Courtesy photo

Katie and Dave in the studio

How does the lockdown affect a radio station -- especially a station that has also served as a restaurant, bar, movie theater, backyard volleyball court and live music venue? We caught up with KTAO's president and owner Katie Speirs to find out.

Can you start with a little bit of background on yourself and the station?

I was hired back when KTAOS was in the trailer on Blueberry Hill Road as production director," recalled Speirs. "Brad Hockmeyer, the station founder, started KTAO over 40 years ago -- Taos' independently owned Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) radio station. My background was in radio, as I started as an intern at KBCO in Boulder.

In 1991, KTAO received international attention when we became the first radio station in the world to be powered by the sun. A super-structure holding over 150 solar panels (more have since been added over the recent years as we did a major upgrade) was installed on the top of the 10,800-foot Picuris Peak, and racks of batteries along with the transmission equipment were housed in an earthship made of recycled materials that maintains a safe, constant temperature range year round.

KTAO is now licensed at 100,000 watts. Our audience reaches Taos County, Los Alamos, Española, Alamosa, Santa Fe, Southern Colorado -- and on a good day - Albuquerque, and of course online. The photovoltaic panels are virtually maintenance free and cut the electric bill to almost nothing, while allowing KTAO the capability to transmit over a 300-mile radius. KTAO has not only made a commitment to bringing a great variety of music to the Taos community and beyond, but on a larger scale, has committed to making a lasting difference on the planet with its use and advocacy of solar power.

In 2010 Brad Hockmeyer sold the station and the venue to this longtime employee -- I will be celebrating my 18th year with the company this September 2021.

My husband, general manager Dave Darus, and I have been running the company with great success and a wonderful staff. Brad is still on-air in the afternoons, and on Saturday mornings for Solar Country - 'AKA Johnny Ray Rawhide.' Paddy Mac will be celebrating his 20th anniversary this year with the company and continues to win our hearts over the airwaves every morning. Commitment and longevity is a big deal with this community radio station!

Lockdown has been in effect for over a year now. How has it affected the station?

Being in radio, we are considered an essential business. And during the COVID lockdown we worked. Several employees worked from home, but the DJs were definitely working hard to deliver as much information as we could regarding COVID while providing entertaining music and fun personalities to keep our listeners happy during such a strange and scary time in all of our lives. We felt a very slight dip in advertising at the beginning of the pandemic when there was so much unknown, however our advertisers are back in full force and we are finding new business as well. Many people are moving to our community and starting new businesses. We pride ourselves on being a music-focused radio station, with community interviews, information and conversation. And growing local business through the power of radio is our strength and pleasure.

Any changes in format over the past year?

In regards to our format over the past year nothing really changed, except we worked very hard to provide the most honest and up-to-date COVID information to our listeners. We wanted to provide a feeling of normalcy over the airwaves. A refuge where listeners could go to essentially de-stress and enjoy. When the restaurants were hit so hard, we offered a free feature on air, where restaurants could call in every day to Paddy Mac -- any restaurant in Northern NM -- and discuss their to-go offerings and any information they needed to express. It was so helpful for our fellow business owners.

Did you ever expect the bar and performance venue to be shut down for this long?

The KTAOS Solar Center venue and bar closed in October of 2019 -- just prior to the COVID outbreak in February 2020. We decided to put our entire focus into radio. To say the least, we feel lucky we made the decision on our own to close before COVID shut down the world. The venue (not including the station) is for sale.

One thing that we did change were in-house policies. Since our building was strictly closed to the public, we were producing commercials differently. We always encourage our clients to voice their own commercials so they become a strong part of their brand. With the building closed, clients couldn't come in to voice with me in production. So they began simply recording into their phones, sending their vocals, and we found a wonderful and simple fix to a situation. We also only offer interviews with Paddy Mac and Brad over the phone. We haven't had anyone from the outside in our studios since we closed our building in March of 2020.

How have you personally been maintaining sanity and good cheer this past year?

As far as me personally maintaining sanity, I woke up each morning and took one step at a time. There were many afternoons where we would rush to watch the Governor's information briefings at 3 p.m. on TV. Gathering new information on a daily basis was a lot to handle, especially at the rate the facts about COVID changed. Working was very helpful. Keeping a daily routine, and getting to visit with coworkers daily made everything a lot less isolating. I also started doing yoga and skied once a week this past season to allow myself to breathe.

And what do you envision for the future as we begin to reopen?

I hope for Taos to open up entirely and I'm embracing all the new growth and new community members moving here. So far I've met really lovely interesting people who are excited to be here, and excited to contribute to our community. This brings me hope. Many with small children, who intend to raise them here, which is wonderful. I look forward to the station growing even more with all the new businesses opening. We appreciate every single person who listens and supports KTAOS and LUNA. It is our goal and our absolute pleasure to form relationships and grow businesses for many years to come. Oh, and I'm looking forward to a vacation, actually getting on a plane again is so exciting for me. I can't wait to reconnect and hug people again!

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