There's a new lilt to the Inland Northwest's radio waves, courtesy of Coeur d'Alene inventor, audiophile and all-around mad scientist John Bedini. Call it Radio Free Coeur d'Alene (although the signal carries well into parts of Spokane). Despite its low transmitter power of just 172 watts, the signal's reach is due to its transmitter site on top of Blossom Mountain just east of the Lake City. In operation for about five months, STATION KBIH, located at 102.3 on the FM dial, broadcasts Bedini's 24-hour-a-day eclectic vision of what an FM station ought to sound like. Bedini doesn't play Streisand or modern country. And he doesn't take requests.
"What I'm running is a Back East format for blues, a 1970s Los Angeles format for rock and L.A. New-Age jazz," he says. "I want to give the people here a variety of music. It's a mix so you don't get bored, and I try to stay upbeat so you don't fall asleep."
One thing KBIH doesn't provide is commercials, pledge drives or disc jockeys. The station is running in a yearlong test mode to prove up its Federal Communications Commission license. The only non-musical interruption is the pre-recorded station identification that is required by the FCC.
John and brother Gary Bedini are better known worldwide for the high-end consumer hi-fi, studio and movie sound equipment they design and hand-build. They started Bedini Electronics 30 years ago in Los Angeles and hold a number of patents. Eleven years ago, the brothers moved their company to its Seltice Way locale in Coeur d'Alene to get out of the rat race and be closer to their parents. Their father, Alex Bedini, has established himself regionally as an exceptional jazz guitarist and ensemble musician and -- until recently -- as a restaurateur.
Programming the FM station is John's nighttime work. He spends an average of five hours a night at it, after the daytime (and moneymaking) duties are done. In his personal collection are 6,000 compact music discs, many made by local musicians, among them bluesmen Archie Johnson and Johnny Rawls.
"I have collected groups people up here have never heard -- jazz and blues that are local talent. Whatever is not being played in Spokane is what I'm playing," he says.
Coeur d'Alene denizen Linda Norton seems to sum up the Lake City reaction to KBIH. She chanced upon the station, advertised only by word-of-mouth, by accident spinning her FM tuner's dial.
"They played everything from Patsy Cline to Aerosmith, and at night they play real soothing music. I don't switch radio stations any more. Everybody I've told about it likes it," Norton says.
Aiding Bedini's hand programming of the station are computer gadgets that would boggle the mind of anyone who hasn't been inside a radio station studio since the early-1990s. Gone are the turntables and the tape decks. In their place is a humming box and a mixing board. The entire show is run from an antique IBM 486 computer with a 30-megabyte disc drive. The gadgetry and software allow a programmer to compress and record an entire cut from a music CD into a mere 256-kilobyte-size MP3 file on the drive. The computer and peripherals enable Bedini to scramble an enormous mix of music and build that mix into multiple formats so the tune you just heard won't come up again for days. It also enables him to spend a mere five hours programming 24 hours of tunes. The signal shoots out of a microwave dish from the Bedinis' shop to the Blossom Mountain transmitter.
What will become of KBIH after it gets its license? Gauging by the dozens of calls John gets daily, asking him what it was that he just played, it might be that the station's format will attract commercial support. Its fate also will be in the hands of station-owner and Bedini's friend Barry Vector, a southern Californian trying to decide if investment in Inland Northwest radio is a good idea. Bedini and Vector were introduced four years ago by regional radio figure John Rook -- himself a former station owner and founder.
"I'm just doing this for a friend, and because I love music," says Bedini.
It will be a sad day for devotees of commercial- and talk-free radio (played in a style unique in the increasingly formulaic Inland Northwest broadcast market) when KBIH goes commercial or gets bought. But a full-tilt FCC license -- requiring news and noise -- is an inevitability. Radio stations are, after all, operated in the FCC's definition of the public interest.
Until then Bedini will continue to pursue his passion for music, in the lab and on the assembly bench by day, and by night in a small room surrounded by his CDs and a growing, word-of-mouth audience.
And until then, the listening is free and easy.