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.