We put it on the air because Malibu is a very strange radio location – we are a bedroom community of Los Angeles, but mountains block LA FM signals from the 12,000 residents living along 30 miles of scenic Pacific Coast Highway – a major commuter route. We get San Diego and Tijuana FM. Always good to know that the northbound border wait at San Ysidro is “dos horas.”
In most of Malibu, LA market stations are blocked by mountains. Most people who listen to radio here listen to San Diego stations, 140 miles over the ocean, not always a listenable signal.
We applied for an LPFM license with the naive idea of putting an NPR station on the air in Malibu. Malibu is the only municipality in Southern California with no usable NPR signal in most of the city. We thought, NPR has tiny affiliates all over Alaska that run the network with volunteer staffs. We could run NPR all day.
We got a license. But no NPR.
NPR was originally cooperative, then one of the nearby NPR stations found out and raised objections to NPR programming on a radio station in Southern California — its turf. This was even though that station does not over one inch of Malibu with its air signal, and has made no moves to put a booster or translator here in 60 years of operation.
After 12 months of hemming and hawing, NPR finally came up with an answer: no NPR member station status unless KBUU has 5 full-time employees. We have 79 watts, we cover half of Malibu, our annual budget is $10,000 and we have zero paid employees. Given that financial impossibility, NPR said we could instead purchase their programming — but only for broadcast use, not for Internet transmission. The huge expense, and the limited use, is an effective “no.”
So we went on the air in February, 2015 with no NPR. We carry top-of-the-hour network news (the California Report) mornings from KQED in San Francisco. We run “Democracy Now!” from Pacifica evenings at 5. And we run 10 minutes of locally-produced, locally-written news 8 times each weekday. The newscasts are updated all morning, the scripts are posted on the web in several places.
We have gone “all news” 4 or 5 times, for major brushfires or traffic crashes that close Pacific Coast Highway and cut the city in half. When PCH was closed at 2 a.m. for a lengthy fatal traffic crash investigation, we took the overnight music format down and ran a 3-minute report … over and over again … until our regular news coverage began at 6 a.m.
Instead of NPR programming, we sound like a modern rock station with a heavy local news commitment. We monitor the same music industry journals that the big stations do, and add new AAA music as it drops. One of our liners is:
“With more rock than K-R-O-Q, and more Alt than Alt 98.7, we are LA’s alternative alt music. 97 point 5 K B U.”
We play AAA music until 5 weekdays, a tropical jazz show 6-7, and then community programmers take over for evening hours. Sundays and Mondays are superb jazz/blues/latin jazz shows. Saturdaynights are 60s-70s rock which has fans around the world and up and down the beach. We have electronic rock late at night, Americana other nights. High school kids get one night. Local musicians and funk another night.
We carry the LA Philhramonic concerts produced by KUSC in Los Angeles Sunday mornings. Glorious. We carry American Parlor Songbook, a great comedy show from KVCR/San Bernardino. We carry Le Show Sunday afternoons.
The studio is in a bedroom at the general manager’s house. I think we are the only FCC-licensed LPFM in a house. The license hangs at the front door per FCC regulation. We have a 25-year-old radio sound board that KCRW inherited when it bought KDB in Santa Barbara, and gave to us (thanks!)
The program hosts do not come here. They file their music tracks and voice tracks to our secure server via VPN. The KBU control machine “Jaws” goes to the server and loads the shows, then plays them back at the proper time. All the backup storage is offsite.
We have 5,500 songs in the library, categorized in 48 music categories, 168 hours a week, each different. New music plays fourtime times an hour during the daytime rock hours, it is pre-announced with a zinger and a staff announcer (my sweet wife) front selling “New music NOW on 97.5 KBU … [artist name/song title].”
If we like the song, or if the song starts getting played on the stations where we watch music adds (KROQ, KFOG, XETRA, WXRT, KCRW, KXRN), then after 2 weeks we rotate it to a power hits, acoustic hits or just plain hit category, and pull the news music zinger off it. After a month there, it rotates to a recurrent power/acoustic/rock hit rotation. We also sprinkle in AAA hits, 70s FM hits, 60s top 40, and other “alt” music going back to Louis Prima.
If a new song is not a hit, we may keep it, or may spike it.
We are breaking many artists. Local musicians go to the head of the line. That’s easy in Malibu, from local garage bands to Tom Petty or Bob Dylan. But garage bands and local singer/songwriters get played here too.
Two weeks ago, KBUU was paid the ultimate compliment. The GM walked in the Zuma Beach lifeguard tower headquarters on business. A boombox in the corner played an unfamiliar song, then my voice doing a liner: “On the air, on the web, on the beach. We’re 97.5 KBU.”
“Oh yeah,” says the lifeguard. “We always listen to Radio Malibu. It’s dope to have a local radio station.
Read more about us here:
Hans Laetz loves seven things, and two of them are news (42 years) and Malibu (19 years). He has been working as a reporter, photojournalist, editor, radio news director, and TV news assignment editor since Richard Nixon was in office, an event that scarred him for life.
Laetz was editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat in Tucson, and news director at KTUC and KNST. He won numerous reporting awards, including Arizona AP Broadcaster of the Year, before moving over to television at KOLD-TV in Tucson in 1983.
CBS News brought him to Los Angeles in 1986, he was West Coast assignment editor for the network for three years, then an assignment editor at KCBS-TV for another 3. A 15-year stint at KTLA followed, then three years at KABC-TV.
Laetz took a buyout in 2014 and went to law school, while working as a newspaper reporter for the two Malibu weeklies and the Ventura County Star. He worked as a legal writer and environmental consultant for private clients, and has been a paid intervenor to the California Public Utilities Commission as he participated in rewriting the state’s overhead utility pole rules, following a disastrous brushfire in Malibu.
He was working at Channel 5 almost two decades ago, when his radio crapped out at Topanga Canyon Boulevard, heading home. He spent the next 17 years plotting revenge against the people of Malibu and the FCC.
In 2014, the FCC opened a window for applicants for low-power FM radio stations, designed to cover a six-mile circle in localized areas. Laetz formed a non-profit group, and KBUU was born.
Laetz serves as the station’s general manager, programmer and volunteer coordinator. His wife, Diane, is a school teacher. Two of his three daughters help at the radio station, the third is studying in Germany. All four are remarkably supportive and tolerant about the radio station in the spare bedroom.