KHOI is marking its fifth year of locally-run radio today after years of financial and creative change and challenge.
KHOI’s story began in 2007, when the Federal Communications Commission briefly opened an application window for non-commercial radio stations to secure a frequency in their local area after a 20-year freeze.
Station manager Ursula Ruedenberg said the window was likely the last chance to try for a station for years, so a group of volunteers led by KHOI founder Roger Parmenter applied for a frequency. Parmenter moved from Colorado around that time to be closer to his grandchildren, but Ruedenberg said he moved back to Colorado right before they started to broadcast.
“As far as I’m concerned, he came here just to get this done for us,” she said.
They eventually got permission to broadcast in 2009.
In the meantime, the volunteers scrambled to appoint a board of directors and hire engineers. KHOI wasn’t able to build its own tower; it instead used a never-before-used radio tower between Roland and Story City.
“Joe [Lynch, chair of KHOI’s board] and a few other people went to Iowa City to a second-hand cell phone tower yard and bought a little house, and drove it back to Ames,” she said. “We kept it on a lot on the south side of town for a year, had to pour concrete and a foundation for it.”
Their first broadcast was Aug. 17, 2012, and KHOI remains the only group broadcasting from that tower.
As a shoestring operation, KHOI’s volunteers had to improvise to get their content on the air in their downtown location, a former dry cleaner. There wasn’t a dedicated studio built yet, so producers would hang quilts from the ceiling to build a makeshift soundproof studio affectionately called “the tent.”
There also wasn’t a connection from the Ames office to the tower, so volunteers would produce their content, load it onto a USB stick, drive to the tower and broadcast from there once or twice a day for the first year and a half.
“Downtown Ames was a swamp and had low elevation, so we can’t see our tower from our roof,” Ruedenberg said. “So we had to find a tower high enough to make that connection.”
The Story County Community Foundation later granted KHOI the funds to connect the two sites.
In 2013, an anonymous donor gave KHOI the money to build a dedicated set of sound booths. A local architecture firm and construction company offered expertise in building the new walls, while volunteers laid the drywall and installed the equipment.
“There was literally nothing in the back room,” Lynch said.
Ruedenberg said raising money was particularly difficult because potential donors weren’t really sure what exactly the station was going to become and weren’t accustomed to a community-owned radio station.
“They gave us enough money really to get rid of us,” she said with a grin.
But in between those struggles, Lynch said hundreds of people learned the empowering feeling of putting their voices on the radio for the world to hear.
Lynch’s wife teamed up with a friend to produce a show about food and farming about three years ago despite having no radio background. Since then, the duo have won two international awards for shows they’ve produced at KHOI.
“That’s the perfect example of someone with no background, no interest and no understanding putting her behind a microphone and she just shines,” he said.
After five years on the air, KHOI still faces many challenges. Lynch said the tower is still susceptible to lightning strikes killing the signal.
Fundraising also continues to be a challenge for the station. Other than a few underwriters and some grants from the Story County Community Foundation, the station is listener-funded. That reliance on donors has kept the station in precarious financial straits.
“It’s very challenging, and to be frank, KHOI has not completely resolved its model,” Ruedenberg said. “Every year, we’re trying to figure that out.”
But the money struggles don’t appear to hamper dreams of what the station could in the eyes of its volunteers. Ruedenberg said the station is working on hiring a full-time station manager (she operates on a volunteer basis) and having its own news department.
Ruedenberg also said the station’s local growth has been slow as people hesitate to take the leap into broadcasting.
Currently, the station’s content is split into half between talk and music from local producers, the other half coming from other community radio stations in the U.S. that are part of the Pacifica Foundation.
“It’s been very kind of gradual, natural growth at KHOI,” she said.
The station, Ruedenberg said, is still a leap of faith for many people volunteering their time as KHOI still works to find a stable identity creatively and financially.
But when asked if they’d do it all over again, Ruedenberg and Lynch both gave an emphatic yes.
“Even if the station failed tomorrow, I’d say it’s been worth it because of what’s happened so far,” Ruedenburg said. “You just never look back once you start doing it.”