By Raiza Giorgi
Listeners know that if they want to hear talk radio, they’ll find it on AM stations. And if they want music, they’ll leave the tuner on FM.
However, local radio station owner Shawn Knight flipped that script when he flipped the switch on 106.3 FM, which brings his AM talk-radio station KUHL to a different audience.
“Our goal is to bring news and information to FM, which is dominated by music. We want our listeners to have all the options,” Knight said.
“Typically AM stations are for the talk shows, news channels and such, but we wanted to bring a talk station to the FM side because a lot of our younger listeners only listen to FM for some reason. I remember being a kid growing up and no FM was even around yet. Gosh, I am really dating myself, aren’t I?” he said with a laugh.
AM radio was first transmitted in the mid 1870s over telephone lines and eventually for broadcast over the airwaves. AM frequencies are more powerful and travel a longer distance than FM, and can even pass through obstacles.
FM radio, developed in the United States by Edwin Armstrong in the 1930s, became popular in the 1980s. However, it can be broadcast only by line-of-sight and therefore FM broadcasts are more localized.
Radio stations have to roll back power for AM stations at night from five kilowatts to one kilowatt because it can interfere with other radio stations, Knight noted.
Knight started his career in radio broadcasting in high school as a way of supporting his love of flying.
He moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in the 1970s from Santa Barbara, where he grew up a beach kid and skateboarder. When he moved “from the city” to the smaller community he expected it to boring, but he found the opposite was true. He ended up spending time at the Santa Ynez Airport and really wanted to become a pilot.
“They were doing a career day at Santa Ynez High and station 96.7 wanted students to help go around and sell ads, so that’s how I got my start in radio. I continued throughout college in radio and television to pay for my flying habit, thinking I was going to be a pilot, when I really found my niche in broadcasting,” Knight said.
After graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School he went to Fresno State for a degree in communications and stayed in the San Joaquin Valley for 15 years, moving to Sacramento and finding that he loved working in broadcast.
His career changed, though, when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act in 1996, which was the biggest change in telecommunication law in 60 years. Before this legislation a company could only own two stations in the same market, but the new law aimed to promote competition and reduce regulation of technology.
Knight worked for Jacor Communication at the time in a big market, but when Jacor was bought by Clear Channel in 1998, Knight saw his opportunity to come back to the valley. He bought 96.7 KSYV, the station he started at in high school.
A local contractor also held a construction permit for FM station 105.9, and he offered it to Knight. However, Knight had just 90 days left on the permit before he would lose it.
“I had no idea what to program it with, so we did a study and I was really shocked when country music came back as what our demographic wanted. I had never done country before, but we decided to go for it,” Knight said.
He met with Rick Barker, who was a radio program director and then transitioned to helping music artists such as Taylor Swift get noticed.
“I took Rick to the Maverick and didn’t tell him why until we got there. When I told him I wanted him to help me with KRAZ and country music he thought I was nuts, but I let the figures speak for themselves and he ended up being my morning man for quite some time,” Knight said.
Aside from Latin radio, country music is the biggest audience in the valley. Knight said listeners respond passionately to everything from calling in to answer trivia to wanting to win CDs and concert tickets.
“When CDs were in their heyday we had people lined around the block wanting to win Garth Brooks or some other big-name artist. They respond like no other audience I’ve seen,” he said.
Knight is now the owner of Knight Broadcasting, which includes KSYV 96.7 FM; KRAZ 105.9 FM; KUHL 1440 AM, and now 106.3 FM, which puts KUHL talk radio on an FM channel.
The decision to put talk radio on an FM station took a while. Most of Knight’s talk shows are conservative politically, but with the antenna for 106.3 in Los Alamos, he figures his North County audience also leans toward the conservative.
Knight has local personality Andy Caldwell, known for his unique sound and watchdog opinions on Santa Barbara County government. Caldwell also runs COLAB, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business.
“Even if you don’t agree with Andy, he still gets people thinking about local issues and that’s really why he is effective. He brings issues to light that people might not otherwise know about,” Knight said.
Knight also has non-political programming with Ben Heighes, who reports the news without opinion or political slant.
Programming on 106.3 also includes shows about pets, investments and other topics.
Also on the air is Doug Nelson for the “Drive at Five,” who talks about the news of the day and gives people current information on their way home.
“Radio has gone through so many changes, and I love being a part of the evolution,” Knight said.