Fort Irwin radio makes switch to live programming

FORT IRWIN • The radio station at Fort Irwin, which has melted into the background of life on post during the past few years, will return to the forefront when the station restarts live on-air programming for the first time in two years on Jan. 5.

The radio station, 88.3 FM (KNTC), which broadcasts to a potential audience of up to 25,000 total stationed and rotating soldiers, families and civilian workers on the fort, played a critical role as a mass communication tool when snow storms barreled down on much of the High Desert last week, leaving areas, including Fort Irwin, temporarily paralyzed.

“[The storm] forced us to go live sooner than we probably would have,” said John Wagstaffe, Director of Public Affairs at Fort Irwin, who moonlighted as an impromptu disc jockey that week.

The station will go on air from 6 to 9 a.m. at the beginning of January, with live programming from a rotating cast of disc jockeys and top of the hour Associated Press news updates.

The radio station studio, which is situated in the far back corner of the Fort Irwin Public Affairs Office and had normally broadcast pre-programmed playlists, turned into the fort’s communication nucleus when the bad weather first hit Dec. 15.

When the storm hit, Wagstaffe said the garrison commander tasked the radio station with keeping the fort community informed, meaning live programming from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Fort Irwin Media Relations Coordinator Etric Smith was one of the public affairs officials who jumped into the DJ seat that week, manning the studio control board while relaying the latest information on road closure developments from California Highway Patrol, and the fort’s emergency lock-down plan from the garrison commander, to the thousands on base impacted by the snow.

“As the week went on,” said Smith, “I received calls from listeners that would ask me what’s happening.”

“They started to depend on our station for news,” he said. “It just made sense that we would be on air.”

Luckily, both Smith — better known as Electric Etric on air — and Wagstaffe had a few years of disc jockeying under their belts from when they were stationed as soldiers at Fort Irwin and worked at the radio station during the mid-1990s.

For those like food court worker Lucy Chavira, the radio station was a lifeline. Chavira, a Barstow resident who had to spend the night away from home because Fort Irwin Road shut down, said she tuned in to hear “everything about the road conditions, whether they’d be opened or closed.”

“That’s how we know what’s going on,” Chavira said.

In addition to road closures, the station also provided fort listeners with other vital information: how to get cots and sleeping bags for the night, where to find food, which stores would be open extended hours, and, for stranded motorists lined up at the fort gate hoping to get escorted through, the sweet sound of music to help pass the time.

Now, with a direct mandate from the commanding general, in addition to going live during the morning, the station is looking to hire a professional DJ and recruit a stationed soldier’s wife, who happens to be a former Seattle Seahawks cheerleader, to host a show geared towards military families.

The radio station isn’t new to the fort — it’s been around since 1989. The station was originally staffed by soldiers but is now operated by the all-civilian public affairs office.

A few years ago, according to Smith, the Deputy Director of Public Affairs Kenneth Drylie modernized the station with the latest equipment and technology.

Since then, the station has played pre-programmed music, allowing it to run for stretches of time on auto-pilot.

But that was only until the bad weather hit and the Fort Irwin community tuned in en masse — and Smith and Wagstaffe’s on-air personalities infused new life into the station.

“[Listeners] like a little voice in between a bunch of songs,” Wagstaffe said. “An automated station doesn’t have quite the soul that the live station has,” he added.

Communication also ran both ways, said Smith, who recalled five or six drivers who called while gridlocked in traffic to tell Smith anything new they saw on the road. “Radio allows you to interact immediately,” Smith said.

Despite the headaches caused by the snow, Smith said the radio station was in the right position to help people through the weather crisis, as well as for evolving to the next level as a radio station.

“It was like the ‘perfect storm’ in terms of going on-air and how it all materialized,” he said.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4122 or elee@desertdispatch.com

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