Public Radio for the Central Kenai Peninsula
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About

About Us:

KDLL 91.9 FM is your noncommercial, public radio station for the central Kenai Peninsula. KDLL produces and airs a variety of local news, entertainment and music programming, as well as airing quality programming from National Public Radio, American Public Media, Public Radio International and BBC Word Service.

Management of KDLL is overseen by a nine-person Board of Directors. Directors are elected by the membership and serve three-year terms.

If you are interested in running for a director seat, call the station for more information at 907-283-8433, or email info@kdll.org.

Mission:

Provide enriching & trustworthy programming.

Vision:

A community of informed critical thinkers.

Purpose:

To inform, engage, connect, & entertain.

Values:

STEWARDSHIP: We are each responsible for wise oversight of all resources entrusted to us.

COMMUNITY: We respect & learn from the diversity of values throughout our community.

KNOWLEDGE: We are a source of educational programming that can bring facts & knowledge to our listening community.

INTEGRITY: We are the source for trustworthy & unbiased journalism.

PROGRAMMING:  We provide content that is relevant, reliable, truthful, & responsive.

SERVICE EXCELLENCE: We are committed to exceeding expectations of those we serve.

KDLL History:

There was a lot to love about the central Kenai Peninsula in the 1970s. The oil boom was in full swing, spurring rapid growth in population and opportunities. But there was still a lot to miss for transplants coming from larger areas of the country.

“You know what this town needs” was a common conversation, as easy a way to pass the time as talking about the weather.

Neighbors Jerry Hanson and Richard Rhoda struck up that conversation in the produce section of the Kenai grocery store in the late 1970s. There was lots to see on the Kenai and getting to be more and more to do as the town developed. But they agreed there was not a lot to listen to. At the time, it was only Kenai Solid Rock Ministries on the radio dial. KSRM offered conservative-leaning news commentary, hits-focused music playlists and quirky local content that wasn’t universally appreciated. Rhoda was not a fan.

“I couldn't stand Tradio. Six-thirty or whenever it was in the morning. ‘I'll trade three chickens for, you know, a Caterpillar operator for four hours,’ or whatever it was,’” he said.

He missed the public radio stations he’d listened to while in college in California.

“And I said to Jerry, ‘You know, there's a meeting next month in Anchorage with the (Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission) and I'm thinking of going and seeing whether or not we can figure out a way to get public radio here,’” Rhoda said. “And I didn't have a clue on the process or anything, but I went to the meeting.”

Rhoda made an earnest, if not completely informed plea for a public radio station in Kenai, not knowing what all went into making that happen.

Turns out, support for funding from the commission was one of the things involved. His request was not warmly received by the commission chair.

“’When I stood up and I told him why I was there he remarked, ‘There's just not money for new public radio stations,’” Rhoda said. “And I said, ‘Uhhhh.’ And I'm sure he said something else, but I sat back down.”

Rhoda just happened to be sitting next to Herb Holeman, who was the public radio engineer in the state at the time, and Holeman’s wife, who was enthusiastic about Rhoda’s idea to bring public radio to Kenai.

“Herb said, ‘There's a way around this. There's a way we can pull it off.’” Rhoda said.

The idea was to start small and grow. Begin with a translator, rebroadcasting public radio programming from KSKA in Anchorage.

“And he said, ‘You know, this isn't gonna cost a lot of money to do. We broadcast the signal from Anchorage, and we can do that on spare change, for practical purposes,’” Rhoda said.

So the idea began. The first necessity was gathering like-minded individuals to help the cause. Pickle Hill Public Broadcasting was incorporated in 1982, following the tradition of public radio organizations taking a name from a local geographic feature.

The initial group met at Hanson’s house. He and Rhoda were neighbors on Strawberry Road, between Kenai and Soldotna. Marion Nelson also lived nearby. Just to the south was the Kenai Spur Highway’s infamous Pickle Hill, so named by homesteaders for causing many a traffic pickle when driving during muddy spring breakup conditions.

The group needed to gather signatures to show local support for the cause. Rhoda and Nelson stood in front of the Kenai Mall with clipboards.

“I just thought, ‘Well, everybody I know is enthusiastic about this project. We gotta see it through, you know? We gotta pull this off somehow,’” Rhoda said. 

The local support helped when returning to the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission. It was a much cheaper sell asking to set up a translator than for annual funding for a full-fledged station, and PHPB was awarded a grant for about $8,000. It was enough to purchase an antenna and a whopping 10-watt transmitter.

“Toaster strength, as we liked to call it,” Nelson said.

With an FCC translator permit granted, it was time for installation.

Johh Lillevik moved to Kenai in 1977 for a teaching job and joined the public radio effort soon after.

“My intro to public radio was going out to hang the antennae and hang that translator,” he said.

Having joined the Pickle Hill Public Broadcasting Board of Directors, Lillevik made the logical assumption he was taking the antennae to the communications tower on Pickle Hill. He was set straight by a worker at the tower who was confused why a random guy toting an antenna and his baby daughter in a backpack wanted to climb the tower. Lillevik had the wrong hill and the wrong tower.

“A long, very involved story went with that, and I wound up being ushered off the hill and sent to Ski Hill to go hang this antenna off a telephone pole,” Lillevik said. “And the first thing that I did was knock all the TV stations off the air with the circuit breaker. It was a humble beginning. Humble.”

The Kenai translator station, called KZCP at the time, began broadcasting KSKA from Anchorage in the 1980s.

“A lot of NPR stuff. They sounded different than they do now, too. Little bit (of local programming) but mostly a lot of classical music, jazz and great music, great stuff. We were happy to have it. We sure couldn’t make any of that ourselves,” Nelson said.

The Pickle Hill crew didn’t have the capacity for any local programming at the time. Not even recording their own voiced station IDs.

“Initially, it was Morse code,” Lillevik said. “So you’d be listening to a Beethoven symphony and then you get this ‘Beep beep bee-beep beep’ — you know, this loop. That was going on and it was driving everyone crazy.”

The initial call letters also weren’t crazy popular. KZCP — it really rolls off the tongue — had to go.

The board hired Tom Murphy, a recently retired drama teacher at Kenai High School, to research other call letter options. This was in the 1980s, long before the Internet could help with the search.

“We hired him part-time to research in Washington, D.C. — whoever, whatever he had to do to get to the archive of call letters,” Nelson said.

If a license isn’t kept up the call letters become available for another station’s use. Murphy was looking for letters relevant to Kenai when he struck green gold, leaning into the pickle theme with KDLL.

Now that it was rebranded, it was time to repower. The initial 10-watt transmitter wasn’t cutting it. KDLL needed a bigger transmitter, its own tower and a place to put it.

PHPB worked with a Kenai legislator, Hugh Malone, to secure a $55,000 state grant. From there, it was up to local fundraising.

Nelson came up with the idea to hold pasta bar fundraisers, offering a delicious dinner and auctions. They were held all over town, from a UNOCAL camp in Nikiski to, most often, the classy Four Seasons restaurant in Soldotna. The dinners proved to be popular and raised the rest of the money needed for the equipment update.

PHPB established a lease agreement with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for land off the Kenai Spur Highway near the east junction of Beaver Loop Road, near the racetrack and gun range. It was swampy but centrally located and came at a cheap cost, given its lack of commercial construction value.

“And we went to that location numerous times, and it’s pretty swampy in there,” Nelson said. “And if you’re part of the public and you’re driving by you wonder what these people are doing out there. So we would joke about what others might think, that we’re doing stuff that is kinda weird, doing drug deals in the swamp off the Spur Highway.”

It took some creative engineering to make the site work. Guy lines secured the nearly 200-foot tower and giant metal girders on concrete pilings held the newly constructed small building that housed the transmitter and other broadcast equipment. It was affectionally called the Shack.

“We had a cele-boost party out there,” Nelson said. “That was great. We had a great civilized party there to celebrate the big boost in power to where we are now.”

Lillevik remembers the beginnings of local reporting on KDLL in the late 1980s. They wanted to do a live broadcast during Kenai Peninsula Borough elections. A reporter was stationed at the Borough Building in Soldotna and Lillevik went out to the Shack to manually patch the signal into the transmitter and return to the KSKA feed when it was over. That part went fine. Leaving did not.

“There was a lot of snow out, so it must have been in November,” Lillevik said. “There was a cyclone fence around it. And there were three moose laying up against the door in the fence so I couldn’t get out, so I spent the night out there. About three in the morning I was able to leave. They finally got up and moved around.”

As the desire for local programming grew, so did the need for a functional local studio. A board member appealed to friends who owned Southcentral Air and leased KDLL office space at the Kenai Airport. The Flightline Studio was born, with a reporter recording stories in between the rumble and whine of air traffic.

From there, KDLL moved to the Kenia Peninsula Economic Development District building on the north edge of Kenai. It was another unconventional studio, an old ARCO shop renovated into office space. But with the help of volunteers and engineers, it became home.

Meanwhile, KSKA became increasingly Anchorage-centric and less relevant to a Kenai audience wanting to hear more content from home. In the 1990s, KDLL entered into a partnership with Kachemak Bay Broadcasting Inc. in Homer to air KBBI programming on KDLL, instead of KSKA. A satellite dish was required to access live and syndicated national programming and KDLL didn’t have the money or a place to site a satellite at the required angle to pick up the NPR satellite feed, so a collaboration was necessary. State funding for public broadcasting had been cut and the partnership with KBBI was an opportunity to share costs and create programming relevant to both communities.

KDLL operated for many years with a station manager and reporter in Kenai, who were managed by KBBI in Homer. As listenership and membership grew in Kenai, so did a desire for more local autonomy. After the retirement of longtime KDLL Station Manager Allen Auxier in 2014, the PHPB Board decided to move more of its own day-to-day management and operations to Kenai, though still partnering with KBBI for its syndicated programming feed. The height of these efforts came in 2015 when KDLL hired a second reporter to expand local hosting and newscasts to mornings, along with the existing evening news.

The morning position was cut after state funding for Alaska public media stations was eliminated in 2019. PHPB initially feared insolvency, since the $74,333 a year loss also jeopardized KDLL’s eligibility for federal funding. But emergency COVID relief funds helped bridge the gap to increasing home-grown revenue.

Growing local support continues to be the keystone to the health of KDLL, and it’s come in many forms over the year. The once-lucrative dinner/auction format became overpopular among many local nonprofits, so KDLL tried other ideas. There was a longstanding Barbecue, Brews and Blues party at the Vagabond. A Medieval-themed pig roast. Oktoberfest at the Kenai Elks. Original murder-mystery parties featuring characters from favorite NPR shows were a huge hit but far too labor-intensive to write for long. KDLL started a summer solstice music festival at the Diamond M Ranch, which eventually morphed into the Kenai Riverfest. The onset of the COVID pandemic paused the spring Carhartts and Xtratufs ball, which returned in 2023.

And, of course, the public radio on-air membership drive has been a staple for decades.

PHPB was especially honored by two large donations in 2020 that established the PHPB Endowment Fund, administered by the Alaska Community Foundation, and a PHPB Investment Fund. With continued donations, the funds can provide operating capital for KDLL into the future.

In 2021, KDLL was accepted into the Report For America program, which assists local organizations in covering “news deserts” across the country. The program gave KDLL a boost in bringing on a second reporter in June 2021.

Making the second reporting position permanent will require a continued increase in sustainable local funding. At the same time, the future of the Shack in the swamp is uncertain. Engineers discovered a lack of stability on the broadcast tower anchors in 2022 that needs to be addressed — to the tune of $50,000 for a temporary fix or upward of $150,000 for a permanent move to drier ground.

They’re not the first challenges KDLL has faced. Nor will they be the last. But KDLL has a 40-year track record of finding help when needed.

“It’s the same reason we (supported it) from the beginning — we really like what public radio brings to the community,” Nelson said. “It just all goes to keeping it going, period. That’s what public media is. I’m thankful for it, for sure.”

Lillevik says KDLL has had a long evolution — one he's happy to hear every time he tunes in.

“You have to have more than the idea that low goals are the secret to success. You have to think big. And always keep pushing to that and also recognize you’re not going to get there right away,” he said. “It was hard work and oftentimes the work came at the wrong time when we didn’t have time to do what you had to do. But we got through it and it was really fun. It was more than fun, it was really great.

“I think that this is a wonderful service and it’s come a long way. It has places to go, and we need to support it as a community.”