Cordova Chronicles: Year 63 of the KLAM

Razor clams are no more, but radio station KLAM still reigns

Guide and lift ropes are visible as Carlos Martin maneuvers the antenna pole into position atop the KLAM tower. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Saturday, April 9, was a bright and sunny day. Folks headed to town along Whitshed road had a lovely view of our fair city, but may have been distracted by a vivid neon-yellow object atop the KLAM radio tower on the edge of Odiak Slough.

No, it wasn’t one of Phil Knight’s Nike radiantly hued University of Oregon Ducks that had made a navigational error while migrating north. It was local contractor Carlos Martin doing repair work on the station’s antenna — 150 feet up in the air. Martin learned his high wire act back in New York City, doing “bird abatement” on tall buildings.

Near the base of the KLAM tower, Van Craft from I Heart Radio Group in Anchorage attaches new antennas to a support pole. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

That must have been fun.

Martin has worked on towers up to 300 feet tall. He also fells trees and paints houses. In fact, he did pre-paint prep work on neighbor Ken Hill’s house and vet clinic last fall.

I was outside cleaning up the yard, and kept hearing voices and banging of equipment, yet couldn’t see any one. Finally, I looked skyward, and there was Carlos, strapped in and dismantling a long support pipe that would be lowered to the ground so three small square-shaped antennas that were attached could be replaced.

Van Craft, of the iHeart Radio Group in Anchorage, does technical work on radio transmitters all over Alaska. He was near the base of the tower, with a truckload of equipment that he had brought over on the ferry. “We’ve been waiting quite a while to replace these antennas, which are over 20 years old. Carlos called and said this would be the day to do the job, and boy was he right.”

Wet and windy days are not conducive to climbing or working atop tall towers, although Martin has some familiarity with this particular one, having painted it 10 years ago. FAA regulations require to structure to be colored in bright red and white sections for aircraft visibility.

In fact, while climbing the tower, Martin mentioned to Craft that the paint was starting to look faded. “I should have brought some paint strips for comparison,” said Craft. “If the color doesn’t match the test strips, it’s time for another paint job.”

“However, there is another option – which might not be too popular. We have a tall tower in Anchorage with a flashing strobe light atop,” Craft said. “The nearby neighborhood is not happy.”

I suspect Cordovans would rather stick with the steady bright red light that has been there since 1954, when CHS Class of 1935 graduate Charles Buck founded KLAM. Buck came to Cordova in the mid-’20s as a young boy, to fish with his family. He joined the U.S. Army in 1940 and served with the Alaska Communications Service for 13 years. The call letters KLAM were appropriate, for Cordova was the prized itself as the razor clam capital of the world at that time. When Alaska became a state in 1959, Buck was tapped to be director of communications for Alaska, a position he held until retirement in 1973.

KLAM’s first signals were beamed out on AM 1450 on May 2, 1954. In its early years, I remember listening to a Sunday evening program called “Take Time to be Holy.” Pastor Alex Kvasnikoff and members of the Little Chapel Church would play guitars and sing live Christian music into a microphone in the crowded confines of the broadcast studio. It was fascinating.

Today, KLAM is owned by Bayview Communication, and managed by J.R. and Leslie Lewis. It also broadcasts on a FM sister station, KCDV 100.9, “The Eagle.”

Parts of the live programming, such as News at the Top of the Hour, comes via satellite feeds. KLAM has a receiving dish on the grounds behind the station. A different company has taken over the satellite programming, which Craft mentioned has created a problem. “The original feed was from a satellite at an elevation of 23 degrees to the horizon; the new one is at only 11 degrees. J.R.’s house, plus the trees, and even the mountains, may block the signal.”

Craft pulled out his iPhone, and called up an app which showed the position of the satellite as a bright orange arc on the horizon. It was considerably lower.

By mid-afternoon, everything was wired onto the support, and it was time to install the new apparatus. Getting the 100-pound pipe with attached antenna back up the tower without entanglement in the numerous support cables was a challenge, despite a pulley system Martin had devised at the top of the tower. Craft maneuvered a rope attached to the bottom of the pipe to avoid the obstacles while I helped Carlos’s assistant, Blythe Thomas, pull the lift line through the system, which didn’t seem to create lot of mechanical advantage.

It was dusk by the time Martin finally had the pipe with attached antennas firmly back in place. The next day Craft and Martin headed through the brush behind KLAM to try to adjust the satellite dish angle.

Let’s hope they worked everything out. In just a couple weeks, it will be Year 63 of entertaining signals beaming our way on Radio 1450. The razor clams are gone, but thank goodness our other KLAM isn’t.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. Shellhorn has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town.