Oct. 24, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 2

Bidding Birdsill Goodbye

Mike Birdsill stands in front of the KFPR structure he helped build on top of Shasta Bally Mountain. 

After years of working in commercial radio, Mike Birdsill first came to Chico in 1983 in pursuit of a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Chico State. He expected to spend about five years here, earn his second degree, and then move on to do consulting work.

“But that didn’t quite work out,” he said with a laugh as he sat in one of NSPR’s studios more than three decades later. “You know, life gets in the way, your situation changes.”

In late September, more than 30 people came to say goodbye to NSPR’s longest-tenured staff member and chief engineer. They wanted to share their thanks and well wishes for an individual who had been so instrumental in the growth of the station, spearheading the work to build KFPR in Redding, establishing translators throughout the North State, and designing and building NSPR’s current facilities at 35 Main Street in Chico.

Birdsill grew up in Redondo Beach and earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, TV, and film from Long Beach State in 1974.

After graduating, he worked a series of jobs in radio, as both an announcer and an engineer at stations in Phoenix, Arizona; Lamar, Colorado; San Luis Obispo, California; and Oceanside. He also held a couple non-radio positions in between, including customer services representative for the broadcast products company Moseley Associates, and then plant electrician for the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Hayfork.

At the Oceanside station—his last stop before Chico—Birdsill worked primarily as an engineer and decided to restart his education in electrical engineering at the local community college.

After accumulating enough credits, he transferred into Chico State’s graduate program in 1983 and concurrently began work as a consultant in the area. Between ’83 and ’87, he built or helped move several stations in Northern California, including Channel 24 and KNCQ.

He was offered the job as KCHO’s chief engineer in 1987.

At that time, KCHO’s studios were about 10 years old and housed in the basement of Chico State’s Meriam Library. The KCHO transmitter located in the town of Cohasset (and still in use today) was set up a couple years before.

“I thought to myself, 'Well, this will be good, because I can go to school and work here, and I’ll give it about five years,'” he said. “But, again, life stepped in.”

NSPR General Manager Beth Lamberson (left) with Birdsill (right) as he accepts parting gifts.

NSPR General Manager Beth Lamberson (left) with Birdsill (right) as he accepts parting gifts.

The job of a radio station’s chief engineer is arguably the most vital one—ensuring, literally, that the station stays on the air.

“I used to tell my many bosses that I've had over the years (that) essentially, the chief engineer is responsible for making the stations operate with a certain amount of quality within the FCC rules. That's the basic job,” Birdsill explained. “Because if you don't comply with FCC rules, you may or may not be able to broadcast. And then beyond that, it’s trying to make sure you do enough maintenance on everything to keep everything going.”

Amid keeping NSPR on the air day-to-day, Birdsill eventually stopped pursuing the master's degree, but his on-the-job learning has never ceased.

One of the larger and more challenging projects Birdsill oversaw in his tenure came about in 1993 when the station got permission to build KFPR on top of Shasta Bally Mountain to serve Redding and parts of Trinity County.

“I think doing the build out of KFPR was quite a challenge, because Shasta Bally Mountain is a very hard mountain to drive up, even today,” he said. “So we had to move a lot of equipment, a lot of logistics, and funding. Money's always an issue.”

The hard work paid off though—23 years later, the KFPR transmitter is still on the air.

As a part of that build out, Birdsill and the other campus engineer on the project also started adding translators, which are low-powered repeater systems, to various towns. Translators receive a signal off the air and repeat it on a different FM channel, “translating” the incoming frequency to the outgoing frequency. Today, NSPR has eight translators on the air, its signal reaching throughout a large portion of the North State.

Another substantial project—the one Birdsill says was the most exciting and that he’s most proud of—was the creation of NSPR’s current headquarters at 35 Main Street. Over an 18-month period between 2003 and 2004, Birdsill and assistant engineer Jim Moore designed and built the new studios to their own specifications while continuing to run operations from the library.

“We were doing double duty and keeping up with everything in the field, so it was a real busy time,” Birdsill recalled. “Everything you see in all these rooms—they were bare rooms after they did the in-field construction. So Jim and I have pulled every wire, you know. But both Jim and I got everything we needed in this space.”

Many years later than anticipated, Birdsill said goodbye to North State Public Radio in September.

What would he miss? The obvious answer, he said, is the people. But he’ll also miss traveling out to some of NSPR’s scenic transmitter sites — for example, the Burney site on Hatchet Mountain.

“About five years ago they put 47 large wind mills up there to generate power,” he said. “So it’s kind of a unique site, and it’s generally cooler up there in the summer.”

Birdsill said besides getting to work alongside talented people over the years, his favorite NSPR memories are the times he got to take a helicopter to reach a site.

“Generally the name of the game in all of these sites is height,” he explained. “So they’re generally on a mountain . . . behind a locked gate up a logging road essentially. So you’re driving in four-wheel all the time to access them. And occasionally, in the case of KFPR, we fly in if we have to in the winter.”

Helicopter rides may be out of the equation for a while as he enters retirement, but he’s already got more plans to travel by air. Following his last workday, Birdsill planned to travel to Kansas for about 10 days to spend time with several of his 11 siblings. After that, he plans to visit Oceanside to see his daughter and his newborn grandchild. Like his parents before him, Birdsill has a large family—four sons, two daughters, and 10 grandchildren.

Beyond family time, he hopes to get in some golf, and, if weather permits, some snow skiing.

“I’m hoping for a good winter,” he said.

Here’s hoping life won’t get in the way of the plan this time.

An earlier version of this story was first published at myNSPR.com

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