History of KPFZ

Radio Active The Story of KPFZ/ Lake County Community Radio (not for publication) © Andy Weiss 2005

The Beginnings (1995)

Community radio in Lake County was born on a shivering cold evening in late November of 1995. Three or four radio aficionados* gathered around a wood stove in Clearlake Oaks to discuss forming a local, public, non-commercial radio station. Had they known what lay ahead – the difficulties, the obstacles, the David vs. Goliath odds, the various incarnations – they might have been better off adjourning to a warm pub and forgetting their plans. But in their naivité they made their pledges to each other, and set in motion a ten year journey that is now on the brink of fulfillment.

The founders were concerned about certain trends in the media in the United States: Corporate radio was centralizing and consolidating the medium, as well as commercializing opinions and culture. Canned DJs and limited automated play lists from New York skyscrapers were dictating the listening habits for the rest of the country. Where were the local points of view and expression of local culture? Where was local ownership? Where were the unheard voices, the racial, sexual, cultural, and gender diversity, the alternative news, opinions, information, and music, especially from their own community of Lake County? Where was the opportunity to hear from friends, neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens? A glance at history, said that those voices had not always been shut out in America.

Up until 1934, you could sit around a wood stove and start a radio station. But those pioneering days had been gone for sixty years. Back then, in the first third of the twentieth century radio in America had been wide-open. There was no regulation. If a person or organization wanted to start a radio station, well, he/she/it started a radio station. Democratically inspired stations sprang up all over the dial – originating from schools, churches, towns, cities, and community organizations.

But the burgeoning electronic form had too many possibilities to be ignored by the powers that be, and in that year of 1934, the Federal Communication Commission was established to regulate radio. In reality, that meant turning the birthing medium over to commercialized interests (unlike most European nations, where government supported/public radio won the day). From that moment forward, you had to have a ticket, better known as a license, to participate. And like all licenses, whether one to fish or drive, you had to pay the price and follow the rules to get it. Large commercial radio networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) naturally followed because they could pay the price and follow the rules. Still, there were concerns among the country’s leaders that radio should be kept competitive, so the law limited one radio station per company in each market. And that rule held for sixty years.

* George Breunig, Andy Weiss, Dallas Cook

The Dunifer Decision (1995)

As the founders discussed the possibilities around the wood stove that night, wondering if there was way to start a licensed station (and thinking, at the time, that it was beyond their means), the concept of micropower radio came into the discussion. Microradio was a growing grassroots movement sweeping the country – a combination of civil disobedience and defense of first amendment rights that related to freedom of the press. Similar to the Stamp Act in Revolutionary times, the micropower movement argued that to license the airwaves was akin to charging a tax on printed material (“an abridgment of fundamental rights,” said early Americans), as the British had demanded in pre-Revolutionary America. The micropower movement advocated fuller access to the airwaves by more people. And new technology was making the possibility of such access a reality.

Once upon a time, back around 1934, a radio transmitter and all its supporting gear took up the better part of a room. But by now, the mid-1990’s, solid state and digital technology had miniaturized, sophisticated and streamlined radio gear to the point that one could hold a radio station in one’s hand. This was no mere techo-breakthrough, but the beginnings of a communications revolution that was swiftly moving across the country in many forms: Indy record labels popped up in bedrooms, the world wide web was about to change the way people communicated, and something called, microradio, burst into existence. Bay Area microbroadcaster Stephen Dunifer was its leader – technically, spiritually, and legally in this movement. His recent court case had open some doors to grassroots radio.

The FCC had sued Dunifer for broadcasting using a tiny transmitter without a license. But a series of rulings supporting micropower radio and going against the FCC by Federal District judge, Claudia Wilken kept microradio tacitly legal for nearly three years. Under the protection of courts, the FCC shut down no stations during this period, and hundreds, possibly thousands of unlicensed stations had sprung up around the country during the years before the case was overturned (1998). This kind of radio seemed a possible alternative to the founding members, so they dampened down their wood stove fire, adjourned their meeting, and went into the community to see if there was support for such a station in Lake County.

The First Station – Micropower (1996-1999)

Coincidentally, or perhaps even fated, events in Lake County in the spring of 1996 demonstrated a strong need for alternative communications among its citizens.

Officials of Clear Lake had struck a deal with the state of California to bring a prison into the county. Although this was supported in some circles, it was not in many others, and the “prison issue” was fast becoming a hot button and controversial one on the local scene. Mainstream papers had endorsed the prison, as did the city council of Clear Lake. The founders recognized an opportunity to ally with various activist groups as a way of voicing opposition to the prison via a radio station. At these anti-prison gatherings and other similar meetings, the founders found support for their radio station idea. Interest grew, and before long regular meetings and fund raising events were taking place to get the station off the ground.

At the same time, the founders took a trip to Redwood Valley, in Mendocino County, to visit a successful micropower station – in hopes of finding out what made radio ‘tick’. In that visit, many things were learned about the technical and practical aspects of starting a station. But a more important and extremely vital lesson was learned that day also – it was possible to reach a sizable group of people through the medium of radio for a fairly reasonable amount of money. This knowledge was not only the principle of micropower radio in general, but made the founders realized that a radio station was within their grasp and their limited budget. Inexpensive radio was a lesson that would propel the basic philosophy of the station and give the leadership the confidence to expand the station’s possibilities in the years to come. By keeping costs down, independence, local ownership, and free speech could be preserved on their station without any undue outside influence.

And so, basic transmission equipment was purchased, and an even more basic studio, using consumer audio gear, was set up in a converted shed at a private residence in the Lucerne hills. The antennae sat elegantly in a tree. The power was flipped on. Microradio had come to Lake County.

A somewhat erratic broadcast schedule marked those early days: For one period the station was on seven days a week starting in the afternoons and going late into the night. At other times it broadcast only on weekends or in the evenings, or in other combinations. The programming philosophy on the new micropower station was as follows: all were welcome to take part. Diversity was the natural outcome of this call to action: folks who had never had access to the media were suddenly on-the-air. This included members from local American Indian groups, Spanish speaking peoples, women, young people, as well as music that had never been heard over the air in Lake County before. The station was an immediate hit because the audience was exposed to something “new and different” that stood out from the local commercial stations.

Broadcasting was a new undertaking for most of those involved, so programmer turn-over was fairly high, probably because no one was turned away for lack of experience (or even talent). Some programmers found they didn’t want to be radio personalities after the embarrassment of a show or two. But certain shows sustained the station in that period -including a powerful issue-oriented local American Indian program; a show on national/ international politics and history which featured well-known guests from all over the country; a show on legal and local issues; a lively country music show; a show on eastern and western culture and spirituality; and a teen hip-hop show (long before it became the vogue) among others. In addition, the station often featured “living room radio” where guests and drop-ins sat around on couches and on the floor, chatted and played music and made a form of informal broadcasting.

By early spring of 1996, Lake County Radio was booming to the north part of the lake (for technical reasons and the limitations of micropower radio broadcasting would be limited to Kelseyville, Lakeport, Nice, and Lucerne). As a sign that the new station was on the right track, a county-wide plebiscite defeated the prison issue. There would be no state lock-down in Lake County, and a new radio station was born out of the process.

The Situation Worsens – Telecommunications Act of 1996

Meanwhile, as Lake County’s micro station broadcast daily to the north part of the lake, back in Washington DC, a conservative political movement called “Contract with America” was sweeping congress, and the deregulation of radio ownership became the order of the day. The Republican congress, passed, and the Democratic President (Bill Clinton), signed, the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It was the first time since the 1934 that the act had been revised. And it wasn’t good news for local radio.

Up until the new legislation in 1996, congress and the FCC has watched carefully over the number of radio stations that one organization (or person) could own. Suddenly, overnight, all that changed, the rules were lifted, the floodgates opened, and there was no limit to the number of radio stations that an individual or organization could own. When the 1996 Act was implemented, there was a mad scramble by those who could afford to do so, to buy up every available station. On the commercial end of the dial, powerhouses like Clear Channel and CBS Radio soon boasted hundreds of stations in their pockets. Small, locally owned stations disappeared from the radio dial (including several in Lake County). On the non-commercial spectrum (88.1 – 91.9), powerful Christian non-profit national networks set the same course, and ate up every frequency they could find, virtually destroying the future possibilities of community radio in America. If the founders of community radio had been concerned about the consolidation of media, now they were truly alarmed.

The Creation of Lake County Community Radio (1998)

As the years went by and the microstation continued to broadcast, it became clear , due to the political climate in the country, that the Dunifer case would be reversed and Lake County would lose its micropower station. Watching this situation develop, the founders realized if they didn’t take action immediately, there would never be a full power licensed station in Lake County – those available channels would be gobbled up by non-local Christian networks. So, to protect and fight for the few remaining local frequencies a California non-profit corporation (Lake County Community Radio) that would locally own and operate a Class A, full-power station (lpfm had not yet been created) was created. Once again, a county-wide fund raising campaign began to raise the money to do the research and secure the engineering report needed for the application.

It was a bold move to apply to the FCC for this Class A full-power license in 1997-98.

Popular thinking said that starting a Class A, full-power station was a costly undertaking – from engineer surveys and fees, to expensive equipment and costly operational expenses. But running a microstation had taught volunteers that there were ways around these expenditures. Taking further inspiration from radio station KMUD in Humboldt County, volunteers discovered their northern California neighbors up the road had done it relatively inexpensively. With used equipment, donations from the community, and all volunteer labor, it seemed a possibility. The non-profit was set up to ensure the FCC that they were a legitimate undertaking. A Board of Directors was organized and members of the community were asked to serve. The money was hurriedly scraped together to pay a top notch engineer to write the technical report required. And an extensive search for a frequency and a mountain top was undertaken (88.1 on Mt. Konocti). But there was one looming obstacle on the horizon.

The folks at LCCR soon found themselves directly lined up against four of these powerful Christian networks for the rights to broadcast at 88.1 to the people of Lake County. This was no theoretical battle, but a practical one, that if lost, would eliminate the possibility of community radio in the county forever. It was the beginning of seven years of waiting and struggle. And to make matters worse, the micropower station was about to go off the air.

FCC Establishes LPFM Service (2000)

Even though the Dunifer case was eventually lost, and the Lake County microstation had to be shut down (1999), it was obvious by the popularity of micropower radio across the land that a gaping and unrecognized hole existed in the media landscape. The FCC itself recognized this gap between the centralized and the local. And so, low power FM (LPFM)- a licensed form of micropower radio – was created in 2000.

The new service had resulted directly from the lobbying of many micropower stations such as the one in Lake County as well as the actions by groups such as the National Lawyers Guild, the Rainbow Coalition, the Green Party, and by thousands of people who supported local media empowerment from both the right and left of the political spectrum. Unfortunately the new lpfm service was opposed by NPR Radio, The National Association of Broadcasters, a Republican Congress, and much of the existing broadcast industry, so the possible wide-spread potential of lpfm was drastically cut back by congress, and only organizations in rural areas were allowed to apply. Still, the door to licensed locally-owned radio had been opened.

The Second Station – KPFZ-LP at 104.5 fm (2001-2005)

As volunteers and programmers waited in frustration for their full-power station, LCCR now quickly applied for a second license to participate in the new lpfm service (the first application, for the full-power station, was still on hold in Washington DC). Their application was accepted and KPFZ-lp would be born as soon as the necessary fundraising and organization was taken care of. Inspirationally taking its call letters from the Pacifica Network (which had pioneered listener supported community radio – KPFA, KPFK, KPFT), LCCR community radio dubbed itself KPFZ. The lp was added to show it was a low power station (the licensed form of micropower radio),

A series of events, presented in Lake County Board of Supervisors chambers, to fundraise and alert the community to the new station featured everything from noted lecturers to group drumming. These events would be the first in a series over the years which would sustain the station – from community picnics, to intimate musical concerts, to yard sales, video nights, and to LCCR’s premiere event, the annual Blue’s n’ Barbecue, which traditionally attracted a large turn out and offered great food and plenty of live music.

Though some of the programming from the micropower station was carried over to the lp station, new volunteers and programmers were recruited for the new station. Trainings and workshops were held, a start-up grant for equipment was obtained, a new studio was constructed (in the same private residence in the Lucerne hills), and the transmission equipment was set-up and tested. Scheduling (more around people’s lifestyles than proper radio demographics) was put in place, and on September 1, 2001, the low power station went on-the-air to the north part of the lake.

KPFZ-lp became known across the land and helped usher in the new national radio service by being the third station in the United States, and first in California to be licensed. KPFZ made national news in the LA Times, the Jim Lehrer PBS News Hour, and was awarded “Station of the month” by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. The county was getting a taste of licensed, non-commercial, free speech, community radio done on a shoe-string by volunteers, and supported financially by the community.

For almost the first two years, KPFZ-lp continued to broadcast from its studio and transmitter site in the hills of Lucerne. In 2003 and after nearly five years of broadcasting in a private residence (including the microstation), KPFZ was able to afford (through listener supporters, events, and donations) to move its studio and programmers into a small back room in law offices in Lakeport. Being in a more publicly accessible area allowed the station to expand its programming and bring in new programmers. The station began averaging 16-18 hours, seven day a week of programming. Meanwhile the transmitter and a second studio functioned still from the Lucerne hills.

Aside from the already full spectrum music programming already offered (Native American, salsa, jazz, country and roots, blues, soul and gospel, grateful dead, rock n’ roll, experimental, eclectic), KPFZ now offered reggae, Celtic, local, classical, world, novelty and plenty of the unusual and unclassifiable.

In the spoken word department, KPFZ expanded its programming to include more local public affairs with local interviews, debates on issues, lots of call-in shows, programs on the healing arts, animals, seniors, more local Indian affairs, as well as opinion and commentary shows from both the right and the left. Cultural programming included shows on literature, spirituality, history, automobiles and motorcycles, original comedy, local theater, psychology, a community oriented program on Christianity and religion, and more. It was a full plate of diverse and interesting, stimulating programming, and the county proved its interest by supporting the station as listener members and at events and by calling in to the numerous talk programs.

Interviews included local political leaders, community activists, business people, anyone who was newsworthy on any level, and such national figures such as Noam Chomsky, John Trudel, Barbara Boxer, Amy Goodman, Ferron, and Smokey Robinson, to name just a few. The station extended itself beyond the studio with loads of special programming from remotes to all night specials on Christmas and New Years Eves, and local rallies and protests, as well as much live music that as could be squeezed into a 12×14 room. Hot button local issues like a moratorium on a new geothermal plant, the controversy over Rattlesnake Island, Lake County’s grape industry, and fresh insights into the Marla Ruzikca story gave the station prominence in the local media. In depth interviews with candidates and examinations of issues, as well as debates for congressional, assembly, and state seats, and a full night of national-local election coverage helped to fill in the schedule. All this without any commercials, on a peanut budget, and produced by dedicated volunteers, who believed in their work and serving the community.

But suddenly big news was on the horizon. There was word from Washington D.C. that the Class A, full-power application had finally been accepted. The news was greeted with mixed feelings because even though a much bigger, more powerful station would be in the works, the news also meant the necessity of shutting down the lpfm station – and that station had become part of lives of many people in the community.

The Third Station – Full-Power at 88.1 fm

Pre Telecommunications Act of 1996, a typical community station application only took a few months to be accepted. But because of the deregulation of the airwaves and the mass filings for frequencies on the non-commercial end of the dial, organizations often found themselves tied-up with other competing organizations for years. This was especially true for LCCR, and it became a frustrating, seven year wait and struggle. But somehow LCCR found its way through the maze.

As mentioned, four national Christian networks desired the 88.1 frequency along with LCCR. None of them were local, and in fact, boasted hundreds of applications across the country and had out-monied and out-waited or bought out their opponents. At one time LCCR was offered $50,000 (and that figure easily would have climbed to $125,000) for dropping out of the locked up situation by one of these networks. But the principled folks at LCCR were not dissuaded with the possibilities of having a “well-financed” lpfm station and turned down the offer, even though there was no guarantee whatsoever that they would ever get the bigger station.

Even though there was little money to carry on a campaign against powerful, national networks, LCCR managed to continue the struggle. By good fortune, patience, negotiations, stubbornness, legal maneuvers, and with the help of The National Federation of Community Broadcasters (who lobbied the FCC to give preference to local organizations), LCCR prevailed. And on April 25, 2005, a construction permit (the right to use 88.1fm) was awarded the to LCCR to broadcast to the entire county (and to parts of four other northern California counties), almost seven years after the application had been submitted.

As much as it was a disappointment, it became necessary to shut down the lpfm station in the summer of 2005. The LCCR Board of Directors decided that trying to pay the bills for the lpfm station while trying to raise the money to get the bigger station on the air was too overwhelming for an all-volunteer station. The programmers said their good-byes to the audience, the equipment was packed away, and a new effort towards fundraising and finishing the job which had begun ten years earlier began. But the struggle is not over until the third and final station hits the airwaves.