Driving through the Owens Valley, a traveler might happen upon a seemingly out of place radio station while scanning the FM dial for music.
Arabic music and lyrics, with French oldies mixed in, blasting out of the speakers. Radio hosts and guests conversing solely in Arabic. A weekly Sunday Mass broadcast from a church in Southern California.
This is the programming at KWBP 90.1 FM, the first and only 24/7 broadcast solely in the Arabic language in the United States. While 90.1’s offices are based out of the Los Angeles/Pasadena area, the reason motorists in the Eastern Sierra are picking up the signal is simple: it is broadcast from a station in Big Pine.
The Sheet caught up with 90.1 FM owner and operator Elie Tawil, who lives in San Dimas, to discuss the station’s presence in the Eastern Sierra and what the broadcast is all about.
Tawil’s interest in radio stretches back to his youth, growing up in the country of Lebanon; his passion for broadcasting “started in my homeland when i decided to play with electronics at a young age.”
“Playing with electronics” doesn’t quite illustrate his talent; he built a radio transmitter by himself while in his teens.
He left Lebanon at the age of 18 due to the outbreak of war in his home country, settling in Southern California in the 1980s.
“I always wanted to build my own radio station here,” Tawil said, “but couldn’t afford it.”
“I didn’t have time because as an immigrant,” he explained, “You have to work really hard. I came here and didn’t speak any English. I had to work, I had to provide for family, and help my parents.”
As a result, “I didn’t have the chance to do what I wanted to do,” Tawil said.
That chance came in 2015, when Tawil “had a little bit of money and I came across the station and my dream came true.”
At that time, Tawil had come up with the idea for the station’s content and had been broadcasting solely online, but wanted to expand into the FM market.
“I came across this station [in Big Pine] that was for sale for a reasonable price,” he said, and bought it.
Tawil said that he comes up US-395 for vacations and off-roading excursions, and knew that there would be plenty of traffic along the corridor that he could reach with a station.
The goal, he said, is “to attract the community that’s driving through there or anybody that’s interested in a different type of music.”
The landscape helps funnel listeners his way, as few stations broadcast along the I-15 and US-395 corridor. The station’s transmitter is located on Mizourka Peak and travelers can pick up the broadcast around Ridgecrest and carry it through to Bishop and part of the way to the Sherwin grade.
“I have a lot more listeners than I thought I would just based on travel on 395,” Tawil said, “A lot of people who go up to Bishop, who camp there and stay for weekend, that’s where I get most listeners up there.”
The station, he said, operates off of renewable energy. Tawil makes the drive up to Big Pine every now and again to make sure everything is operating as it should and perform any necessary maintenance on the station’s equipment.
“We are [in Big Pine] all the time because it breaks down all the time,” he added with a laugh.
“I love it every time i go up [to the Eastern Sierra],” Tawil added, It does not feel like Southern California. What beautiful scenery.”
In terms of content, “We try to bring in and talk to the Middle Eastern community and see their issues, being immigrants in a foreign country,” Tawil said. “We try to figure out what information we need to get out to become part of the community, become a contributing part of the community.”
Programming includes hour blocks of French and Arabic “oldies” from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80’, a dance block from 6 p.m.-2 a.m. on Saturdays, a live broadcast of Sunday Mass from the St. June Maronite Catholic Church in West Covina, and a daily noon prayer.
The broadcast, he said, is Christian-based, and maintains a strong presence at churches throughout the Southern California area.
“We do a lot of activities,” Tawil said, “We interview a lot of famous people from the Middle East, interview a lot of people who live outside of Lebanon. We bring the attention of all that to the community in all of Southern California.”
“We are a non-profit, 501c3,” he explained, “A community to assist people.”
At the moment, the station is a one-man show, with about 30,000 listeners across California, but Tawil wants to expand the operation. “I’m hoping one day that I can get some donations and stuff like that” to bring the broadcast and its content to even more of the region.