When the power went out last Thursday afternoon, the number of news sources accessible to many San Diegans dwindled down to one: radio station AM 600 KOGO.
TVs and computers stopped working. Cell phones struggled to make calls or get online. And much of the radio dial turned to static as at least a dozen stations vanished from the airwaves, in some cases failing to reappear until the next morning.
KFMB-AM and KPBS-FM, the region’s two other news stations, both went off the air, although KFMB returned by the evening. Until then, KOGO almost entirely dominated the local news world. Its staffers were a lifeline to many, piecing together what was happening during the blackout’s first minutes, when San Diego Gas & Electric remained incommunicado.
The blackout spotlighted just how much the county’s emergency news broadcasting relies on KOGO. Both KOGO and its emergency-alert system backup, a sister sports talk radio station called KLSD/1360 AM, are housed in the same building and use transmitters that are less than two miles apart.
Now, however, KPBS is poised to provide another backup. The station, which went off the air during both the blackout and 2007 wildfires, is buying a $10,000 mobile unit that will allow it to stay on the air during a disaster even if its transmitter and studios are damaged. KOGO has a similar mobile unit, although it didn’t need to use it during the blackout, when generators powered its studio and transmitter. (Both stations are news partners of voiceofsandiego.org.)
The unit, expected to arrive in the next few weeks in time for wildfire season, will allow KPBS to broadcast at limited strength in a power outage, said spokeswoman Nancy Worlie, meaning it would only reach part of the county. The station hopes to buy generators that will keep its transmitter on the air if the power goes out. It wants to study becoming the county’s backup emergency alert station, she said. (KOGO’s sister station, KLSD, currently has that designation.)
Emergency alert stations, which are designated by the Federal Communications Commission, must be able to stay on the air in an emergency even if the power is out. Radio markets are supposed to have two designed alert stations: a main one and a backup.
KPBS plans to get a federal grant that would pay for a generator for its television broadcasts, and then the station would pay another $200,000 to add generators for the radio station, she said.
Station employees were talking about the generator plan when the power went out Thursday. “This didn’t just came up because of the power outage,” Worlie said. “It’s part of our long-term plan to be a news service for the community.”
During last week’s blackout, KOGO allowed KPBS’s reporters to appear on its broadcast and report on the outage. The switchover is reminiscent of the 2007 wildfires, which knocked out service at KPBS’s transmitter on East County’s Mount San Miguel. KPBS broadcasted on a different frequency, using the signal of music station KBZT — “FM 94/9.”