Whidbey Island loses its voice

Rick Bell, host of KWDB Radio 1110, hit the road Monday for Arizona, with good friend Myron Brundage helping drive the truck laden with household items.

He left it all behind with a great deal of sadness, packing an award for his years of service presented by the Oak Harbor City Council. Never at a loss for words, Bell reminisced about his years of broadcasting everything from parades and sporting events to rubber ducky races, business openings and political debates.

“I won’t be here when the power’s out,” Bell said sadly, referring to Whidbey Island’s frequent outages. Bell could always be counted on to reach generator-powered KWDB (pronounced K-Whidbey) in time for his “Rick in the Morning” show when he would update islanders on power restoration efforts, traffic conditions and where to find emergency shelter.

Waiting for Bell in Bullhead City, Ariz., is his wife Kitty, a community leader in her own right who moved earlier to be near Phoenix where she is receiving treatment for a condition that has taken her vision.

“The treatment will continue for a while and the dry heat is real good for her,” Bell said Thursday, shortly after signing off from KWDB for the last time.

Bell, 59, said their children and grandchildren have grown and left their three-story house, which is now on the market. He’s not planning on coming back, other than to visit. His wife is hoping he takes it easy in the sun. “She says ‘you’re not doing ‘nothin’,” he said with a dubious smile. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Oak Harbor’s radio station experience dates back to 1984, and Bell has been involved most of the way. Former Whidbey News-Times publishers Wallie Funk and John Webber helped start a station called KJET. A few years later when they sold the newspaper they also sold the radio station. Bell, who had hoped to buy the station some day, was out of the picture. He went to work for Radio Shack.

The station then entered several years of instability, changing locations and call letters, under the ownership of Northwest radio legend Pat O’Day, who lives in the San Juans.

You can’t run it by remote control,” Bell said. “You can’t sit in an office in Friday Harbor.”

Eventually the station “went dark,” as they say in the business, until another buyer came forward. That turned out to be West Beach beefalo rancher James Tilton, who hired Bell, a technical wizard with 20 years of electronic warfare service in the U.S. Navy, to get things started again. Bell retired from the Navy in 1988 as a a senior chief.

Back in the radio business, Bell scrounged up all the parts necessary for a radio station and built some impressive broadcasting facilities in a voluminous metal building at Ault Field and Heller roads with a big “Computers” sign bolted to the outside wall. A small antenna on the roof sends the radio signal to the station’s main transmitter 3.5 miles away at Fort Nugent and Zylstra roads.

Bell had managed the latest reincarnation of Oak Harbor’s radio station since 2000, and as always he stayed tuned in to the community. Besides broadcasting local news and interviews, he always got personally involved, through the Fair Board, Island County Red Cross and Relay for Life, among other volunteer activities.

While nervous about starting a new life, Bell finds inspiration from his wife, who has known for years that her condition would eventually lead to blindness. Kitty didn’t let that stop her from working at Whidbey Island Bank for 22 years, helping start Regency on Whidbey and earning certification for demential analysis.

“She’s not afraid to tackle anything,” Bell said. And he’s following her lead in moving to Arizona.

Meanwhile, KWDB will continue broadcasting at 1110 AM on your radio dial, but it will never sound quite the same without Rick Bell at the microphone.

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