Photograph by Michael Amsler
Sound salvation: KGGV-LP's Kit Mariah works the airwaves.
Tiny stations make radio waves as lo-fi explodes in the North Bay
By Lois Pearlman
It's about 5 o'clock on a warm summer afternoon in Guerneville, and John Chapman is keeping time to the reggae song "Soothe Your Soul" while adjusting the sound for his weekly talk show, Touch.
A middle-aged man on the hefty side, with glasses and a headful of long braids, he is a big presence in the tiny converted broom closet that serves as a studio for KGGV-LP, 95.1-FM, the first low-power radio station to reach the airwaves in Sonoma County.
Once his theme song has concluded, Chapman launches into a reading from an Internet blogger, the Shadow, a taxi driver who describes his encounter with a soldier returning from Iraq. The soldier, it turns out, was looking to score some crack.
After the reading, Chapman, who uses the broadcast name Milo, begins talking about his dad, who fought in Vietnam, and his nephew, a veteran of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "Now [the returning soldiers] are killers because they are being told not to trust anyone [in Iraq]," Chapman says.
He invites listeners to call in with their opinions, but when nobody responds, he is ready with another downloaded editorial, this time about the Middle East.
Segueing into a discussion about the Israeli assault against Lebanon and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he displays an impressive knowledge of the history of the Jews in Europe and their expulsion from Judea by the Romans thousands of years ago.
Chapman is one of about 30 volunteer DJs who host an eclectic variety of radio shows on a station whose 50-watt transmitter allows it to reach from Forestville to Cazadero, not counting some low-lying pockets between the ranges of hills. He has never hosted a radio show before, but he has clearly been doing his prep work for a long, long time.
KGGV has been on the air since late March, when it debuted with a live broadcast from a home expo in the Guerneville School multipurpose room, and it is already becoming an institution in the lower Russian River.
The Guerneville Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation, holds the station's license and broadcasts church services every Sunday but otherwise doesn't involve itself in programming. The broom closet that houses the station's studio is at the church, spitting distance from the cyclone fence that separates the church property from the school playground. The antenna sits atop a redwood tree in the church's parking lot and the transmitter is in a cabinet.
Kit Mariah, one of a handful of volunteers who runs the station, said the costs for setting it up included $2,000 for an antenna, $2,000 for turning the closet into a sound studio and another $2,000 for an Emergency Alert System decoder. The Russian River Redevelopment Area paid for the decoder. Most of the station's equipment was donated. It would have cost about $8,000 to $10,000 if the station had purchased it new.
High Spark of Low Power
Guerneville is one of three Sonoma County locations where civic-minded professional broadcaster Randy Wells determined there was the right combination of factors for a low-power station. That includes enough empty space on the FM band to allow it to slip between the public and commercial radio stations that crowd the FM band. Created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2000 as a new class of radio, low-power FM (LPFM) is the latest wrinkle in the ongoing effort to establish community radio stations that are operated by and for the people who live in the communities.
In many ways, LPFM is like any other noncommercial radio station, but there are some special requirements that set it apart. Low-power stations are limited to a maximum of 100 watts at their transmitter, hence the name. And they are not allowed to employ additional transmitters or translators. The elevation of the single transmitter and antenna is also regulated, and the broadcasting station must be within 10 miles of the transmitter.
They can receive a license for any available FM frequency in their area, but they must not interfere with three frequencies on either side of their own. Frequencies skip every other number, so that means KGGV at 95.1 can't interfere with stations from 94.5 to 95.7. This is known as "third adjacent."
There are also eligibility requirements for license holders. They must be nonprofit educational organizations, nonprofits with an educational purpose--which is broadly defined--or government or public agencies, boards or institutions. No organization can hold more than one LPFM license, nor can the license be transferred or sold. Only organizations that have never broadcast before can apply.
The purpose of all these regulations is to keep LPFM stations small and grassroots, the opposite of the majority of commercial stations, as well as the public radio networks such as National Public Radio.
LPFM, in many ways, is a legal form of free radio or pirate radio, a phenomenon that blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s in response to two events: a 1978 law that eliminated low-power class D noncommercial licenses and the consolidation of commercial FM stations.
In 1993, free radio icon Stephen Dunifer turned the spate of scattered pirate stations into a movement when he founded Free Radio Berkeley and declared that the FCC had no right to parcel out licenses because the airwaves can't be owned.
Five years later, the FCC shut down Free Radio Berkeley and confiscated its equipment, so the station now devotes itself to running workshops for would-be free radio broadcasters and selling do-it-yourself transmitter kits. This summer, Dunifer was in Lima, Peru, running a five-day workshop for community activists in that city's barrios. This month, he is bringing his expertise to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. He eventually plans to move his base of operations from Berkeley to Panama.
"In Latin America, the political ground is much more fertile for [free radio] than in the U.S.," he says during a phone interview from Lima. "People in the U.S. are just too damn comfortable."
While he agrees that community broadcasters should take advantage of LPFM, "if they have that option open to them," he also sees it as a crumb tossed to the public by the FCC in order to maintain the broadcasting power structure. He says it does not challenge the FFC's power to control the airwaves.
One of his major complaints about LPFM is the third adjacent rule, which makes it impossible to set up low-power stations in urban areas.
"The airwaves are a common resource of the people," he says. "They've been stolen by the corporations."
KOWS in Occidental?
Phil Tymon was a colleague of Dunifer's in the heady days of Free Radio radicalism. Dunifer used to speak in the broadcasting classes Tymon taught at San Francisco State University. Now Tymon is the business administrative for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) on rural Coleman Valley Road. But radio runs through the veins of this former manager of both the biggest and smallest public radio stations in the United States: WBAI in New York City and KZYX in Philo.
So while Randy Wells was working with the Guerneville Community Church to get into the broadcasting business, he also made a quick connection with Tymon, who agreed to apply for a license on behalf of the OAEC. With license in hand, Tymon is like a child with a new train set. Working with the Committee for Democratic Communications, he was one of the broadcasters who wrote the suggested rules for low power in the late 1990s. Now he finally gets to play.
"We're putting a transmitter up," he says, noting that a September date has recently been postponed due to technical problems. "All of our programming will be recorded at first until we set up our studio in Occidental. We want to be in town because the whole idea is that it's a community radio station, a focal point for the community. Also, we would have parking problems up here at OAEC, and the three-watt transmitter is located near a horse and goat paddock."
Tymon, who lives in Guerneville, says his love affair with radio began in his childhood, when he would stay up all night listening to wild and crazy free-form programming.
"It gave me a sense of what radio could be and could do," he says. "That's what got me into it."
That's what he would like to see happen in Occidental on the new low-power station, KOWS-LP 107.3-FM.
"Let's find different ways to do radio, radio jam, a period of time when people can just come in and hang out, like being in the Occidental living room. It might not work, but we have the opportunity to experiment," he says.
On a more serious note, Tymon explains that community radio, whether it is low-power or regular FM, provides an outlet for sharing important information that people might not be able to get in any other way.
"It's a wedge thing," he says. "When critical issues arise at least there's that opening in the airwaves that comes into play when it's needed."
West Marin radio station KWMR 90.5-FM proved its usefulness in hard times last winter by providing listeners with up-to-date, localized information as they sat out three days of flooding caused by the heavy New Year rains.
As part of the West Marin Disaster Council, the station is equipped with radios that enable it to communicate with emergency workers and with a PG&E-funded generator that allows the station to continue to broadcast when the power is out.
"They called me at 5:30am and said, 'Could you open the station?'" remembers KWMR station manager Kay Clement.
A friendly, middle-aged woman, Clement has been with the station since its inception as a cable-access station for local cable company Horizon. Now it's a full-power FM community radio station in FCC parlance, but in reality, a de facto low-power station because it only has 18 watts at its transmitter on Mount Vision near Inverness.
Disaster broadcasting is only a very small part of the station's programming, but one that has allowed the grassroots, mostly volunteer station to garner a lot of funding.
"It's a good selling point for funding," admits Clement, who is one of four paid staff members at the station.
KWMR is also like a typical low-power station in other significant ways: All of the approximately 100 DJs are volunteers, and the programming is geared strictly toward the various segments of the West Marin population.
Gus Conde, a park ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore, hosts a bilingual music and talk show on Friday mornings. Like Clement, he has been there from the start; his wife and son also have their own programs.
On his show, Conde plays music from his vast personal collection, an eclectic blend of Spanish language music from all over Latin America, as well as music in English and other languages. He also features the Spanish language columnist from the Point Reyes Light newspaper whose offices are located next door to KWMR, as well as discussions about issues that he believes are of interest to West Marin's large and diverse Spanish-speaking population.
"I always liked radio and thought it was a good way to communicate things I thought were important to the Spanish-speaking community," says Conde, who, is a thoughtful, sweet-faced man nearing retirement from the park service. "I had a big music collection I wanted to share," he continues. "The reason [my show] is bilingual is that I want the communities to come together."
When he speaks about his show, Conde's face reveals his passion and dedication. He says he is always thinking about it, even when he is on vacation.
"The first time I realized what a powerful station this was, was when we had the vote for affordable housing [a few years ago]," he remembers. "I saw people listening to the election results on their car radios to get better reception."
With an additional transmitter in Bolinas, where the station can be heard at 89.3-FM, KWMR is able to broadcast to most of West Marin, from San Geronimo and Olema north to Marshall. Clement says the station hopes to erect a third transmitter in San Geronimo to boost the signal, but even with just the two, on a good day it is possible to pick up the station from as far away as downtown Petaluma.
"For some people, we are the only station they can get," Clement says.
Bumping up against the eastern edge of KWMR's coverage, three organizations in southern Sonoma County are sharing the only frequency available for a low-power station in their area, 105.7-FM.
When Petaluma Community Access (PCA), One Ministries in Penngrove and Sonoma State University all applied for the frequency several years ago, the FFC granted them each individual licenses and told them to share their spot on the dial.
Petaluma Community Access executive director Jennine Lanouette said the three organizations each have their own time slots and have joined forces to erect a single antenna and transmitter on "the highest hill we could find." The location, she says, is on private property near Stony Point Road and Railroad Avenue.
"We are working out the lease agreement with the property owner. We have the site. We have the tree picked out, and someone to climb the tree and someone to wire the transmitter. We hope to get going in the fall."
Meanwhile, PCA continues to broadcast both radio and television as the local cable-access station for Comcast. Once the transmitter is in place, the radio programs will be available to everybody.
Like its sister and brother community stations, KPCA is hoping to offer a healthy mix of programming for seniors, youth, Spanish-speaking listeners and music lovers. Lanouette says her organization hasn't done a lot of outreach into the community yet because it is still ironing out the legal and technical aspects of the project, but she plans to do it soon.
"We need radio enthusiasts in the community to take charge," she says. "It's a wide-open opportunity."
Surrounded on four sides, Sonoma goes it alone
Surging along at 2,500 watts, the Sonoma Valley's KSVY 91.3-FM is tantamount to a Clear Channel behemoth when compared to North Bay low-power stations, but it serves a similar purpose: to connect community. Locals often joke that the town of Sonoma is an island complete unto itself, and volunteer KSVY jock Michael Coats is quick to agree. "Ever since Santa Rosa stole the county seat from us a hundred years ago," he half-jokes, "it's hard to get the Press Democrat to cover anything in the Sonoma Valley. It's virtually impossible to get KFTY TV-50 over here. We have to create our own media."
With some 80 volunteer jocks, KSVY is part of the Common Bond Foundation that holds the license and is a sister to the Sonoma Valley Sun / De Sonoma Sol newspapers. A companion television station, SCTV Channel 28, is due to go live this fall. On air since April 2004, KSVY calls itself "free range radio" and has a solid section of Spanish-language programming every weekday and rotates shows on area history with hours devoted to food, wine, music and community events. "You can walk into businesses in Sonoma and hear the station," says Coats, who owns a public-relations firm in the town. "The morning show, Mike and Veronica, has that community feel to it. They're not there to provoke; you don't hear a lot of potty talk. And we know it's growing because we do special events--whether it's the farmers market or the Fourth of July parade, and we see the turnout."
Streaming on the web at www.ksvy.org, the Girl and the Fig chef-entrepreneur Sondra Bernstein can be heard Thursdays at 4pm; radio theater, Sundays at 6pm; poetry, music of the '40s, car talk and enduring discussions of soil composition and horticulture at various intervals throughout the week. It's an eclectic mix offered by local citizens who have enough comfort in their lives to concentrate their volunteer efforts on having fun.
Coats is one of the "Five Guys at Five" weekday rotation that allows locals the weekly pleasure of having a personal radio show. He trades banter with his sidekicks, quizzes listeners with the regular "Guess the Dead Guy" segment and just generally, he laughs, enjoys "being a big fish in a small pond. It's the most fun two hours you can have with the lights on--or off."
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