Jeremy Lansman: tweaking the culture

by Scott Christiansen, Anchorage Press

At a place called Site 17 on the Kenai Peninsula, just outside Soldotna, a chain-link fence adorned with “no trespassing” signs surrounds three 1950s-era buildings and a giant, orange and white radio tower. Two buildings appear abandoned, with dusty, old equipment, electrical conduit and wires visible through the windows. Weeds pop up between the rungs of a wooden ladder next to one building. A couple big crates of nuts, bolts and washers are stashed in weeds behind another building.

Site 17 reeks of government property, but it's owned by ATT/Alascom, a company built on military contracts. A small area inside one building is cordoned off for civilian communications. The space buzzes like a beehive, a few dozen cooling fans spinning in unison. This communications hub keeps telephones ringing and televisions beaming across the Kenai, including Jeremy Lansman's KYES Channel 5, based in Anchorage, where you can watch Jerry Springer, Montel, Star Trek: Enterprise and Judge Joe Brown.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Lansman gave a nickel tour of the seven TV translators housed at Site 17. He was particularly proud of a black box mounted on one rack. “This one is an FM transmitter that I modified to work for TV,” he said. He found the transmitter on eBay for $900. “It's made in Brazil. It's a piece of junk, but it works perfectly for this purpose.”

I started to ask Lansman a question, but he excused himself. “The first thing I'm going to do is build a radio station, so I'm going to ignore you for a while. Is that OK?”

Lansman has made a name for himself in Anchorage with Channel 5, but his first love is radio, which is why we were at Site 17. He pulled a pair of eyeglasses from his shirt pocket and squatted next to a transmitter on the floor. He peered into the box's electronic guts, poking them with a screwdriver. For the next hour, he crawled around the transmitter and climbed a step ladder behind the racks, moving with the quickness of a hyper-active teenager. His movements and thick, wiry hair belied the fact that he's 61 years old. He's a small guy who kind of looks like Lyle Lovett.

In broadcasting circles, some view this diminutive man as a giant. Some describe Lansman as a genius and a maverick. Fellow broadcasters say he's an engineer who can get a clean signal on the cheap, whether the equipment is new, secondhand or he built it himself. “Of all the different engineers, he is the most capable … o of taking a pile of used gear and putting together a signal,” said Al Bramstead, general manager of KTUU Channel 2.

Others might say Lansman is a prankster, a renegade - a troublemaker, as in, “Here comes trouble.” One thing Lansman says he's not is an engineer, at least not one with credentials. He doesn't remember graduating from anything besides junior high school. He learns from books, the Internet and experimenting.

He's found success in one ongoing experiment - KYES Channel 5. TV junkies in Southcentral Alaska know this as the station that runs cheesy talk shows and wild wrestling matches, as well as low-budget sci-fi and reality TV, including Maximum Exposure, a show that compiles mostly amateur video of car chases, fisticuffs and the occasional animal mauling or shootout. The programming is reminiscent of the early days of the Fox network, except during primetime, when it airs re-runs of popular network comedies like Everbody Loves Raymond and Friends.

Lansman's Alaska broadcasting career began in the late 1980s, when low oil prices and over-development sent the Anchorage economy tits-up. He and his wife Carol Shatz had just started laying the groundwork for KYES. In Anchorage, some business people bottom-fed off others' bad luck. Lansman and Shatz found used furniture for their new company at an auction, leftover detritus of a defunct bank. Lansman remembers being “shocked” that Shatz had secured programming on their scant budget.

“(The programming) was very expensive, and we were in a very competitive market in a failing economy,” Shatz said. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 resulted in a short-term influx of cash into the economy. Lansman believes that might have kept KYES afloat the first few years.

KYES hit the airwaves in 1990 on a shoestring budget. (It's typical to take a few years to get FCC approval to broadcast.) Anchorage viewers might remember Video Juke Box, a late-evening service in the early '90s that allowed KYES viewers to call a 900 number and request their favorite music video. The jukebox itself was in the couple's garage at their Hillside home. “It gave us a twenty-four hour presence, and it provided an income stream,” said Shatz, who handles programming and the business side of KYES.

Fourteen years later, Lansman and Shatz are still taking chances, and finding success. They've become the first to broadcast a digital TV signal in Anchorage - from an antenna atop their home. Digital TV is the next evolution for television, promising viewers more channels and “high definition” pictures - TV that promises to do for viewers what expensive stereos did for the “audiophiles” of the 1970s. An FCC mandate requires stations to make a switch to digital, even though the vast majority of TVs can't receive the new signals. It's costly and some stations are confronting technical hurdles. KYES will likely survive the expense, Lansman said, because he designed and built the antenna himself. He cobbled the digital TV station together from gear purchased on Ebay. It's not a race, but KYES is now almost 14 months ahead of other Anchorage stations.

Lansman spent nearly 40 years facilitating cultural shifts with FM radio before getting into TV. Find any book about FM broadcasting, specifically “alternative” or “community” radio, and Jeremy Lansman's name likely appears. Lansman still tinkers with radio stations. At Site 17, he beamed a devilish smile as he turned on a new station, KWMD 90.7 FM. He doesn't own the station, but he's on the board of the nonprofit formed to launch it. Alaska Educational Radio System Inc. holds three new radio licenses on the Kenai. The nonprofit is about five years in the making, but has little more than a board of directors and some used equipment. Its biggest asset might be Lansman's expertise.

Lansman tested KWMD for a few hours to meet an FCC deadline. The first song he played was by Japanese jazz saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. He then jammed on some sitar from India, the Delta Blues and an instrumental from the movie Papillon. The set was sprinkled with Lansman's voice: “This is KWMD, Kasilof.”

He darted toward a briefcase and grabbed the FCC construction permits for the new station. Lansman seemed as charged as the batteries at Site 17, and he started acting goofy. “May I see your papers,” he said, mimicking an Eastern European accent. “Yes, yes, yes. Here are my papers, sir!”

By the time he was 12, Jeremy Lansman was experimenting with electronics in St. Louis. His career began with a hobby kit of resisters, coils, crystals, a light bulb and switches. The kits were popular in the days before home computers captured the minds of pre-teen engineers.

Rather than construct a virtual roller coaster, a 1950s child might build a real AM or FM receiver, or a two-way radio. A more precocious kid might build a transmitter, then walk down the block to see if the signal reached his neighbor's radio. The more ambitious might build the tallest antennae he could and send sounds from a record player up the wire and into the ether. Lansman's first FM transmitter covered at least a block in the Gaslight Square neighborhood of St. Louis.

An inspired and mischievous child, as Lansman was himself, might want actual listeners. He built an AM transmitter and tuned it to the frequency of WCBS, a powerful signal originating in New York. He broadcasted just after midnight, when the legitimate station signed off. He remembers playing Huddie Ledbetter, the Delta Bluesman known as Leadbelly, whose songs are easy to find today, but whose “race records” wouldn't have made it past the buttoned-downed minds of 1950s network programmers. He might have helped Huddie Ledbetter change someone's mind. He might have tweaked the culture. At least, that's the legend of Lansman, although he claims his first AM transmitter probably didn't work.

In 1960, at age 18, Jeremy was a high school dropout with experience from KPFA, a Pacifica FM station in San Francisco, when he took his first commercial radio job. He was flown to Hawaii to build another station. When he returned to the West Coast, he answered an ad in Broadcasting magazine placed by Lorenzo Milam, a Yale graduate and entrepreneur looking to hire an engineer. Milam had waited years for the go-ahead from the FCC to broadcast in Seattle, and he'd become somewhat of a broadcasting legal expert in the process. This was in the days before public radio was known as “public radio.” Milam and Lansman wanted to operate stations that survived without commercials. Like Pacifica, they started with “subscribers,” instead of renting time to the shills selling soap, who controlled most of the spectrum.

Milam and Lansman would go on to help shape the “community radio” movement one station at a time. In their wake, they left more than 20 new radio stations with hosts who played anything and everything, as well as shouted out their views.

In 1961, they and a few other key players, along with a cadre of volunteers, ran KRAB in Seattle. The station pitched itself as an alternative. They followed Pacifica's model, applying for grants and asking for money from “subscribers.” Milam had an open microphone policy for volunteer hosts, as long they voiced ideas and played music not heard on other Seattle stations. KRAB beamed a full spectrum from right- wing John Birch Society members to hippie radicals. Milam said some “community radio” stations he and Lansman started in the late 1960s and 1970s are still operating. Others “have fallen into the NPR trap, (becoming) safe 'liberal' stations,” Milam said. “These drive me crazy. Others have gone full-time jazz, which drives me even crazier.”

In 1969, Lansman returned to Gaslight Square as general manager and founding engineer of the St. Louis radio station, KDNA, which he and Milam founded. This time, they sold commercials, but they still eschewed traditional programming. Lansman and Milam had a mix of paid employees and volunteers with access to the airwaves. Several of them lived together in the station's building, sharing food, personal dramas and a radio signal. KDNA's American music programs included bluegrass and blues - black and white artists side- by-side. Fifteen years after his first AM transmitter, the likelihood of Lansman introducing the music of Huddie Ledbetter to a new listener was a lot stronger, if not definite.

It wasn't easy to get the signal in St. Louis. Broadcasting is a dogfight of a business, one that can quite accurately be called dirty. Broadcasters routinely file petitions with the FCC, asking the commission to deny their competitors' licenses. KDNA had another applicant, a segregated Christian church that filed for the frequency at the same time as Lansman and Milam. Given a choice between a segregated church and a pair of known radicals, the FCC chose the radicals. It didn't hurt that Milam's lawyers documented the church's racial policies.

In 1974, Lansman and Milam filed a frivolous petition of their own, asking the FCC to scrutinize the operations of nonprofit religious broadcasters and stop granting educational broadcasting licenses to churches. Regulators denied the petition, but it spawned a rumor that famous atheist activist Madalyn Murray-O'Hair was involved, trying to ban Christian radio. It also secured Lansman's reputation as a troublemaker at the FCC. Since 1975, Christians have sent the FCC between 30 million and 50 million letters, in an effort to stop an imaginary ban on religious broadcasting.

“Letters continue to flood the FCC to this day, urging it not to adopt a petition it actually rejected more than two decades earlier,” journalist Jesse Walker wrote in 2001 in the footnotes to his book, Rebels on the Air.

Jeremy Lansman never tires of throwing a new signal onto the ether. At Site 17, we finished our work on the new station, KWMD 90.7 FM, then drove away in his white Volvo wagon to see how far the new signal carried.

There's no way to tell if anyone else heard KWMD, with the exception of one man, who was working at a music store in Soldotna. Lansman found him in the phone book and recruited the guy to tune in and write up an affidavit for the FCC. Lansman asked me to write one, too.

There was one other Kasilof radio station Alaska Educational Radio System needed Lansman to hook up. KWVK 89.7 FM was much more likely to have listeners that sunny Saturday evening because it's slated to take the place of a Christian radio station currently on the 89.7 frequency. Lansman had that devilish smirk when he unplugged the faith-based broadcasting machines. He doesn't have a grudge against Christianity, but it wasn't surprising that he tested KWVK with a recording of Christian monks chanting, followed by the shock rock of Captain Beefheart.

Suddenly those who thought they were listening to Christian radio heard Beefheart scream, “Telephone! Telephone! It's like a plastic horned devil!” A little later, we played beat poet Allen Ginsberg discussing censorship in America during an interview taped in the late 1980s. Ginsberg calls U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an “old windbag” and accuses America's “geopolitical tele-vangelist mind controllers” of using “Stalinistic” tactics to suppress ideas.

This was only a test. Jeremy has no idea what diatribes, drama or music the freshly minted Alaska Educational Radio System will play on KWVK once it's on the air for good. The Christian station it displaces will simply move up the dial, where it can choose to keep its listeners safe from the likes of Ginsberg and Beefheart.

Lansman might be a prankster, but he's no radio pirate. What we were doing was perfectly legal. He prefers to get things done by proving to the FCC (usually in the form of complex and somewhat archaic paperwork) that a new FM station won't step on another station's frequency, interrupt two-way radio traffic, or inadvertently open garage doors.

That said, Lansman gets excited when he catches a pirate broadcaster in action, like he did a week after his work at Site 17. When he came by for a visit, he said he had something important to show me in his Volvo. He tuned the radio 88.9 FM. Out poured 1970s jazz fusion, filling the car like audio syrup.

“That's not supposed to be there,” he said, referring to the signal.

An electric guitar riff faded away, replaced with a repetitive scuffing noise. “It sounds like a record scratching,” Lansman said. The station went silent for a few seconds and then we heard the unmistakable sound of a needle dropping on vinyl.

Jeremy Lansman and I might have not been pirates at Site 17, but we sure felt like we'd gotten away with something by giving the Christians a jolt of Captain Beefheart, not unlike the person who occasionally throws up a signal on 88.9.

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