Ham radio enthusiasts launch low-power FM station from Cooper Mountain basement

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Ken Seymour and his son John, right, explain how to work the controls of the new KQRZ radio station in the basement of Ken's Cooper Mountain house. The modern notion of a “man cave” evokes a dimly lit basement cavern featuring a recliner, a flat-screen TV and miscellaneous objects symbolizing the dweller’s pet passions.

The subterranean oasis in Ken Seymour’s Cooper Mountain home has many of those traditional trappings, but his self-described man cave features an element most others don’t — a fully functional FM radio station. Boom-style microphone? Check. Multi-track audio console? Check. Computer loaded with digital music files? Got it. Taping equipment and record turntable? Powered up and ready to go.

With his cohorts from the Oregon Amateur Radio Club, Seymour launched KQRZ — broadcasting with 5 watts of power at 101.5 on the dial — in mid-September.

What club members tout as the first low-power FM station in the Washington-Multnomah-Clackamas county area delivers a mixture of eclectic oldies and classics — largely culled from their personal collections — along with technical and amateur radio news. Entertaining commentary is delivered courtesy of club member DJs “The Vegetable Man” and “Johnny Hurricane.”

“We play oldies and ham radio headline news,” Seymour says. “We realize a lot of listeners are not into ham radio, so the rest of the time is pretty much music and comedy interspersed.”

New horizons

While there’s plenty of room for music, fun and games in the station’s current 24-hour, semi-automated format, Seymour and his fellow radio enthusiasts see KQRZ expanding — through collaborations with a school or local service agency such as Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue — into a multi-faceted community-based forum.

A school affiliation, for example, could offer broadcasting opportunities to students, while connecting with the fire district could lead to enhanced emergency preparedness and response in the area.

“We’re playing oldies right now, but we want to expand it,” says Seymour, an engineering manager for AT&T and ham radio fan since childhood. “We’re just getting started. Our long-term goal is to hook up with a school, such as Aloha High School, Valley Catholic or Beaverton High School. We just haven’t had time to explore.”

Long, winding road

The current KQRZ format more or less mirrors that of its sister station, KORC, which broadcasts from Newberg at 102.9 MHz on the FM dial. Launched in 2009 by another ham-radio organization, the Western Oregon Radio Club, the low-power station takes advantage of a low-power broadcasting spectrum the Federal Communications Commission opened in January 2000.

The FCC’s Low Power FM radio service authorizes the creation of low-wattage stations dedicated to noncommercial educational broadcasting.

Though unprotected from interference from higher-powered stations nearby, KQRZ, whose signal emits from a hilltop transmitter in Beaverton, can be picked up around the city and into West Slope, Cedar Hills and the Hillsboro area.

With open frequencies a rarity in a radio-rich market such as Portland, it took years of paperwork, applications and governmental bureaucracy to bring KORC and now KQRZ to the airwaves. Seymour admits after about six years of waiting for the FCC to open a suitable frequency, the club members had their doubts.

“The FCC had a waiver (for us), and we felt like ‘Is this worth it?’” he admits. “But we realized we were already in that long, so let’s go through the motions and see what happens with us all doing our thing.

“Ten years later,” he adds with a laugh, “here we are.”

Seymour and his airwave partners started testing the equipment on July 22, and KQRZ started its 24-hour broadcast on Sept. 9. Seymour’s basement studio is augmented by a similar setup at “The Vegetable Man’s” house in Beaverton. The two broadcasters take turns programming shows of the scheduled as well as spontaneous variety.

Laugh and learn

While Seymour shies away from on-air shenanigans himself, his son John chips in on production work, recording jingles and announcements, as well as helping out with administrative tasks and managing the station’s new website.

“I worked as a DJ when I was younger,” Seymour says. “I prefer not to. It’s more fun for me to see the thing running and see someone else have the controls.”

Ron Polluconi, a fellow member Oregon Amateur Radio Club member and technical services supervisor for the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency, said the station concept sprang from an interest in promoting amateur radio culture as well as public safety.

“The way we discussed it, we’d like to have a local community station that not only makes you smile but makes you think,” he says. “It’s a combination of music, bits of TV shows — you occasionally hear Dean Martin in there — some amateur radio news.

“To bring a little more community awareness,” he adds, “we may bring in an agency, perhaps Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. So we’re not just providing entertainment but being informational.”

Polluconi, whose uncle and father were radio operators, respectively, during World War II and the Korean War, says he was collecting radio equipment by age 12.

“Up until today, I’ll fall asleep listening to short-wave radio broadcasts, overseas as well as local. For me, it’s more of a listening side of things. That’s been my fascination,” he says.

Riding the waves

Although bringing KQRZ to the airwaves was a group effort, Polluconi credits Seymour with carrying the torch from concept to at least semi completion.

“Ken loves broadcasting,” he says. “Ken went off and did all the work and research, determining what it was going to take in terms of equipment. The rest of us are contributors in different ways. I’m doing some mixes, working with music. Ken is the driving force behind the low-power FM station. It’s a passion for him.”

From his “man cave” studio, where vintage ham radio equipment shares space with classic vinyl LPs, CDs and personal memorabilia, Seymour says he continues to seek out old equipment, such as a vacuum tube broadcast console and a commercial grade turntable to bring the station a classic feel and identity. Meanwhile, he looks forward to elevating KQRZ to a higher, community- and safety-oriented purpose in a public venue.

“We have to have a local place where people can go rather than one person’s house,” he says. “But we have to take it one step at a time.”

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