Radio station signs off, blames rising power bills


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ST. THOMAS - A 100,000-watt radio station based in the Virgin Islands went off the air Tuesday afternoon thanks in large part, the owners say, to climbing electricity costs from the V.I. Water and Power Authority.

As of Tuesday evening, WWKS-FM - better known as Kiss 101.3 FM - stopped broadcasting from Cruz Bay.

"Basically, it is way, way too expensive," said Sarah Ackley, sales manager of Ackley Media Group, which owns the station.

The St. Thomas company owns four radio stations in the Virgin Islands - WIVI-FM, WVJZ-FM, WWKS-FM and WVWI-AM. Of those, WWKS has the most powerful broadcast antenna and therefore the highest electricity bill, according to Ackley. She said the station has been paying about $8,500 a month to keep broadcasting.

"We're already in the red $8,500 by the first of the month and we have to compensate for that," Ackley said.

She said the company's three other stations have been self-sustaining and the company hopes to make those stations more successful by focusing more closely on them in the absence of WWKS.

Like many business owners who have expressed frustration with rising utility costs, Ackley said WAPA's prices have a ripple effect that hurts the station on multiple fronts.

"Because we do rely on a lot of businesses that are also having WAPA charges go up - restaurants, grocery stores, stuff like that - it's hard for them to spend money on radio advertising because they're already spending so much on their WAPA bills," Ackley said.

Last week, WAPA announced a rate increase, effective Monday, that raises the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause - a charge meant to pay primarily for the utility company's fuel costs - to 38.3 cents per kilowatt hour.

The LEAC was 3.8 cents per kilowatt hour in January 2003, when the crude oil WAPA uses to power its generators cost about $31.14 a barrel, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That same barrel cost $110.77 by the end of September this year, according to the EIA.

The latest LEAC increase - along with the discrepancy between the rate of increase in the LEAC versus the cost of fuel during the last decade - has many business owners wondering how they are going to deal with the higher electricity costs and asking why WAPA is not doing a better job of addressing the problem.

"Maybe they just need to communicate more with everyone and let us know," Ackley said.

She said her company is extending an open invitation to WAPA to have it explain to the public why the territory's utility costs are so high and what WAPA's plans are for the future.

WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said the company "understands that utility costs are affecting businesses," but the Ackley Group "made the decision they needed to make."

"We're doing what we can to see rates go down on a daily basis," Dunn said.

St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Aubain said the Chamber is working with WAPA to discuss alternatives to fossil fuels such as natural gas.

"It is a severe hardship on all of us," Aubain said. "We know many businesses are experiencing hardship right now because of high utility bills, and we don't anticipate a drop in these bills any time soon."

In the meantime, the Chamber is preparing a fact sheet of smaller changes businesses can make to help curb their utility costs, Aubain said.

But such steps were of little consolation to the Ackley Group's owner and CEO, Gordon Ackley, who said he has little hope that WAPA will change its ways.

"They gotta realize they're killing the business community," Gordon Ackley said. "They're killing the Virgin Islands."

Gordon Ackley said he is trying to remain optimistic that he will be able to get WWKS restructured and back on the air within three or four months, but many variables remain.

"I've already been losing money for four years, and it just got 20 percent worse," he said. "It'd be different if there was a glimmer of hope. But I don't see a glimmer of hope."

- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.

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