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Why one Anchorage radio station's been playing the same Bill Withers album 24/7 for more than a month

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: July 13, 2016
  • Published July 12, 2016

If you like the sweet croonings of soul singer Bill Withers, you'll love KONR. As of this writing, the low-powered FM station has been playing Withers' 1971 album "Just As I Am" continuously, day and night, for more than a month.

"It's one of the greatest albums of all time," said Jason Sear, the de facto program director. But the selection has more to do with necessity than with aesthetics. KONR, 106.1 mhz, is a volunteer radio station with no volunteers.

KONR has a bumpy history. Out North, an alternative arts organization headquartered in the old Grandview Library on Debarr Road, began exploring the possibility of launching its own nonprofit station in the 1990s. According to the FCC website, the application was granted in August of 2009. It signed on — sort of — in 2012, playing forest sounds while it got its programming act together.

But at the end of July 2013, Out North closed up shop, laid off its staff and, within a month, pulled the plug on KONR.

"We got it back on the air two years ago," said Sear. But without enough people willing to commit to manning the board, the product was spotty. "You can't go dark and keep the license," Sear said. "So I loaded the album on my iPod, added some station IDs and it put it on a loop."

Sear, who was previously a broadcaster in Chicago doing traffic reports among other duties — "The worst job I ever had," he said — originally came to Alaska to work at public radio KDLG in Dillingham. The community station reawakened his love of the airwaves. "Radio's like the last free medium out there," he said.

He moved to Anchorage, where he is now the online director for KTVA, and learned of the struggles at Out North, just up the street from the big commercial television station. He joined the board as one of three directors a year and a half ago.

"We're all volunteers and we all have day jobs," he said. (Sear is also the drummer with the Hannah Yoter Band and regularly performs with other groups.) "We have to schedule the building, take tickets, man the concession stand. It's not easy."

But at least the building's not dormant. The art gallery hosts regular shows. Performances still take place in the black box theater. Video crews rent the space for film work.

"If there's one thing we want people to know, it's that Out North is open," Sear said. "It's been open. Our finances are stable. We can't buy stuff, but we can pay the bills … just barely. We're small, but we can get it done."

Get it done with some help, that is. Sear had to recruit friends to help shovel the flat roof after a heavy snowfall.

Then there's the radio station. When Sear came on board it was located in a scuzzy green room in the cramped backstage area that was really needed for a dressing room. "Can you imagine trying to interview someone in here?" Sear said as he showed off the room.

He moved the studio to a former office in the building, brightened up the walls and updated the furnishings. KONR now boasts a couple of computers, a serviceable 14-channel mixer, CD player and equalizer. The magic motor of the operation is a Barix box about the size of a pack of cards. Technically, it's an Extreamer multiprotocol IP audio de-/encoder, used for internet radio and VoIP applications. It feeds the signal to the antenna used by Alpha Media, owner of KFQD, KWHL, KBRJ and several other commercial radio properties in Anchorage.

KFQD, with 50,000 watts, is among the most powerful radio stations in the country. KONR, on the other hand, operates at 100 watts, the power of a good garage light bulb. Get too far from the antenna and you may not be able to pick up the signal. Sear said the license allows them to boost the power to 300 watts. But that's not his main concern at this time.

"Our immediate goal is to bring in as many volunteers as possible," he said. "Ideally I could get at least 12 hours of local content during the daytime."

Local programming would be augmented by whatever free programming the station could pick up. "People really miss 'Democracy Now,' " the national independent news program hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Sear said.

Running a station with volunteers is no cinch, as Sear learned in Dillingham. "People agree to do a shift and they're really excited for a week. Then they don't show up." The most important skill of a radio broadcaster is having the commitment to show up on time. Other than that, Sear isn't terribly picky about what a volunteer might want to bring to the station, although it would be preferred for the programming to harmonize with Out North's mission.

"At one time it was seen as a venue for LGBT issues," he said. "That's probably not so necessary now when we have mainstream theater doing shows that would have been considered controversial once upon a time. But we're still committed to creating an art space for the underrepresented. And look at where we are — Mountain View, Airport Heights, Russian Jack. We're in the middle of the most diverse neighborhood of the most diverse city in America. Out North is like a car that's been sitting in neutral. And we're very lucky to have this radio station."

But without volunteers, lucky listeners can expect to keep hearing Withers singing "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" over and over again.

How's that going over with the listeners?

"Oh, people are noticing, all right," Sear said. "One woman told me that she met her boyfriend right when we started it and they've been tuned in ever since. She told me, 'It's been the soundtrack to my courtship.' "

The station can be heard online at outnorth.org.

People interested in finding out more about KONR and volunteering at the station can email outnorthradio@gmail.com.

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