The Telecommunications Act of 1994 which was driven through Congress under a banner of keeping smut off the Internet–
(The radio scanner came to life, and Steve was distracted by the commotion.)
STEVE: I’m sorry I pause sometimes to listen to what they’re saying.
JOE: You got a tip?
STEVE: All the parts about keeping smut off the Internet, immediately as soon as the thing was passed everybody realized not only is it impossible, but it’s unconstitutional. And all that was struck off the law immediately. They knew it would be because what they really wanted to go through was the telecommunications part of it which stripped all the regulations and all the rules out of radio. Most of ’em. Most significantly the rules of ownership. It used to be one company could only own one AM and one FM in a market. Period. And they could only own a total of like twelve stations, a single company. That all went out the window, and that’s when we saw the rise of like Clear Channel.
JOE: Yeah, that’s what I was worried about. Do they own this station? Clear Channel and other big conglomerates –
STEVE: No. But, it got to where there were like five companies that own ninety percent of the stations in the country. Maybe fortunately for the industry, radio doesn’t lend itself well to the corporate mindset. It doesn’t lend itself well to Wall Street because when a company is publicly traded they have to justify their value on a regular basis. There has to be a quarterly statement of the value of the stock of that company.
JOE: Mmm, hmmm.
STEVE: Radio is a very intangible sort of a product. It’s hard to lay a value on something you know ’cause the salespeople upstairs–
They got a hell of a hard sales job, because they’re going out and sell–
They don’t have a, ‘Here’s a box of something that I’m selling ya.’ They’re selling potential listeners, potential customers. That’s a hard sell. And being that intangible it’s really difficult to state a value for a radio station. And so a lot of the corporate enterprises, they had to bust up.
JOE: They went out of business? They broke up?
STEVE: Some of them have gone out of business, but mostly just broken apart. This company has a few dozen stations. Got stations in Chico and several cities in Southern California. Medford Oregon.
JOE: Relatively small.
STEVE: But in Redding, there used to be–
There’s two companies that own virtually all the radio stations in town. There’s Results Radio across town, and this company. The only independent, the only non-religious commercial radio station left in town that’s an independent is downtown. It’s Mike Quinn’s station KLXR.
JOE: KLXR is independent?
STEVE: Yes. Independently owned.
JOE: Just one station?
STEVE: It’s a guy named Mike Quinn, and he has kind of taken under his wing this other station, this new station. It’s a news talk station like this station except it’s an upstart. And Mike Quinn has kind of got it under his wing, I mean. It’s owned by these other folks, but–
JOE: Is it part of a larger network?
STEVE: No. No. They’re using his facilities.
JOE: Okay. I’ll have to look into that. Let’s see. Do you go out on location a lot to check out these stories, or do you use the phone mostly?
STEVE: Yeah. I go to all the good ones. If it’s not too far away I’ll go and check it out. Often that’s the only way to get the story. By and large cops and firemen, they don’t have to cooperate with us. There has to be a rapport. We have to go and, you know, make contact, and pump it out of ’em.
JOE: Does your news go out on all the six [sic, five] stations here?
STEVE: In the morning Erin [Myers] cuts headlines for the other stations. It plays during their morning drive times.
JOE: You don’t post stuff to the Internet too, so you have your headlines up there to click on?
STEVE: We used to, and there’s a place on the website for that. But there’s often just not enough stories. There’s not enough, because there are six spots on there for headlines. Maybe two out of five days of the week there’s something interesting enough to fill all those. Just a little tiny blurb of a headline.
JOE: What’s the biggest story you’ve covered, ever?
STEVE: Oh Jeesh. All the big murders. Probably the helicopter crash that killed the firefighters in Trinity County. The visit of president, when ‘GW’ came and visited, I got to go and I was one of two reporters in town who got to go for a ride.
JOE: Did you ask him questions?
STEVE: No. There was no questions. No question and answer period. There was no. There was thousands of people along Airport Road. He didn’t even look over there. And I got to ride in a, with the rest of the press, in a helicopter, because he was taking a helicopter tour of the fires. Well he went in the really nice helicopter, Air Force Two or whatever you call it. The limousine helicopter. We in the press went in this big old Marine Corps helicopter. It was a stomach turning experience.
JOE: Ha ha ha…
STEVE: The White House press corps was there too. They ride around in Air Force One with the president.
STEVE: The White House Associated Press correspondent, the national correspondent, was sittin’ across from me on this helicopter puking in a bag the whole time. It was that churning, yeah. It was ridiculous and so stupid. We had to wait out there all day, run through all the Secret Service security. It was ridiculous. He flew in on a big fat airplane, wasted a bunch of helicopter fuel and manpower and time– I just can’t imagine how much money it costs just for him to stop in to Redding for that little brief: ‘Oh yep, it’s all burned up.’ It’s obscene. And when I think about everywhere the president goes, that circus has to go along, it’s just gross.
JOE: Are you doing any long term investigations?
STEVE: No. Not really.
JOE: Okay. Do you have particular advertisers who sponsor the news portion?
JOE: You do? How does that work?
STEVE: If a client wants to sponsor the news or some portion.
JOE: Would a political campaign or something? Would they qualify?
STEVE: No, no. Rules with political advertising, very tight. If a, for one thing we in the newsroom want to be as divorced as possible from any political advertising that’s playing. If we have a guest in who’s running for office and it’s within sixty days of the election, we have to provide equal time for their opponent — for all of their opponents.
JOE: Hmm. Is that still the rule?
JOE: Didn’t the Supreme Court recently overturn that?
STEVE: No. It’s still a rule.
JOE: Okay. Do you have aspirations to go on to other, bigger stations? Anything like that?
STEVE: I have a family. I grew up in Redding. I lived here all my life.
JOE: You like it here?
STEVE: Mmm hmm. There’s just nowhere bigger to go.
JOE: Not here.
STEVE: Not here in Redding.
JOE: What’s the funnest part of the job?
STEVE: Goin’ on scene and checkin’ stuff out.
JOE: Drivin’ around and checkin’ out the story?
STEVE: If a fire is, it’s over-rated–
JOE: You go right up to the front lines there?
STEVE: Oh yeah. It’s lousy for-
It’s kind of a paradox in–
JOE: Because it’s radio, and you don’t have any pictures of the fire?
STEVE: Well yeah, yeah. But, you find yourself hearing sirens, and thinking: ‘Oh, drag, somebody’s having a bad day, hope everything’s all right. Then you think ooooh … It’s kinda sick.
JOE: Do you have a philosophy about this stuff, news and broadcasting?
STEVE: I got all kinds of philosophies. I got an opinion about everything, dude.
JOE: How about responsibility to the public, the public interest?
STEVE: I think that people turn to us and expect us to provide a relatively unbiased account. I think it’s our responsibility, professional responsibility, and personal responsibility. I mean just like if anybody I knew or didn’t know walked up to me on the street and, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on over there?’ I’m not going to b.s. ’em. I’m going to tell them what’s going on over there. It’s a matter of personal integrity as much as anything else.
JOE: Can people just phone in tips, and you go on that? You check them out?
STEVE: Oh yeah. Sure, sure. I mean we wouldn’t hear a phone-in tip and go on the air with it. But I often have gotten good stories from people who call and say, ‘Hey, you know what’s goin’ on?’
JOE: So you’re accessible. You’re not hard to reach.
STEVE: No. Not at all. Not at all. I’ll pick up the phone anytime and check something out.
JOE: What do you gauge to determine if it’s newsworthy or not?
STEVE: That’s a more tricky question than it seems, because ‘news worthiness’ would be the things that people need to know, the knowledge people need to have to maintain their lifestyles, their freedoms, their right to an open society. There are a lot of stories that we report that people don’t really need to know. They’re just interesting. So while the rule is stories that affect the most people would be the most newsworthy, the fact is if it bleeds it leads. It’s an old saying in news, and that’s an unavoidable fact.
JOE: Do you have to abide by that? You have some choice in the matter?
STEVE: Of course, of course I have choice but –
Do you want to hear about something that was debated last night in the City Council meeting? Sure.
JOE: If it’s important.
STEVE: Sure. You want to hear about it, but you’ll hear about that after you hear about the plane crash, right? I mean, what are you going to turn to first? The results of the council meeting or the plane crash? We’ll get to the council meeting, sure, but you want to hear about the plane crash, first.
STEVE: ‘Cause that’s a big deal.
JOE: As long as there’s room for both. Right?
STEVE: Well certainly, there’s room for both.
(Steve turns and monitors the scanner, and he tries to follow the current action.)
STEVE: Chasin’ a guy with snow chains–
But sensationalism is–
There’s a fine line between sensationalism and humanity.
JOE: Okay, good quote. Did you ever have any stories that got pulled?
STEVE: No. I have very often opted not to cover a story for various reasons.
JOE: Which reasons?
STEVE: Usually because, because to report it would negatively affect a particular person in a way that outweighs the public’s need to know. Like the suicide thing. That’s why we don’t cover suicides, because it causes more pain to the family, and you don’t want to provide notoriety to the person who killed themselves as an incentive for other people to commit suicide.
JOE: Did you ever get in trouble for covering something?
JOE: What about legal issues, copyrights, lawsuits? Anything like that?
STEVE: Some news organizations, Channel 7 has been sued a couple of times for libel. All news stories have to have either–
Any statement made in a news story has to have either a qualifier or an attribution. A qualifier meaning reportedly, allegedly. Attribution is according to. “CHP says…” Either somebody said it, or it was reported that. It has to be you qualify it in some way. You can’t say, “this happened,” unless somebody’s already been convicted of a crime. You know. Jack allegedly murdered Bill until Jack is convicted, and then Jack murdered Bill. And that protects us from getting sued.
JOE: Have you ever had a meeting with, like, the owners to tell you to, you know, to stay away from something? Or to cover something? To emphasize something? Some way influence your editorial?
STEVE: The owners don’t know this business as well as I do, ha ha.
JOE: So they just stay out completely?
STEVE: They’re not even in town.
JOE: They’re not even in town? They don’t even listen? Okay.
JOE: All right. So then I’ve got to get to the right-wing syndicated pundits that are on the air here.
STEVE: Mmm hmm.
JOE: They seem to violate every tenet you gave me about fairness and–
STEVE: That’s another department altogether, uhm. I’m a news guy.
JOE: But they call it a news station, but then all these guys–
STEVE: It’s a news-talk station. There’s the talk part, and there’s the news part, and they’re completely separate. Totally separate as a rule, they’re totally separate. I mean I’m not listening to Rush. I can’t stand listening to Rush. Sean Hannity drives me up a wall. My God, I can’t stand that man. He’s–
JOE: So how do we get someone to critique these guys on the air?
STEVE: The national syndicated talk shows?
JOE: Yeah. How do we get somebody to call these guys out, and get ’em on the air here?
STEVE: They’re entertainment.
JOE: You can say that.
STEVE: I mean, don’t. You’d have-
You’d have to be a fool to think that Rush Limbaugh is a news source.
JOE: There’s a lot of fools out there.
STEVE: It pains me to think how many people. Because he works on conjecture. A perfect example of Rush that I heard recently was, last year when they were shuttin’ down some Chrysler dealerships, when the feds took over control for a while the Chrysler, and they made ’em downsize the company some, and shut down a bunch of Chrysler dealerships.
STEVE: Classic example of what Rush does. In the first 20 minutes of his show … (in Rush Limbaugh parody) “I’m gonna make a suggestion. I don’t have any evidence of this. Nobody’s been saying this. This is just an idea, a suggestion, perhaps a, this may occur. What if? And I’m not saying that it’s true or that there’s any evidence of it. But what if? Republican-owned Chrysler dealerships are being targeted for closure? Not that anybody is accused, or made this accusation, or there’s any evidence of it, or…” By the end of that three hours of his show it is carved in stone FACT, dead cold fact that that is occurring in the minds of millions of people.
JOE: What do we do about that?
STEVE: Well, what can we do about that?
JOE: Kick him off the air, right here.
STEVE: It’s a free society. He gets great ratings.
JOE: He gets on the air, but people who call him out and explain what he’s doing don’t get on the air.
STEVE: They do if they get good ratings.
JOE: Well, who is that?
STEVE: You’ve got to realize this is a money business.
STEVE: Money sinks or swims on listener-ship. This is a very right-wing area. Rush gets through-the-roof ratings.
JOE: He does, huh?
STEVE: Mmm hmm. I used to do a talk show with Ray Roberts who does the morning. He does a show in the morning now, eight til nine. He and I had a show for several years … And he was the right wing Republican, and I’m bleeding heart, bleeding heart libertarian I called myself. And I got into heated, heated arguments with these ditto heads about this stuff, but–
And you know I think I slowly pried some of their minds open a little bit, at least offered them alternatives to the bullshit they had been feeding themselves, and learned a lot about talk radio while doing it. It was a lot of fun.
JOE: As I go on the website here, I see Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck…
STEVE: There’s no alternative. That’s what I enjoyed about it. I was the only bleeding heart voice, the only voice of opposition in Shasta County, arguing against. These people would be just vicious, and venomous in their attack.
JOE: I think they’re fascists, personally. I think they’re fascistic, and that’s their agenda. It’s pretty clear.
STEVE: Mmm hmm. Well sure.
JOE: Tune in any time, there they are.
JOE: They could be in Nazi Germany, I mean. That’s how they sound. That’s what they seem to have modeled their approach on.
STEVE: Mmm hmm.
JOE: What do we do about it?
STEVE: What can we do about it?
JOE: Save us, news man.
STEVE: There’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, I tried. I did that talk show for years. And, a little bit, I think. But I’ll tell you one thing. It’s a lot easier to do a political talk show when you’re in the opposition party. I wouldn’t want to do a talk show now.
STEVE: I would find myself constantly having to defend the moves of the Obama administration, and many things a sitting administration does are indefensible. Because of information that we don’t know.
JOE: It seems that there’s been a constant slide, that there’s no way to fight back. You know.
STEVE: Sure there is. You turn the radio dial.
JOE: Oh, I don’t listen to the regular radio. Except music over the internet radio.
STEVE: But you want to regulate what other people hear?
JOE: Well. My opinion is that there was a Fairness Doctrine, and that if these people are spewing their views then the other side should have a chance to counter–
STEVE: But this is commercial radio.
JOE: It’s also the public airwaves. You said so yourself, the FCC. The Fairness Doctrine was–
STEVE: I’m familiar with the Fairness Doctrine. It’s dead.
JOE: How do you feel about the Fairness Doctrine?
STEVE: I think it would be difficult to make a cogent argument for the Fairness Doctrine in a free enterprise system, and that’s what we live in, a free enterprise system.
JOE: Well, all the airwaves don’t have to be allocated that way.
STEVE: They’re not. There’s a whole bunch, a whole big part of the bandwidth down at the lower part of the bandwidth that’s public radio.
JOE: Most of them are churches now, we have around here.
STEVE: Jefferson Public Raido and Chico.
JOE: That’s the only one, I believe, right?
STEVE: There’s two. There’s Jefferson Public Radio, and there’s out of Chico too.
JOE: Oh, Jefferson’s out of OreGON?
STEVE: Oregon. Don’t ever say OreGON.
STEVE: You’re new to this area?
If someone from Oregon heard you say OreGON, they’d slash your tires.
STEVE: I don’t know. It angers them.
JOE: Where I was from, there’s a bunch of college radio stations on that part of the dial.
STEVE: There’s not a big market for college radio stations.
JOE: Well, we’ve got a pretty big college right here where I go. They could have a radio station.
STEVE: Well then start it up, man.
JOE: I’d like to.
STEVE: Get it rolling.
JOE: Yeah. I don’t have a good radio voice.
STEVE: I went to Humboldt State. I was on Radio Free Humboldt.
JOE: Oh yeah? We need more like that, I think.
STEVE: Yeah, but they don’t make any money.
STEVE: And it takes a lot of money to run a radio station. Lot of cash.
JOE: If you have the license, that’s half the battle right there, right?
STEVE: No. The equipment is very, very difficult to maintain. To purchase, first off, and to maintain the equipment.
JOE: How much do you think that costs a year?
STEVE: I haven’t a clue. I don’t know.
JOE: Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?
STEVE: Hundreds of thousands. Millions. It’s crazy big money.
JOE: How many watts is this station?
STEVE: KQMS is only a thousand watts.
JOE: One thousand?
STEVE: Mmm hmm.
JOE: Does AM go farther on less power? Is that how that works?
STEVE: AM is shorter waves, so AM towers are always in populated areas. They’re always in the area that they want to broadcast to. Because it’s short waves so it runs out, you know. It burns itself out, but it covers an area.
STEVE: FM is a much longer wave, so FM towers are always on tops of mountains. Up on South Fork is where most of our transmitters are. South Fork up by Whiskeytown Lake. A thousand watts from an FM transmitter on top of that mountain wouldn’t even cover Whiskeytown Lake.
JOE: Are you familiar with the Internet radio, that there’s a lot of out there now, as a competitor?
STEVE: No. It’s not really seen as competition.
STEVE: Who listens to Internet radio?
JOE: Well, I do.
STEVE: While you’re doing what?
JOE: Well, at home always.
STEVE: Most people don’t spend a lot of time at home, for one thing, as much as you do as a student. Most radio listening is done in a car or at work.
JOE: I hear the newspapers and radio, others, complaining about the death of journalism, and the death of media. They’re not getting money. There are hard times. That sort of thing.
STEVE: Who’s not?
JOE: Well, definitely the newspapers. A lot of them are going out of business. Is that affecting you?
STEVE: That’s ’cause they’re just not selling enough newspapers.
JOE: And maybe that’s good for radio? The advertisers?
STEVE: No, I think it’s bad for everybody when a media dies. When a media declines. What the newspaper does, what they do is a little different than what we do. We have to digest a story into about a minute, what we can read in about a minute. Two minutes if it’s an in-depth story. I have a hard time keeping my stories short enough, but–
JOE: Are there interview shows on the air? Live interviews?
(The police scanner began to interfere.)
STEVE: Yeah. Three or four nights a week I have–
What the hell are they talking about? I’m missing this–
Two or three nights a week I have somebody in for the last ten minutes of the five o’clock news.
JOE: So you get one interview for ten minutes several times a week? What kind of people do you interview?
STEVE: Cops. Spokespeople of organizations. Veterans groups and other kinds of groups. Anybody who wants to.
JOE: So they can contact you and try and get in?
STEVE: Yeah. Sure.
(The scanner went ballistic.)
JOE: Okay, cool. I don’t want to distract you from your job there.
STEVE: I’ve got to figure out what they’re talking about.
JOE: That is plenty. Thank you.
STEVE: Good luck.
Joe Giambrone is a writer, filmmaker and a Shasta College communications student who’s a member of college newspaper staff. He is married and has a daughter.