Last minute debut for 
indie radio

12/08/2011

The long-silent frequency of 91.5 FM crackled to life in Marshall Wednesday night, unseating KWMR as West Marin’s exclusive local radio broadcaster.  But the nascent independent music station, KXCF FM, is not competing for listeners, and language in the lease contract for the antenna on Corey Goodman and Marcia Barinaga’s ranch expressly forbids soliciting donations from people in KWMR’s coverage area.

The 40-year-old consummate radio enthusiast from Santa Rosa who will produce and manage the content is aiming to offer something else entirely.  “It’s almost like a college station without a college,” said Ben Saari, who will wrangle mp3s from a band of volunteers and the Internet and send them wirelessly to the Marshall ranch for broadcast. “I think there’s the potential for really creative and unorthodox things to happen there.”

At this stage, exactly what those things will be is unclear. Programming is to be determined, but tuning into KXCF in the early months will likely generate an aural experience unlike the one KWMR music fans are accustomed to: the beats of indie hip hop, clamors of experimental electronica and unsavory lyrics of punk rock.

Beyond the fact that Saari plans to broadcast what he and his colleagues enjoy listening to, he is not certain of much. Figuring out how to produce 24 hours of radio a day with a volunteer staff makes basic fixtures, like a formal schedule or a website, seem like overkill. The station’s studio resides in a back storage room of a screen printing shop in Santa Rosa and consists of two computers, a microphone, a mixing board and not much else. Currently, live programming, if attempted, would qualify as primitive at best. “It’s essentially a closet,” he said. “I’m the staff.”

He added that he would develop basic infrastructure as he settled into a routine.  “My intention is to develop that stuff,” he said. “But none of that stuff is a priority right now. There’s a lot that needs to get figured out there.”

Saari and the station’s license holder, Common Frequency, a Davis-based nonprofit dedicated to lending engineering assistance, education and other resources to grassroots radio stations, were obligated to go live by December 7 at 9 p.m. to avoid prompting the Federal Communication Commission to reopen a round of permit applications. Had they failed to meet that deadline, a long list of commercial entities or evangelical radio stations could have vied for KXCF’s coverage area, which stretches from Nick’s Cove to Millerton Point but can likely be accessed in pockets closer to Tomales and Point Reyes.

When Common Frequency approached Saari a few months ago, it was running out of time to put its license, which it acquired in 2007, to work. Saari had collaborated with Common Frequency on landing a permit to broadcast in the Bodega area but was still trying to string together funds and equipment to get it off the ground. The organization asked him if he would be interested in creating content for the KXCF station in Marshall in the meantime. Even though it wouldn’t be completely local and would require improvisation, Saari and Common Frequency agreed on the value of maintaining the station’s independence.

“[Common Frequency believes] there is worth in any broadcast channel since there is not a lot of diversity on the airwaves,” wrote Todd Urick, 38, a Common Frequency technical director and community radio advocate, in an email. “So the more independent media that is out there the better.”

Commercial radio tycoons and Christian music speculators jump at the chance to lay their names onto new bandwidth. One Ministries Inc., which owns and operates the Christian rock station Broken FM under the call sign KORB along the Central Coast, was granted a permit for a new station named KDVZ near the lighthouse in Point Reyes National Seashore. While the chances of that station’s completion, especially considering the difficulty of permitting on parkland, are slim, KWMR Chief Operator Richard Dillman explained Common Frequency’s failure to broadcast would have opened the door for permit modifications.

“[One Ministries Inc.], along with other religious broadcasters, apply for any open spot even if it seems it’s in an absurd location,” said Dillman, who studies FCC contour maps with verve. “If the one in Marshall disappeared, it would be conceivable that they might be able to modify their construction permit to increase coverage. It would at least possibly open a path for them to move the station further east.”  

As a sentinel of independent radio, Urick found this prospect troubling. “I don’t have anything against religion,” he said. “There’s a lot of religious radio out there and it seems the new stations created are religious broadcasters that have satellite facilities. We’re really more about grassroots media and having more members of the public access the radio so [serving a broader interest is] a major issue.”

Before recruiting Saari, Common Frequency offered the channel to KWMR for simulcasts, but Executive Director Amanda Eichstaedt declined because it would not have expanded its coverage area in any substantial way or resolved spottiness in Inverness Park.

“They don’t know what they’re gonna do in the future and it’s their license,” Eichstaedt said. “It wouldn’t be a good idea for us to send a signal to a certain place and then take it away. Nothing’s a sure deal if you don’t have the license.” Eichstaedt added that she was hopeful KXCF would complement her station’s content with its music-driven programming.

“I support what they’re trying to do, but my job is to keep this station on the air and make it strong,” she said. “I think it’ll be an interesting thing to see how it goes.” After smoothing out the kinks, Saari plans on figuring out how to sustain the station and grow it. He hopes to collaborate with KWMR and get Marshall residents involved in both brainstorming and production efforts.

“If [locals] don’t like what’s there, the best thing they can do is go and make a show that they like,” he said. And, despite the circumstances, Saari is hopeful for the future. “We’re really seat-of-the-pantsing it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing around in this undefined model of community radio.”