As a teenager growing up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, college radio changed my life. I'd tune in to KXLU, the radio station broadcast from Loyola Marymount University, late at night, listening to obscure punk rock that made my brain spin out into the wee hours.
Pre-internet, I was lucky that the station's powerful transmitter allowed the precious sound waves to reach my bedroom in Whittier. And if the dedicated volunteers at grassroots effort KWTF, a new public radio station, have it their way, listeners from Bodega Bay to Santa Rosa to Windsor will soon have access to the same intimate, sometimes life-changing, community-based radio experience.
"Sonoma County really doesn't have anything approaching a college station, or a station that's putting out independent music, in the same way that we're starting to do," says KWTF board president Caitlin Childs. "KRCB is a really great station, and we're not looking to compete with them, but one station can't put everything out; we're just hoping to add to the landscape."
Music is only one facet of the station's programming. Eventually, KWTF board members and volunteers plan on raising enough funds to build a local newsroom, expressly for the production of locally focused shows.
"I do think there's a demand for that," add Childs. "It might be a crazy plan, but I hope it's something we'll be able to do."
There are already a significant number of low-power and noncommercial radio stations in Sonoma County, including KOWS out of Occidental, KGGV out of Guerneville, KBBF, one of the first bilingual stations in the country, and, of course, KRCB, the county's NPR affiliate and home of much of the region's local programming. On the AM dial, KSRO broadcasts locally produced news and public-affairs content.
"Our goal is not to steal anybody else's pie; it's just to make more pies," says KWTF station manager Ben Saari. "We want to be complementary and collaborative with the other community media outlets that already exist, not to poach anybody's listeners or content."
KWTF's ultimate goal is to create a wide-reaching community radio presence, one that combines the strong public-affairs programming of KPFA with the eclectic and highly curated music programming of KALX, the college station out of UC Berkeley.
The story of KWTF began in 2007, when the FCC opened up applications for new stations; 88.1-FM was available, and the New College became a sponsor, a responsibility that couldn't be fulfilled when the school closed its doors for good that same year. Local radio fans behind the effort approached members of Free Mind Media, including Saari, Childs, Desiree Poindexter and Leanne McClellon, to see if they were interested in taking on the task. Thus, KWTF, with its unique call letters, was born. Elbert "Big Man" Howard, Carole Hyams and Sabryyah Abdullah are other founding members.
Since getting FCC approval for a 420-watt license in 2010, the station has hosted regular fundraisers for the ultimate goal of a transmitter and an antenna to potentially reach up to 250,000 listeners. But the first step is to raise at least $6,000 to buy a transmitter that'll get KWTF, currently streaming online, on the terrestrial airwaves. An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign ends Nov. 13, and as of Oct. 19, the station had raised $2,069 toward the goal.
The next step for KWTF is the purchase of an antenna—at a cost of about $40,000. With a deadline of March 2013, when the FCC license expires, there's not much time to get all the financial ducks in a row.