FM Stations Down on Gibraltar Peak

[Update: 11:20 AM Wednesday 18 January] Well, I woke this morning to hear all the signals from Gibraltar Peak back on the air. I don’t know if the site is on generator power, or if electric power has been restored. This pop-out from a map symbol on Southern California Edison’s Power Outage Awareness Map suggests the latter:

However, I am listening right now to KZSB/1290 AM’s FM signal on 96.9 from Gibraltar Peak, where the show hosts are detailing many road closures, noting that sections of Gibraltar road are “down the hill,” meaning not there anymore, and unlikely to be fixed soon. I think I also heard them say their FM transmitter is on generator power. Far as I know, they are the only station covering local road closures, buildings damaged, farms and orchards damaged, and related topics, in great detail. It’s old-fashioned local radio at its best. Hats off.

Looking at the power requirements up there, only two stations are high-power ones: KDB/93.7’s transmitter pumps 4.9kW into a stack of five antenna bays that yield an ERP (effective radiated power) of 12.5kW, and KDRW(KCRW)/88.7 uses about 5.9kW to produce 12kW ERP through a stack of four antenna bays. Those are on the poles at the right and left ends of this photo, which I shot after the Jesusita Fire in 2009:

All the other stations’ transmitters require less wattage than a microwave oven. Three only put out ten watts. So, given typical modern transmitter efficiencies, I’m guessing the site probably has a 20kW generator, give or take, requiring about 2.5 gallons of propane per hour. So a 500-gallon propane tank (a typical size) will last about 200 hours. Of course, none of that will matter until the next outage, provided electrical service is actually restored now, or soon.

[Update: 3:34 PM Monday 16 January] Two news stories:

  1. Edhat: Gibraltar Road Damage., by Edhat staff, Januraly 11, 2023 12:30 PM. It’s a collection of revealing Gibraltar Road photos that I wish I had seen earlier. Apologies for that. This is the text of the whole story: “A resident of Gibraltar Road shared the below photos from the recent storm damage. A section of the road appears to be washed out with a Tesla trapped under some debris. The Tesla slide is located approximately a quarter mile past the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead and the washed road is about a mile past the radio tower before reaching the west fork trailhead.” If “mile past” means going uphill toward East Camino Cielo on the ridge, that means travel was (and is) impeded (at the very least) in both directions from the transmitter sites. The photos are dramatic. Please check them out.
  2. NoozhawkSeveral Radio Stations Still Off the Air After Storm Knocks Out Power to Gibraltar Transmitter Site by Giana Magnoli, by Managing Editor Giana Magnoli, January 16, 2023 | 1:47 pm

From the Noozhawk story:

  • “… they’ve helicoptered up a new battery and 600 gallons of diesel fuel to the site’s backup generator, but they haven’t been able to get it to work.” I believe this is for lack of the expected banjo valve. (See below.)
  • “Southern California Edison, which supplies power to the transmission towers site, first reported an outage for the Gibraltar Road area at 2:34 a.m. Jan. 9, the day of the big storm.” That was Monday. At least some stations would have switched over to generator power then.
  • “Repair crews haven’t been sent to the site yet, according to the SCE Outage Map, but Franklin said he heard there could be new poles installed this week.” That’s John Franklin, who runs the whole Gibraltar Peak site.
  • “KCLU (102.3 FM) went off the air on Wednesday and was still off as of Monday.KCLU (102.3 FM) went off the air on Wednesday and was still off as of Monday. KJEE (92.9 FM) went down for several days but came back on the air on Thursday.” Note: it’s not on now—at least not on the radios I’m using.
  • “Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Kelsey Gerckens Buttitta said there are cell and radio station towers off Gibraltar Road that requires fuel to operate, and Gibraltar Road and East Camino Cielo Road are closed because of slides, debris and slipouts.” Fixing those roads will be very difficult and time-consuming.

The story also lists signals I reported off as of last night. One correction to that: K250BS/97.9, which relays KTMS/990, is on the air. This I presume is because it’s at the KTMS/KTYD site. All the signals from that site (which is up the road from Gibraltar Peak) are still up. I assume that’s either because they are fed electric power separately from Gibraltar Peak, or because they are running on generator power.

[Update: 11:40 AM Monday 16 January] In a private group discussion with broadcast engineers, I am gathering that a stretch of Gibraltar Road close to the Gibraltar Peak site has collapsed. The location is 34°28’05.2″N 119°40’21″W, not far from the road into the transmitter site. This is not the section marked closed by Santa Barbara County on its map here. It is also not an easy fix, because it appears from one photograph I’ve seen (shared on a private group) that the land under the road slid away. It is also not the section where power lines to the site were knocked out. So we’re looking at three separate challenges here:

  1. Restoring electrical service to Gibraltar Peak, and other places served by the same now-broken lines
  2. Repairing Gibraltar Road in at least two places (the one marked on the county map and the one above)
  3. Getting generators fueled and fixed.

On that last issue, I’m told that the site with most of the transmitters can be powered by a generator that awaits what is called a banjo valve. The KDB facility requires propane, and stayed up longer than the others on the peak while its own supply held up.


Gibraltar Peak isn’t the highest landform overlooking Santa Barbara. At 2180 feet, it’s about halfway up the south flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains. But it does provide an excellent vantage for FM stations that want the least obstructed view of the market’s population. That’s why more local signals come from here than from any other site in the region.

Except for now: a time that began with the storm last Tuesday. That’s when power lines feeding the peak were broken by falling rocks that also closed Gibraltar road. Here is a list of signals that have been knocked off the air (and are still off, as of the latest edit, on Sunday, January 15 at 11:15PM):

  • 88.7 KDRW, which has a studio in Santa Barbara, but mostly relays KCRW from Santa Monica
  • 89.5 KSBX, which relays KCBX from San Luis Obispo*
  • 89.9 K210AD, which relays KPCC from Pasadena by way of KJAI from Ojai
  • 90.3 KMRO-FM2, a booster for KMRO in Camarillo
  • 91.5 K218CP, which relays KAWZ from Twin Falls, Idaho
  • 93.7 KDB, which relays KUSC from Los Angeles (down after running on generator power for 5 days)
  • 96.9 K245DD, which relays KZSB/1290 AM in Santa Barbara
  • 97.9 K250BS, which relays KTMS/990 AM in Santa Barbara (and is on a KTMS tower, farther up the slope)
  • 98.7 K254AH, which relays KPFK from Los Angeles
  • 102.3 KK272DT, the FM side of KCLU/1340 in Santa Barbara and KCLU/88.3 in Thousand Oaks

KTMS/990AM, KTYD/99.9FM, and K231CR/94.1, which relays KOSJ/1490AM, are still on the air as of Sunday night at 11:15pm. Those are are a short distance farther up Gibraltar Road. (In the other box in the photo above.)

Here is a guide to substitute signals for some of the stations:

  • KCRW/KDRW can be heard on KCRU/89.1 from Oxnard (actually, Laguna Peak, in Pt. Magu State Park)
  • KDB can be heard on KDSC/91.1 from Thousand Oaks (actually off Sulphur Mountain Road, south of Ojai)
  • KCLU can be heard on 1340 AM from Santa Barbara and 88.3 FM from Thousand Oaks
  • KPCC can be heard on KJAI/89.5 from Ojai (also transmitting from Sulphur Mountai Road)
  • KSBX/KCBX can be heard on 90.9 from Solvang (actually Broadcast Peak)
  • KPFK can be heard on its home signal (biggest in the U.S.) from Mount Wilson in Los Angeles at 90.7
  • KZSB can be heard on 1290 AM from Santa Barbara
  • KMRO can still be heard on its Camarillo main transmitter on 90.3

The two AM signals (marked green in the top list above) are strong in town and most of the FMs are weak but listenable here and there. And all of them can be heard through their live streams online.

Published stories so far, other than this one:

The Independent says the site is a “relay” one. That’s correct in the sense that most of the stations there are satellites of bigger stations elsewhere. But KCLU is local to Santa Barbara (its anchor AM station is here), and the ratings reflect it. I wrote about those ratings a few years ago, in Where Public Radio Rocks. In that post, I noted that public radio is bigger in Santa Barbara than anywhere else in the country.

The most recent ratings (Spring of 2022), in % shares of total listening, are these:

  • KDB/93.9, classical music, relaying KUSC/91.1 from Los Angeles: 7.9%
  • KCLU/102.3 and 1340 in Santa Barbara (studios in Thousand Oaks), public broadcasting: 7.3%
  • KDRW/88.7 in Santa Barbara (main studio in Santa Monica, as KCRW/89.9): 4.6%
  • KPCC/89.9, relaying KJAI/89.5 and KPCC/89.3 in Pasadena: 1.3%
  • KSBX/89.5, relaying KCBX/90.1 from San Luis Obispo: 0.7%

Total: 21.8%.

That means more than a fifth of all radio listening in Santa Barbara is to noncommercial and public radio.

And, of all those stations, only KDB/KUSC and KCLU-AM are on the air right now.

By the way, when I check to see how public broadcasting is doing in other markets, nothing is close. Santa Barbara still kicks ass. I think that’s an interesting story, and I haven’t seen anyone report on it, other than here.


*Turns out KSBX is off the air permanently, after losing a coverage battle with KPBS/89.5 in San Diego. On December 29, they published a story in print and sound titled Why is 89.5 KSBX off the air? The answer is in the atmosphere. They blame tropospheric ducting, which much of the time makes KPBS come in like a local signal. Also, even though KPBS’s transmitter on Soledad Mountain (really more of a hill) above the coast at La Jolla is more than 200 miles away, it does pump out 26,000 watts, while KCBX puts out only 50 watts—and less in some directions. Though the story doesn’t mention it, KJAI, the KPCC relay on 89.5 for Ojai, is audible in Santa Barbara if nothing else is there. So that also didn’t help. By the way, I’m almost certain that the antenna identified as KSBX’s in the story’s photo (which is also one of mine) is actually for KMRO-2. KSBX’s is the one on the left in this photo here.

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