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.
Childs, with a tenacity common to many of the KWTF volunteers, says that no matter what, they'll be on the air in March, even it means not buying the full-strength equipment. That would limit the station's coverage area, but would allow the permit to stay open.
Of course, original programming is already available for listening at www.KWTF.net. The station currently plays eight hours of new programming Monday through Friday; on weekends, it drops to six. According to Saari, the station's only paid employee, 40 percent of KWTF's schedule is made up of local programming. The rest is filled out with freely distributed programs specifically for community radio stations and content produced for KWTF, but which comes from more than a hundred miles away. Syndicated shows include Democracy Now! in Spanish, CounterSpin (produced by a team from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) and Free Speech Radio News.
"Our goal is to have as much local origination as possible," says Saari. "We also want to have a 60–40 split between music and talk radio."
Current locally produced programs include Sneaker.net, hosted by two Sonoma County techies and focused on technology and geek culture; Women's Spaces, hosted by Elaine B. Holtz, with a focus on the "needs and talents of women"; and Pillow Storm, an offbeat, often hilarious music show hosted by stalwart indie-scene supporters Josh Drake and Josh Staples, who made the move from KCRB over to KWTF this fall.
Vinyl-O-Matic, hosted by Sebastopol-based musician and graphic designer Will McCollum, plays on weekdays. McCollum's been creating the show—a journey from A to Z through his 900-strong record collection—since March 2012 in a home studio using Audacity software. His influences include WFMU's Teenage Wasteland with Bill Kelly and KALX shows like Sex 14s, Pop Goes the Weasel and Tiger Lily.
"I've been an avid, free-form radio fan for the last 20 years," says McCollum, who has no previous hosting experience. "It's been rewarding to host my own show, because I've been able to get further in touch with the community at large in Sonoma County by going to different KWTF events and getting to know the people involved in the station."
Once the transmitter is in place, McCollum plans on bringing in different members of the community to share their own favorite songs and records on the air. It's an example of how key "local" is to the KWTF mission. Station organizers are always on the lookout for new programmers from the area, and the KWTF website contains more information about how to pitch show ideas.
"It's been great seeing people come up with ideas for shows and then doing them," says Childs. "There's something really cool about facilitating a way for people to tell more stories and get their music out in the world."
After all, isn't that what community-based, grassroots radio is all about? As Saari adds, "Local radio is an important way to reach a local audience. We want to be part of a more vibrant and diverse public community radio landscape in Sonoma County."