By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
COWLINGTON, Oklahoma — When you think of syndicators, you think of giants like Premiere or Dial Global. When you think of radio stations that carry syndicated programs, heritage stations like New York City’s WABC and KABC in Los Angeles come to mind. What you don’t think is a syndicator setting up their operation, or their entire radio station’s operation, in a bedroom in their home located in rural Oklahoma. You also don’t think anyone working out of a room about the size of a one-car garage distributing 24 hour programming, seven days-a-week on three continents. What you also don’t think is that anyone can do all of this, with an operating budget that equals the pay before taxes of a young adult working full-time at a fast-food restaurant.
Welcome to the world of Jan Starks
If you have not heard of Jan Starks, it may be because you’re not one of the 155 people who live in Cowlington, Oklahoma, a tiny town with about 55 households nestled near the Arkansas border. This is the town that Starks calls home, and is also the home of Star Com Media, LLC. Cowlington is also the home of KKRP-AM (1610), a low-power radio station broadcasting with 100mw of power, the same milliwattage that can power a small laser pointer, and just enough to reach the rural population of Cowlington. However, thanks to modern technology, the internet, a few computers, an unusually strong passion for radio and an equally unusual business plan, KKRP-AM is now a part of a legion of stations across the nation just like it, and he hasn’t stopped there.
What Starks has done as the CEO of Star Com Media, LLC is linked up small “hobby” radio stations just like his flagship station, KKRP-AM across the nation, and his company supplies around-the-clock programming to stations that could never imagine carrying professional programs to small, rural audiences. While he may not carry talk names such as Rush Limbaugh or music shows such as American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, Starks’ micro-network of low power AM and FM radio stations does feature programs such as “The Ed Tyll Show,” “The Making Sense Show,” “Jiggy Jaguar,” and international programs like “The Scribble Show,” “The Week in Review” and “Caledonia Calling” from the United Kingdom.
“We own 19 micro stations in 18 states. The biggest community we serve has about 500 people,” says Starks, who adds that what he is doing is bringing quality programs to communities that may not be able to have programming on their own. “We’re trying to make sure that the average hard-working American has a voice. That’s why we have Ed Tyll, and Jiggy, and a rock n’ roll show from Texas. We want people to know they can have their own voice with people they can relate to. I don’t want Rush (Limbaugh) or Sean (Hannity). I want the person who pays their dues,” says Starks.
Since shows like Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t found on what are considered “hobby” radio stations, there is a definitive need for programming. That’s where Starks and his company come in.
In Ed Tyll, Starks has a political independent who recently rated among the top radio hosts of theTALKERS magazine Frontier Fifty of outstanding talk media webcasters. Along with Tyll, Star Com Media, LLC affiliates receives shows such as “The Making Sense Show,” hosted by Don LeVassaur and Laurie Ulrich Fuller.
When it comes to adding new programs, Starks has taken a worldwide approach.
“We have a radio station in the U.K. that carries our shows in exchange for us carrying their shows, such as ‘Old Geyser Radio.’” We’re also finalizing a deal with Naija.FM, a radio station in Nigeria that reaches 21 million listeners. They will also carry our programs. What we found is we can have an effect. We feed the signal to the computers, they feed it to their transmitters of these small-wattage stations, and small towns in America have programming they would not be able to have,” says Starks, who adds Star Com Media, LLC now boasts 137 affiliates, and hopes to continue to grow his affiliates.
Starks is not alone in getting programs for his affiliates, and his affiliates have an interesting arrangement that seems to work well with them.
“We tried to get syndicated programming from some very big companies. Dial Global listened to us, and we now carry “Last Night with Jay Leno,” “The Osgood Files” and “Nurse Talk” and bring these shows to our affiliates. Along with the programs from the United Kingdom, it allows Starks to put together a quality lineup that affiliates can carry. However, what is carried is not up to Starks, but the micro-stations themselves.
“Stations can air what they want. At least 90% of the stations stay with us 24/7,” says Starks. “They can break in with emergency or vital information, sometimes sports events, whatever they want. That is up to them.”
Passion for radio
What pushes Starks is his passion for radio. Starks, who grew up with the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack as his idol, has been in and out of radio for 37 years. He started his career in radio at a small station in Wisconsin. He moved to Oklahoma four years ago, where he built KKRP. As he grew his station, other small micro-station operators heard what he was building and wanted to be a part of it. That’s when he created Star Com Media, LLC.
“People fail to realize that those small stations benefit the small populations. No they are getting national programming from us,” says Starks.
Star Com Media, LLC now owns stations such as KKRP; “Wisconsin’s Voice of Reason” WPAF-AM (920); “Oregon’s Country With an Attitude” KLAE-FM (101.3); Illinois’ “Home of Country Music and with the Progressive Mind” WRUB-FM (88.1); and the “Backbone of Idaho’s Progressive Voice” KAHB-AM (1400). Twenty years ago, those very same micro-stations could only reach those within their AM or FM signal radius. However, now with the advent of the internet, broadcasting applications such as TuneIn, social media like Facebook and Twitter, these very same micro-stations can be heard not just 1,000 feet from the radio station transmitter, but in any corner of the world, and costs are far less than one might think.
His flagship station, KKRP-AM has its own Facebook page that gives updates on shows and station happenings. To listen to KKRP, there’s an app for every platform, whether it’s for an iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android or other device, meaning you can listen to KKRP in Cowlington, Oklahoma or the small village of Cowling in North Yorkshire, England.
“We don’t have the overhead of the big radio companies. Our annual budget is $16,700,” says Starks. “Our ‘central hub’ is in one of the bedrooms in my house,” and Starks says it’s from there that KKRP-AM broadcasts and the shows he sends out 24/7 emanates.
“The vast majority of what we do comes out of our central hub, and is out of pocket when the budget runs short. When you factor in the (control room) board, computer, and microphone, it costs about $2,000 to set up and that includes the transmitter,” says Starks. “We just started a fundraising effort to assist our operation and to acquire more stations. I would love someday for the stations and programming to be self-sufficient. Right now we depend on donations. Hosts do sell advertising, and what they make they keep,” says Starks.
Starks believes that these Part 15 stations, or “hobby” stations as the FCC defines them, are being overlooked and are a vital part of the radio and information landscape. He adds it is a business opportunity, but it’s more than that.
“What we have done is took these stations and gave them new life. We have taken stations that could have gone silent and joined them together into a network,” says Starks. They are easily forgotten by the big radio companies. They forget there’s a difference between the big city and small towns. They have different needs. That’s why people are turning to the internet and social media and stations like mine. We don’t cater to special agendas. We give listeners what they want – the truth. These stations serve a vital role in their communities. Without them, the average American will not have a voice that speaks for them.”
As for the future, Starks isn’t looking very far down the road.
“I’d like to see more stations join us within the next six months. We’d also like to put another 10-12 stations on line within the next five years. We’ll be international and we’ll be diverse. It’s always exciting to embark into new territory,” says Starks.
“I love this business. I love being a thorn in the side of Clear Channel. They have huge salaries they pay. We don’t. We give the listeners quality programs and what people want, and we do it with miniscule expenses as compared to a Clear Channel, and we’re proving it can be done.”
Jan Starks can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned at 918-966-3313.
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.