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Radio Station Rises to Occasion in Disaster : Communications: KBET was transformed into a primary source of broadcast information. Listenership is believed to have skyrocketed.

January 30, 1994|DOUGLAS ALGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA CLARITA — Moments after the 6.6-magnitude earthquake rattled through his Newhall condominium, Henry Valdes scrambled outside, free of the building's toppled furniture and fallen plaster.

He unlocked his car, retrieved a flashlight and began scanning stations on the car radio to learn what had happened to his community, his friends and his future.

"As soon as I was outside and I realized I was safe, the neighbors were safe, I wanted to find out how the rest of the valley fared," said Valdes, a 34-year-old aerospace engineer for Lockheed.

He was not alone, as thousands of Santa Clarita residents rediscovered their radios in the last two weeks.

Since the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, the desire for fast answers and a chance to talk transformed KBET 1220-AM from a 1,000-watt oldies station into the Santa Clarita Valley's primary source of broadcast information and an audio shoulder to lean on.

KBET told residents who to call for help, what to do for water, where to find shelter, when they could go home, why traffic was stopped and how to cope with aftershocks. Guest speakers have included City Council members, school superintendents, lawyers and psychotherapists.

Officials at the radio station say they are surprised at the strong response from listeners, and acknowledge the quake's aftermath dramatically changed their role in the community.

"This station will not be what it was an hour before the quake," said Carl Goldman, president and general manager of KBET since mid-1990.

Although difficult to document, listenership is believed to have skyrocketed from the station's prior 12.65% share of the radio audience.

In its first emergency meeting following the earthquake, the City Council named the station Santa Clarita's official outlet for disaster information.

The Canyon Country station, too, was hammered by the quake. Power was out and the building was in shambles. Although there was backup power to the transmitter, the station's computerized system wouldn't accept it.

For 20 hours following the 4:31 a.m. earthquake, KBET was silent, its staff listening to other radio stations to hear what had happened to Santa Clarita. KBET finally came on the air at 12:25 a.m. Tuesday morning. While checking to make sure its equipment was functioning, the station started with its oldies format.

At 6 a.m., Barry McKeever, who is the station's sports director, and A.J. Morgan, the news director, began taking listeners' calls about the earthquake. They stayed on the air for eight hours.

Some listeners kept their radios tuned to KBET around-the-clock last week. Some even slept with their radios turned on.

KBET officials are surprised at how long residents have wanted them to provide disaster information. Goldman is unsure when to resume regular programming.

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