A blown transmitter has plunged KLSN community radio into darkness, but the discovery that the Oakley-based nonprofit was operating from a tower in Antioch without legal permission may leave the 100-watt station permanently in the dark. 

In late January, the transmitter at the station malfunctioned and KLSN chief engineer Jeff Brown said he went to the radio tower located on Vista Grande Drive in Antioch to evaluate the damage. Brown said when he got into the tower, he found a note in a plastic envelope attached to the transmitter from American Tower Company, the entity that owns and operates the tower. 

“The note said, ‘Who are you? What’s your contract number?’ That was the first I had seen or heard from (American Tower),” said Brown. “I called Chris (Ponsano, KLSN general manager) and told him, and he said he would handle it.”

According to Ponsano, the radio station had permission to attach to the tower from the City of Antioch, which owns the land, via Mayor Sean Wright, the nephew of Oakley councilmember and Friends of Oakley founder Kevin Romick. The Friends hold the nonprofit license for KLSN. 

Ponsano said a verbal contract and gentleman’s handshake with Wright secured the use of the tower in January 2017, when the station found itself up against a hard deadline from the Federal Communications Commission  (FCC) which threatened to revoke their license if they did not get up and running by early 2017.

“We were told we were legally allowed to be there,” said Ponsano. “My original understanding was based upon the conversation that I had with Sean (Wright) that it was ok to be on the tower. It was a verbal agreement. The problem came in that there should have been more follow-through on my side.” 

But Wright remembered it differently. 

“There was no handshake agreement from me,” he said.

Who authorized the transmission from the tower remains unclear. 

Wright said he did not give permission to Ponsano to be in the tower after city attorneys nixed the deal, but Brown maintains that he was given a code to get into the tower by Ponsano and that the station operated from the tower for a year before the transmitter failed. Ponsano confirmed that they received access to the tower by calling American Tower and asking to take a look around the site to see if it fit the station’s needs. Efforts to reach a representative at American Tower were unsuccessful. 

When asked if they kept the code and set up housekeeping without permission or a contract, Ponsano said he wasn’t sure. And when asked if he believed they had permission to be there even though they never received a bill from American Tower or made any payments to the company, Ponsano again said he wasn’t sure but added that there was never any malicious intent to mislead. 

“This wasn’t done to deceive or rip anyone off, but we were under deadline by the FCC, and it was either move fast and try and pick up the pieces or lose the station and the license,” said Ponsano. “Our feeling was that it was too important to the community to be lost.”

Romick, who brokered a meeting with Wright and Ponsano early on to see if an agreement between the two could be reached regarding the tower, maintained his involvement was minimal.

“I was part of the negotiations but was only involved in the very early part of it,” said Romick. “Final decisions were between Chris and the city.”

Wright said he was not involved with the radio station. 

“Once I was told it couldn’t be done, that was the end of it for me,” he said.

But Brown maintained that Ponsano knew all along that they were not cleared to be operating from the tower. 

“I believe from day one that he knew we weren’t supposed to be up there,” said Brown, who according to Ponsano was let go a few weeks ago. “I had asked Chris several times over the past year to see a contract that says I’m allowed to be up there, and his response was to tell anyone that asks that we are working with the City of Antioch and have Sean Wright’s ok. I felt generally uneasy about it.”

As for legal ramifications, Antioch interim attorney Derek Cole said he was unclear.  Cole took over in May from City Attorney Michael Vigilia, who was with the city during the time of the tower negotiations and had said the city could not strike a deal with the station for space on the tower. Cole said the fact that the tower was utilized without legal authorization for over a year may be more of an ethical dilemma than a legal one.

“I am not sure there is a legal liability or responsibility, but I am just now becoming aware of the case,” said Cole. “It could mean a slap on the wrist up to a fine. But it could be more of an ethical, responsibility issue.”

Whether the FCC will view the situation as troubling remains to be seen. According to regulations, when a station goes off the air, the operators are required to notify the FCC within 10 days and request a 30-day extension of their license in order to get their issues resolved. Ponsano said he sent the FCC a registered letter on Feb. 7.

“We just want to be sure we keep it going for everyone,” said Ponsano. “The powers that be will negotiate with the City of Antioch to take care of this little mess … As we settle the tower issue we expect to be back on the air probably within 30 days.”

The nonprofit station, located on Bridgehead Road in Oakley, covers the areas of Pittsburg, Discovery Bay, Oakley, Brentwood, Antioch and Byron. The launch of the all-volunteer station was made possible by the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which authorized the FCC to license local, low-power broadcasting so people in suburban and rural areas could develop community radio stations to serve localized interests.