Glacier City Radio KEUL: Twenty Years of Thriving (and Surviving Earthquakes)
By Robert Foran III
If you live in the Girdwood area, then it’s probably understood that Glacier City Radio (GCR) 88.9 FM KEUL has been tuned into your radio dial as your dependable source for hyper-local news, a wild variety of music, information on local events and more.
On a typical day, KEUL can be heard throughout nearly all of Turnagain Arm, an area home to six listening communities. If it weren’t for the wall of Chugach Mountains that rise over 6,000 feet in spots along Turnagain Arm, Anchorage would likely be able to pick up the signal.
Glacier City Radio recently celebrated two 20-year anniversaries. 2017 marked 20 years since they launched as a pirate radio station in 1997. Then when it became fully licensed and began broadcasting legally the following year, 2018 marked twenty years of KEUL as Girdwood’s community radio source. In fact, KEUL is one of the most successful small run, commercial free radio stations in the state.
“Everybody in the industry is surprised that we can put on a class A radio station with a minimalist amount of money.” said KEUL General Manager/Jazz & Electronic Music Director Lewis Leonard.
GCR started as an experiment through the Girdwood Community Club—both managed by Leonard. The Girdwood Community Club is a nonprofit corporation that advocates for community gathering, education, music and arts projects and spreading information across the Turnagain Arm, so a radio station was started to transmit that information.
Leonard said, “I’ve always been interested in radio, communications, music and electronics.”
Leonard didn’t have much training from courses or instructors toward the radio business directly, but a little research and a strong interest in the field went a long way for him.
He enrolled as a student to three universities studying relevant subjects toward radio starting at UAF. There, Leonard became a volunteer audio engineer where he engaged with various broadcasting and sound work.
Leonard told a story about a broadcasting test he took saying, “The first test that was given, I finished it, looked up around the class and everyone still had their heads down taking the test.” Leonard remembered thinking, “Oh geez, did I miss the whole concept of this test?”
After rechecking his work, Leonard answered extra credit questions. When his test was returned with a 97, the extra credit was not graded. Leonard confronted his teacher and asked why they were not considered. The teacher laughed and replied, “No one gets a 100 percent in my tests,” but acknowledged the answers were correct.
Leonard left Alaska to continue his studies at the University of Colorado where he researched electrical and aerospace engineering. He then went onto the University of Houston where he changed his major to Drama and Theatrical Lighting Design, all while still remaining involved with communication projects. Absorbing a lot of information in college helped his future plans take shape.
He said, “While I was there, I thought I’d start a radio station out of Anchorage.” So he did—and co-founded KSKA with Jim Parsons during the 1970s. Parsons owned the right piece of gear to get the station rolling—a “pirate FM transmitter” Leonard called it, ordered from a hobby shop catalog. Through the support of Aurora Community Broadcasting, KSKA was born and the endeavor became a great success throughout the city and the entire state, whereas today listeners know it as Alaska Public Media 91.1 FM.
When the 1990’s arrived, Leonard and the Girdwood Community Club formed an idea to start their own radio station. In 1997, equipment arrived from all corners of town and soon the club broadcasting as Glacier City Radio on air at 88.5 FM—but illegally. The station was a hit and word quickly spread as listeners and DJ’s came forth to support GCR.
They were pirates on a sea of radio waves. The community was small (around 1,500 then), GCR figured they might slip under the radar, and they did until the FCC showed up unannounced and discovered what was happening, forcing GCR to pull the plug.
When the community heard and recognized the station’s imminent FCC shutdown, leaders and residents rallied and provided all the support needed to get their local station functional again. Too many businesses and people depended on it.
Four months after GCR filed for the needed licenses for legal broadcasting, the paperwork was complete and they gained the right to start again as KEUL, where they reinvented themselves and picked up where they left off—hardly missing a beat from their ten-month hiatus.
There have been no further encounters from the FCC beyond their 2000 visit to inspect the revived station, and these days the FCC no longer has representatives in Alaska. KEUL has since maintained a clean record of following the given guidelines—but still posses a pirate radio persona.
Leonard is still the overseer of all operations managing as Chief Executive Engineer—but Leonard openly calls himself the “CEE,” with the last ‘E’ standing for ‘everything.’ In the industry, that ‘E’ normally stands for engineer, but Leonard said, “I’m a lot of other things too, so let’s call it everything.”
Leonard says, “Everybody at the station is a key player.” Based on the fact that community members are that ones keeping GCR alive through their time and talents is precisely why they are viewed as valuable contributors and family members at the station. Leonard declared, “That’s real.”
On a yearly average, there are around fifteen active volunteer DJs, with personnel fluctuating between summer and winter seasons. Evenings into the night and weekends are the most popular times to hear live DJ’s. When someone is not live, their is an eclectic library of music in the R2DJ system, with much of it from a mountain-sized amount of CDs that are either mailed to the station, from personal collections or Alaskan bands looking for local play.
There are also outside sources to use for programming. Leonard said, “We have access to the Pacifica radio stations and their affiliates now, which is interesting to explore.”
The community and the station are one and strive to help each another. That mentality came through when people did not fail to act when KEUL recently needed help. Like countless amounts of other establishments in Alaska, KEUL’s studio shook and suffered minor damage from the M7.0 earthquake on November 30, 2018.
“It was pretty trashed inside.” Leonard recalled. “Everything that could be moved inside the station moved about six or seven inches to the south.” This included heavy objects like desks that two people wouldn’t be able to easily move. The movement unplugged a critical power-plug that left the station inoperable for over an hour.
Leonard said, “When the whole broadcast desk moved it unplugged the power-plug out of the floor. It was in the last place I’d go to look for it.” It took him thirty minutes to recognize why the studio wasn’t operating. When Leonard returned the plug into the socket, all systems were a-go and KEUL was back on air assisting the community and working with the local Fire Department.
According to Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue (GVF&R) Fire Chief Michelle Weston, there were no major assistance calls to respond to the day of the earthquake. But Weston asked the community what radio station they were listening to for local information. When many responded with sources other than KEUL, she reiterated that Glacier City Radio 88.9 FM was the one the Fire Department was directly communicating with and should be their main, local source for emergency information regarding the earthquake.
Although power was on at KEUL, the emergency alert system antennas were destroyed, and thousands of CDs fell to the floor. Two-thirds of their music library was in shambles and needed to be reorganized. When Leonard shared some photos of the damage inside the studio with Fire Chief Weston, she and a helpful crew of assistants came to help the neighboring station.
“Within an hour we had thousands of CDs picked up, recategorized in boxes, and when they left I just thought, ‘Wow, did that really happen?” Leonard said with glee.
Later that night, the funky reggae party DJ’s who also serve as Alyeska Pro Patrollers, heard about the condition of the station and came over to complete the clean up. By the end of the day, KEUL was back in full business. The cooperation that transpired blew his mind.
“When you’re standing in the middle of it all and thinking, ‘How are we going to deal with this?’ and to have two separate groups come in to say, ‘Here’s how you do it.’—it was incredible.” Leonard said with a sigh of relief.
Lewis Leonard and the KEUL staff wanted to extend personal gratitude toward Fire Chief Weston, (GVF&R), Alyeska Pro-Patrol and everyone in the community who helped get the station back on its feet.
KEUL is made possible by supporting members of the station. “It’s from the generosity of the community that proves that.” Leonard said. “It’s the volunteers, the donations of time, money and equipment that make it all work—and most of all [Alyeska] resort for hosting our transmitter.”
To help fund Glacier City Radio 88.9 FM KEUL, visit glaciercity.us where you can find out how to donate, KEUL’s Facebook page, contact information and more. KEUL is also available to receive donations from your PFD through CLICK.PICK.GIVE. at pickclickgive.org.