Businesses across Oregon are reaping the benefits of the throngs of tourists descending on the state for the solar eclipse. But one tiny radio station in the path of totality will benefit from the eclipse in an unexpected way.
Get ready, Oregon. A total eclipse on Aug. 21 is expected to bring upward of a million people to the state.
In a lot of ways, KYAC sounds like a typical small town station. It’s based in Mill City — one of a string of small towns in the canyon along the North Santiam River. The area is expected to draw thousands of eclipse watchers, plus many more are already passing through town on the highway that connects Salem and Bend.
And if you want local news in Mill City, the choices are pretty much going to be the weekly paper or KYAC. There’s not much else on the radio dial here.
“And what radio signals do come into the canyon are generated by radio stations that don’t have a direct affinity with the canyon,” KYAC General Manager Ken Cartwright said.
Ken Cartwright said emergency management officials with Marion County realized the station was uniquely situated to be a source of important info to eclipse travelers and locals alike. He said one official approached him after a public meeting and asked Cartwright what the signal range of his station was.
The answer: Not very far. KYAC broadcasts with just 100 watts of power.
“He asked if there was any way I could just turn it up,” Cartwright said. “And I said, ‘Oh no, can’t do that.’”
Like all radio stations, KYAC’s broadcast power is strictly governed by the Federal Communications Commission. You can’t just turn up the wattage.
But with some paperwork, what can you do? Raise the antenna.
So KYAC put a pole on a hill outside of town. Their transmitter was now 200 feet higher.
“That couple of hundred feet makes a big difference with an FM radio station,” Cartwright said. “It’s all about height.”
The new transmitter was completed and turned on less than one week before the eclipse. It extends KYAC’s range a few more miles each way along Highway 22. That’s enough to reach a few more small towns, as well as some narrow stretches of the canyon where the road ducks in and out of steep rock walls.
But the new equipment cost money. And KYAC isn’t exactly rolling in dough. It’s run by a local non-profit arts organization. The Marion County Board of Commissioners decided that having a locally run radio station that could reach an underserved region would provide public safety benefits. So the county kicked in $18,000 of taxpayer money to help with the project.
“That’s huge,” Cartwright said. “That’s the kind of money that we wish we’d had when we first put the station on the air, in order to do everything right.”
And of course, the new transmitter isn’t going away once the eclipse is over. Cartwright said the hope is that KYAC can be a valuable information source in an area that has limited cell phone service even on good days.
“We have two dams just above us. We have forests that burn. And we have traffic that, once it becomes clogged, you can’t get around it. There’s no way around it,” Cartwright said. “So we always have possible emergencies here.”