Up on the second-story rooftop of Sun Radio, one looks east to the antenna farm near Loop 360 in West Lake Hills, and southwest at the Hill Country gateway of Dripping Springs. From where Denver O'Neal stands, eight rows of solar panels lay out along the north side of our perch.
"We've got 48 panels sucking in the sun's juice," explains O'Neal, 30, operations director of the station. "It goes into this control box, then converts AC to DC. The juice comes out AC from the panels, where it converts to DC for the outlets."
Sunlight remains the most abundant natural resource on the planet. A single hour produces more energy than Earth's population uses in a year. Whereas any child who's used a magnifying glass to wreak havoc on an anthill has witnessed solar power in action, the U.S. didn't start harnessing rays to light homes and businesses until the Seventies. Decades of steady market growth meant that by 2004 states began offering rebates for solar panels.
Austin fitted its new City Hall with solar panels that year. The following July, the Energy Policy Act gave Americans tax credits to install the same. Today, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports record highs for installations, with the total number of homes and businesses running solar energy in the country now counting somewhere near 784,000. Panel prices continue to drop.
Sun Radio – 88.9FM in Johnson City, 99.1FM for Fredericksburg, 100.1FM here in Austin, 103.1FM out in Dripping Springs, and 107.1FM around Central Texas – began its love affair with solar energy in 2009. Daryl O'Neal and his son Denver bought the station as the 5-watt KDRP running out of a defunct studio in Dripping Springs. Back then, solar tubes were the franchise, reflective consoles installed into the roof in an effort to refract sunlight. Panels replaced them when the O'Neals stretched their signal to a transmitter a mile away.
Think of transmitters as a set of bunny ear antennas. They take the signal being broadcast from a station and cast it toward the horizon. The taller the tower, the further out the signal extends. At 96 feet, Sun Radio's Dripping Springs tower could barely register among the 1,000-foot TV towers overlooking West Lake Hills. Yet the boost in wattage allowed the station to blanket town.
In 2012, the station bought yet more space on a tower in West Lake Hills to expand its coverage, then installed panels and energy storage batteries there. In Dec. 2013, KDRP itself uprooted from Dripping Springs to Bee Cave, going solar at that location two years later. The panels currently provide enough energy to power the non-commercial station from dawn till dusk, after which they use electricity.
In September, their utility bill read negative $17.12.
Broadcast radio came into existence around the turn of the last century. Offered only in AM, the medium was used mostly for military transmissions and matters of official, closed-circuit communications, first going on-air to the public in Nov. 1920 through Pittsburgh's KDKA, which broadcast results for the Harding-Cox presidential election. Interconnected stations – the process of airing specific broadcasts over different stations in different markets – debuted two years later.
Radio became the preferred medium of American at-home entertainment in the Thirties, when broadcasting companies with big budgets started purchasing airtime from small stations. Abbott & Costello were born out of that setup, as were Amos 'n' Andy, Dick Tracy serials, Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, and on and on. By the Fifties, when such programming jumped to television, AM frequencies filled the gap with pre-recorded music.
Billboard magazine debuted its Hot 100 chart in 1958. Payola, a pay-to-play scheme designed to juke those charts, brought a new wave of profits to local stations. Harnessing the reach and influence of commercial radio, record labels paid disc jockeys tens of thousands of dollars to spin their singles. Broadcast radio revenues in 1960 totaled $692 million.
The Fifties also birthed FM radio. Patented two decades beforehand by New York City engineer Edwin Armstrong, the alternative to amplitude modulation pumped superior sound quality to AM by manipulating the frequency of each sound wave. Low fidelity inherent to AM was absent on FM, though the former held its market share. For years, FM stations primarily re-broadcast better sonic versions of AM programming.
In July 1964, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a non-duplication rule that barred FM stations from repurposing AM programming. So began album-oriented rock. The format relied on deep LP cuts and low-profile/low-cost on-air talent to spin them. AM got the singles, FM took the rest. The change coincided with baby boomers coming of age. By 1978, more people tuned into FM than AM.
Station totals maintained by the FCC are patchy through the Seventies and Eighties, but in 1970, American radio held 4,236 AM stations and 2,306 on FM – 362 of which were non-commercial (a classification reserved for the low end of the dial barring paid advertisements in favor of sponsors and underwriters). By 1990, the numbers flipped: AM radio claimed 4,984, while FM topped out in excess of 5,800, with 1,436 being non-commercial.
Attribute the switch in large part to FCC Docket 80-90, a 1983 decree easing restrictions that prevented stations from encroaching on other signals – both geographically and along the dial. More freedom begat more stations, which gave networks ample opportunity to acquire stations. Duopoly laws in radio dictate that one ownership group may own as many as six stations in any one large market. Both Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) and Emmis Communications (which owns KGSR, KLBJ, 101X, and more locally) amassed frequencies.
That's how acts like Smash Mouth became so popular – bulk plays through station chains. The advent of Internet radio, Sirius, and streaming services Spotify and YouTube democratized the medium (Pandora alone claims 81.5 million listeners), but one need remember back only as far as the November release of Adele's 25 to recognize the power of commercial radio.
Currently, American terrestrial radio brings in roughly $18 billion annually, with expenses running stations around $14 billion. As far as recurring costs go, electricity is among any station's greatest monthly expenses.
Daryl O'Neal worked that $18 billion career path before he bought the rights to the station that eventually became Sun Radio. As a sales manager at Shamrock Communications in the Nineties, the numbers moving through his ledgers were big league. Now Times Shamrock, the company currently owns 12 stations around the country.
In 1998, he took a job as division president of Simmons Austin, a New York company acquired by Goldman Sachs in 2007, just before the subprime mortgage crisis. Next, he became CEO of Independence Media Holdings, brought in to fix a series of stations so the owners could sell them. He found the work lifeless and simple – professional downsizing and assembly lining of downtrodden local stations.
The O'Neals bought the KDRP call signal in 2009 – transmitting out of an old bunker of a building on Highway 290 in Dripping Springs. Because of his stake in commercial radio, Daryl couldn't associate professionally with his non-commerical station, so he put his son Denver in charge and became a volunteer. Together, they bootstrapped the station like full-time hobbyists, filling the airwaves with Americana music plucked from their collections. They scheduled gospel on Sunday, and high school football Friday nights. They held out buying a mixing console; Denver sequenced everything through his laptop.
Daryl left IMH in 2010. In Jan. 2011, KDRP recruited Larry Monroe after the veteran Austin radio favorite was excised by KUT. The terms: Larry played whichever songs Larry chose to play. Thus, KDRP had its first radio star. Jessie Scott, a founder of the Americana Music Association – the woman credited with coining the term "Americana" at a South by Southwest Music panel 20 years ago – and a popular deejay on-boarded at Sun Radio in 2012. She currently hosts Southbound every weekday, 11am-3pm.
After KDRP strengthened its signal via West Lake Hills that year and installed solar panels and storage batteries the next, the transmitter was well on its way to running entirely on solar energy as it does now. The O'Neals arrived at solar power through creative budgeting. They needed to generate enough energy to power Dripping Springs' tiny transmission tower without breaking the bank on electricity. Inspiration came from a trip Daryl made to Taos, N.M., in the mid-Nineties while working for Shamrock. A friend of his, Brad Hockmeyer, wanted to sell his station, KTAO. Having debuted at 1,200 watts, it was the world's first solar-powered station.
Though Daryl loved the station, which runs two daily news segments dedicated to newly lost and found neighborhood pets, his acquisition of it proved impossible: Hockmeyer stipulated nobody currently on staff could get fired. He also stated that whatever was living in KTAO's crawlspaces would have to be kept in place, as well.
In Dec. 2013, Sun Radio accepted an invitation from Bee Cave's Hill Country Galleria to move into a storefront studio across the street from Whole Foods. Forty-eight solar panels went onto the building's rooftop in 2015.
At 11am on a Friday in late November, Kevin Connor and David Arnsberger conduct business in Sun Radio's control room, where a portrait of Willie Nelson and a license plate bearing the command "Segway" (formerly Larry Monroe's) hang above the console. Jessie Scott echoes quietly through the speakers. She transmits from New York.
Connor, a longtime veteran of local radio who began with Z102 before anchoring KGSR's popular Kevin & Kevin Show around the millennium, arrived at the station in April 2014 for a Saturday show after leaving a similar gig at KUTX. (Like Monroe, he had O'Neal agree in writing to let him play whatever he wants.) In November, he became program director, freeing up Denver O'Neal to focus his efforts entirely on operations.
Along with Scott and Arnsberger, who hosts the station's Wednesday night showcases at Güero's Taco Bar and the Pioneers of Texas Music segments, the staff Connor oversees stacks a fraternity of local radio favorites. There's Bo Chase from Z102 and KLBJ veteran John Dromgoole. Longtime Lone Star State of Mind host Roger Allen defected from KGSR, and Ed Miller, who for years ran Folkways and Across the Water on KUT, launched Sundays' Across the Pond on Sun Radio in Nov. 2014.
"Denver told me were going to meet with Ed Miller," chuckles his father. "I said: 'Dude, I'm not hiring Ed Miller. We can't.' Ed came in and within 15 minutes I was like, 'Do you want to start this Sunday or next?'
"Initially I thought, 'How many more expatriates of Austin radio can we take?' But he's brilliant. And on a Sunday night, what else are you going to do that's any better? You can drink a glass of wine, sit on your porch ...."
Local musicians crowd the evening lineup, most volunteering to host shows. They play the Black Lillies, Kacey Musgraves, Emmylou Harris, and ZZ Top. Repeats from the Larry Monroe archives run three nights a week. When he's not broadcasting from the beyond, deejays handling the prime-time hours include Willie Nelson's daughter Paula Nelson, Antone's Records co-owner and bedrock Austin drummer Mike Buck (Fabulous Thunderbirds, Leroi Bros., Eve & the Exiles, etc.), and Austin singer-songwriter Doug Moreland. The latter pulls Possum Posse frontman Jomo Edwards and their friends Beau Smith and Stoney Gabel into his Manchaca barn for an informal hour every Tuesday. They swap songs, laugh, and regularly lose their focus.
"Sometimes it's so funny I have to pull over," says Daryl O'Neal. "Sometimes it's a train wreck. But it's our train wreck! It's genuine."
Sun Radio is expanding. In addition to the aforementioned quartet of call signals, the O'Neals are working to extend their airwaves to New Braunfels, Llano, and Mason in the near future. In time, Texans will be able to drive from La Grange to Ft. Stockton – a distance of 365 miles – without losing the Sun Radio signal.
The station's solvent. Outside of strictly on-air hosts, the staff now rounds out at a dozen. A diagram of employee responsibilities shows that office manager Nancy Holt hosts a Saturday show and also helps sell underwriting. Ben Bethea, marketing director for the station, inhabits a 9pm-to-midnight slot four nights a week. In November, Connor's eventual office is still a onetime restroom with the plumbing up and running.
Listenership's up, too. At flagship frequency 100.1, it's gone up every month but one over the last two years. In winter 2014, Nielsen registered a daily cumulative audience of just under 4,000 people. Last fall, that number topped out at 16,000.
The O'Neals plan to get all their broadcasting done with solar power. Meanwhile, Sun Radio's office is adorned in VOC-free paint; the paneling is fashioned from restored wood; and the desks, chairs, couches, and office furniture were all purchased on consignment. Weekend jocks keep the lights off outside the control room so as not to run the meter. Daryl's even got an idea to purchase a fleet of fuel-efficient cars and rent them out to his sales staff at a discounted rate each month in order to get their own gas guzzlers off the road.
"These days, running a radio station does not take what it used to," surmises Denver. "All our stuff is minimal. Everybody knows there's an upfront cost, but it's for a greater good. We're trying to not be a burden to the Earth."
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