Signal clearing

North State Public Radio ready for new GM—and transmitter

Phil Wilke, shown this week at KRWG Public Media in New Mexico, moves to the North State in August.

Phil Wilke, shown this week at KRWG Public Media in New Mexico, moves to the North State in August.

Photo courtesy of Phil Wilke

When Phil Wilke made the leap from print journalism to public radio, he joined a station accustomed to a particular bit of misfortune: transmitter trouble.

Once, a vandal with bolt cutters snapped the guy wires supporting Kansas Public Radio’s antenna, which toppled to the ground. Within the week, a boom operator accidentally knocked down the temporary replacement tower.

By the time Wilke came aboard in 2001, some 20 years later, those incidents had settled into lore. However, springtime lightning strikes are so common to northeast Kansas that KPR perennially sends crews to electrified transmitters.

“I’ve never been involved in something that intricate,” said Wilke, whose media manager position focused on sales, not engineering. “That’s where you’ve got to have great staff who know what they’re doing so they can maneuver around all the technical issues that present themselves.”

Wilke finds himself in such a situation now.

Monday (June 25), Chico State announced Wilke’s hiring as general manager for North State Public Radio. He’ll start in August after moving from Las Cruces, N.M., where he spent two years as director of membership and community outreach for KRWG Public Media—provider of public radio and TV in southern New Mexico and west Texas.

His arrival should coincide with a new transmitter for NSPR. Since April, broadcasts in the southern half of the market—served by Chico-based KCHO/91.7 FM and several “repeater” channels—have wavered because the main transmitter in Cohasset incurred damage. Chester, Greenville, Hayfork and Westwood have been mostly off-air; communities closer in have experienced weaker signals.

The northern reaches of NSPR, emanating from Redding’s KFPR/88.9 FM, remain unaffected.

“We’ve gotten calls,” NSPR’s Jonathan Coke said, “we’ve answered everyone, and for the most part we’ve told them the same thing: ‘The solution is not happening quickly enough for us, either.’”

The station had to order a piece of custom equipment, manufactured in Canada and shipped from Maine. It’s scheduled to arrive by mid-July, at which time technicians from the manufacturer will install it and engineers from NSPR will get it turned on.

“It should be plug-and-play,” said Coke, the underwriting sales manager. But the engineers will be prepared for troubleshooting if needed; plus, the project also involves a new cooling system.

The problem stemmed from overheating. Just ahead of the spring pledge drive in April—ominously, on Friday the 13th—station staff noticed what Coke called “degradation of the signal, of the sound quality” on their personal radios.

Engineers isolated the issue to the Cohasset transmitter, a 35-year-old piece of equipment utilizing tubes instead of solid-state technology like the replacement. What should look like “a glossy, golden-colored radio tube looks more like a toasted marshmallow,” Coke said.

“We thought that we could just replace the damaged part,” he continued, “but the part was so damaged that it damaged the rest of the transmitter housing and [other parts] inside.”

Turns out the air-conditioning had broken down; “we didn’t know it, and heat is really bad—really bad—for electronics.”

The replacement transmitter equipment costs $40,000. Because of a deep discount and donation from underwriter Royal Aire, the cooling system will cost just $6,000.

Wilke’s first day as GM will be Aug. 20, at which point the new transmitter should be operational. He’ll play a part in the project, however, as NSPR is making an investment—which he supports—in infrastructure.

The transmitter replacement constitutes about 60 percent of a $75,000 commitment to technology. Coke said the station also will procure monitoring devices that hopefully will forestall such catastrophic failures.

Public radio stations run lean; NSPR is no exception. Additional funding will be required, but Wilke deems this venture significant, saying: “You have to be ready for all the contingencies.”

Or, as Coke put it: “A radio station is exactly like a crying baby that never sleeps. It’s on 24 hours a day, and it does require constant attention. It’s not like you get to plug it in and forget about it.”

Wilke, 57, grew up in New Jersey before studying journalism and broadcasting at the University of Kansas. He worked at two papers in Lawrence, Kan., before going into radio—in fact, he continues to write freelance articles and columns.

NSPR is his first GM job. His two previous stations resemble ours: university-sponsored with large, predominantly rural footprints. He’s been listening to NSPR online for a month (at and said he’s “amazed at how good the station is with as small a staff as they have … that is a remarkable operation.

“I don’t have grand plans for Day 1 to change this, that or the other thing—not by any stretch. My first job is to learn all the immediate priorities.”