Blues and Red Alerts
KRML may become Carmel’s emergency radio station.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Fans of KRML radio know it for its live jazz concerts, Carmel-centric talk shows and robust blues repertoire. But when the station owner went bankrupt this spring, KRML’s identity dissipated into the airwaves.
Now the station, famously featured in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me, may come back, but dramatically different: as a bare-bones outfit equipped to warn the public about impending disasters.
The city of Carmel-by-the-Sea is considering a potential public-private partnership that could tap 1410 AM as an emergency broadcast station, according to City Administrator Rich Guillen.
“The station would probably initially be used only in case of an emergency,” he says, describing the envisioned studio as “a small room with very minimum infrastructure.”
The city would likely need grant funds to make it happen, he adds. Local nonprofits could potentially buy airtime, and the station could host a government show.
But with a 10 percent deficit in this year’s city budget, using reserve funds to buy the famous call letters could be a hard sell.
“We would obviously like KRML to stay synonymous with Carmel,” Guillen says. “[But] with all the other priorities we have in the city, it would be a real challenge to convince the [City] Council and the public that this is something the city really needs. If we could work out some kind of private-public partnership, the city is open to it.”
The idea was presented to Guillen by former KRML senior vice president Gary Hamada, who says he’s assembling a proposal involving several local institutions. Potential studio locations include the now-vacant KRML space downtown and the Sunset Center.
“If it is staged in the manner I am proposing, it’s not going to be one owner making money on it; the whole community will benefit,” Hamada says. “To keep the station here and keep it viable, all these entities would have to be on board. I think we have a 70 to 80 percent chance of pulling it off.”
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Meanwhile, several investors are seething over the station’s demise under owner David Kimball.
“Inexperienced and under-funded ownership is what did it,” says Don Bowen, host of the former KRML talk show “Around Town,” which aired Saturday mornings for six years until late March.
Kimball bought the station and affiliated Jazz and Blues Company Store five years ago for more than $1 million, moving them from the Carmel Barnyard to the Eastwood building in downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea. Bowen says he loaned Kimball $50,000 for the purchase, plus $5,000 for a new studio door.
“It looked like a good investment,” he says. “We couldn’t have been in a better spot with a better landlord.”
In hindsight, Bowen says the purchase price was inflated to three or four times its value. He blames that, along with a scrimpy sales staff, for sinking the station.
“The radio station was substantially behind on the rent,” confirms Alan Williams, Clint Eastwood’s long-time associate. “The Eastwoods did everything they could to [help it] succeed.”
With debts mounting, Kimball filed for personal bankruptcy. By mid-April, the studio and store were gutted and Monterey County Bank was soliciting new buyers.
Wave Street Studio partners Rhett Smith and Louis Castellani also lost out. Smith says he took out a home equity loan to renovate the studio and store, and is owed $25,000. Castellani says he invested $50,000 in cash and $15,000 in equipment. Both say they also put in countless hours of unpaid labor.
In lieu of repayment, Kimball gave Smith and Castellani an extensive music collection they incorporated as Black Hawk Records Inc. The business partners estimate they sunk an additional $50,000-plus in the enterprise. But within two years, they say, the bank repossessed the collection, informing them that it was never Kimball’s to give.
“We had paperwork, we had agreements,” Smith says, “but when people aren’t honorable, there’s no way you can do anything.”
They say they won’t sue, but they hope the bank will reimburse them when the station sells. “We need that money desperately to stay in business,” Castellani says.
Kimball did not return phone calls.
As far as the bank is concerned, the investors are SOL: They won’t get a penny unless the debt is fully repaid.
“None of the owners will get anything,” says Monterey County Bank CEO Charles Chrietzberg. “The lenders will be lucky to get their money back.”
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What everyone seems to agree on is that KRML should stay in Carmel, preferably in the hands of a nonprofit. But with an asking price of up to $1.5 million, that’s easier said than done.
“We both – Clint particularly – would love to see the station stay local, but it’s for all purposes defunct except for the operating licenses,” Williams says. “The prices being asked are more than the physical value, and more than any goodwill. I don’t think even a nonprofit could justify it.”
Chrietzberg, however, isn’t showing his hand. “We’re talking to five or six interested parties,” he says. “I think something will develop here in the next 30 days.”