Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the most unusual station tours we've ever had on a "Big Trip" came at one of the most unusual radio stations we've ever visited. Back in April 2011, we made a one-day, 500-mile drive from Las Vegas eastward to Grants, New Mexico to be in position to spend most of the next day in Albuquerque - and we thought that by the time we pulled into Grants, at close to 10 PM local time, the town would be locked up tight and we wouldn't get to see much of anything.
A couple of hours out, though, we called up the local radio stations, KMIN (980) and KDSK (92.7), just to see if a tour might be possible in the morning before we continued on to the east - and lo and behold, station owner Derek Underhill not only answered, but invited us to stop by whenever we got into town. Fortunately for us, Wednesday night happens to be the night that Derek does the "Knuckleheads Show," a live late-night simulcast with his buddy "Insane" Darrell Wayne at KTHO up at Lake Tahoe, and so as long as we hit Grants before 11, Derek would be there and happy to show off the station.
Derek has a long and colorful history in broadcasting: growing up in the San Fernando Valley in southern California, he built a pirate radio station that eventually went legit by merging with a local cable FM operation known as "KD Radio," and by 1998, he'd taken over the KD Radio operation and brought its oldies format to the internet. In 2000, Derek took his dream of station ownership to rural New Mexico, buying KMIN and what was then known as KAIU(FM) and changing the FM calls to KDSK to pay homage to the original "KD Radio" in California.
Ever since then, Derek's been having a great time playing radio out here in Grants. He installed his "Sound Souvenirs" oldies format first on KMIN before swapping formats in 2004, turning KMIN into classic country and KDSK into oldies. In the studio facility, part of a strip mall on Roosevelt Avenue in Grants, Derek built a veritable radio museum, filling the fr0nt rooms with old radios and studio gear and the back rooms with a remarkable record collection. The KDSK studio sits at the front of the hallway, looking out to the parking lot, and KMIN's small studio sits just behind it. Look carefully over the KDSK board: yes, that's a vintage RCA 77DX mic, and yes, it's in regular use!
Some more history? Of course: KMIN signed on in 1956, named either for the uranium mines that were and are Grants' main industry or for "Min," the wife of the station's first owner. Don Davis, the New Mexico broadcast entrepreneur who sold the stations to Derek in 2000, had briefly moved (or at least applied to move) KMIN from a daytimer on 980 to a fulltimer on 1400 before returning KMIN to 980 with 250 watts at night and 1000 watts by day, non-directional. Davis ended up with two other signals in Grants as well as 980 and 92.7: he had also owned the station on 100.7 that was known as KZNM and KQEO before eventually becoming Catholic KXXQ, changing city of license to nearby Milan and targeting the Albuquerque market. Davis also went back on AM in the Grants area, securing a construction permit for a Milan-licensed signal first on 1130 and then on 1100 as KQNM.
In just the last few weeks, Davis and Underhill have completed a swap of transmitter sites and frequencies that landed a power increase for KMIN. Here's how it played out: KQNM slid down the dial one more notch, from 1100 to 1090, returning to the air after a long silent period as a 250-watt daytimer operating from the longtime KMIN site just south of I-40 on Ice Caves Road (NM 53). KMIN, in turn, moved to the former KQNM 1130/1100 site, east of Ice Caves Road about two miles to the south. That move allowed KMIN to boost day power from 1000 watts to 5000 watts, augmented now by a translator, K244DT, on 96.7 FM.
KDSK-FM, for its part, was operating from a tower west of Ice Caves Road and just south of the old KMIN tower, but it too has a power increase in the works, with an upgrade from C2 to C1 that would relocate it to the side of Taylor Mountain, east of Grants and considerably closer to Albuquerque - where "Sound Souvenirs" is also now being heard on KDSK (1240 Los Ranchos de Albuquerque), a small AM signal Underhill purchased in 2012. (KMIN also had a brief Albuquerque AM simulcast, showing up for a few months last year on one of Davis' recent upgrades, then known as KMYN 1510.)
What else is on the air in Grants? Not much: there's KIDS (88.1), relaying Albuquerque public station KANW (89.1), and EMF has Air 1 outlet KDRI (90.3 Grants) and K-Love outlet KVLK (89.5 Milan). (Another Air 1 outlet, KQRI 105.5 Bosque Farms, began as a Grants station, carrying K-Love as KQLV, before moving east to the big city; another former Grants signal, KYVA-FM 103.7, moved westward to the Gallup market with a new city of license of Church Rock.)
And things keep changing in Grants: that 96.7 translator has apparently relocated to 107.3 to make room for a new Grants-licensed full-power FM, KMYN 96.7. There's also a new noncommercial station, KKGT 91.9, that picked up the "JenniRadio" all-kids format from 1240 in Albuquerque when that station became KDSK(AM), and we'll see what that's all about in our next installment, which takes us the final 75 miles or so eastward into New Mexico's biggest market.
Thanks to Derek Underhill for the tour!
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Next week: Albuquerque, NM, 2011 (part 1)