John Seelmeyer

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January 31, 2011
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Return to roots of local radio brings new life to KTHO

Darrell Wampler, a big-city radio guy, got KTHO at South Lake Tahoe back on track with some distinctly small-town ideas.

And now the broadcaster once known to Southern California audiences as "The Insane Darrell Wayne" plans to extend the station's reach into Reno.

"We don't want to be a Reno station," says Wampler. "We want to be an outlet where Reno people can learn what's happening at Lake Tahoe."

In the past 20 months, Wampler has worked hard to make KTHO it's at 590 on the AM dial and 96.1 on the FM side an outlet where Lake Tahoe people can learn what's happening in Lake Tahoe.

That's a dramatic change in direction for the station, which was running the ABC's nationally syndicated "Timeless Classics" programming and leasing its tower to cell phone companies under its previous ownership, a partnership of five out-of-town residents.

Twenty months after Wampler purchased the 2,500-watt station, it's broadcasting a heavy dose of local news, local talk, local sports and, increasingly, local advertising.

Wampler says the station, which employs five fulltime along with four part-timers, is "seasonably profitable," staying in the black during the peak winter and summer tourism seasons and squirreling away money to cover the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring.

That's a dramatic improvement from the gross sales of $1,000 posted the first month that Wampler was on the scene.

He brings 35 years of experience in radio to KTHO. He worked at four Los Angeles stations ultimately landing at KROQ as a program director, operations director, chief engineer and morning-drive DJ. He ran the Don Martin School of Radio and Television and, along the way, took time to earn a master's degree in organizational behavior from California Lutheran University.

KTHO's recovery began with the decision by Wampler to once again invest in local programming.

He hired Paul Middlebrook, an experienced broadcaster and former newspaper publisher at South Lake Tahoe, to serve as the general manager of KTHO. Bill Kingman, who has worked in radio in the Lake Tahoe and Reno markets for nearly 50 years, also came on board.

They hired Jennifer Scanio, a longtime resident of South Lake Tahoe, and Dan Thrift, a former newspaper photographer in the region, to create a locally oriented team of morning hosts.

Through the rest of the day, the station's programming now includes broadcasts of South Lake Tahoe sports, local debates, City Council meetings even church carnivals.

"If we just came in and played music, we'd be an also-ran in the market," Wampler says.

Local advertisers, Wampler says, have followed, and the station's staff is eager to develop partnerships such as live remotes or contests as promotional tools.

"The people who buy businesses aren't necessarily business people," he explains. "We're really trying to help them out."

Technical upgrades also played a role in the station's resurgence.

Wampler purchased a FM translator to cover the entire Lake Tahoe basin. He moved the station's studios and offices to a high-visibility location at Ski Run Marina and began development of a remote studio at Boatworks Mall in Tahoe City on the North Shore.

Wampler also took steps to increase the power of KTHO by five to six times to improve its coverage. (The station's AM footprint these days stretches from Reno to Mono Lake and to Placerville on the west. The FM signal covers the Lake Tahoe basin.)

"We're trying to put the breath of life back into KTHO," says Wampler, who acknowledges the risks of investing in relatively costly local programming instead of filling the station's broadcast hours with syndicated material.

"I just hope the expanded area and the influence of regional and national sponsors will make this kind of radio affordable to do," he says.

In the most recent Arbitron ratings for the eastern Placer County market, KTHO finished tops in the number of listeners in an average quarter hour and finished No. 1 in the time that listeners spent with the station.

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Northern Nevada Business Weekly Updated Jan 31, 2011 12:00AM Published Jan 31, 2011 12:00AM Copyright 2011 Northern Nevada Business Weekly. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.