Last Friday afternoon West Marin’s local radio station, KWMR, added a third call sign: 92.3 FM. With a small translator placed atop Mount Barnabe, the station can now fully broadcast to the San Geronimo Valley, and fill in holes in Inverness Park.
The flip of the switch on Friday also marked the end of an application process with the Federal Communications Commission that spanned 11 years. “It’s a long time coming,” said board member Paul Flowerman. “We had to make a commitment without any assurance we would get a license. It took a little bit of nerve on the station’s part.”
There were moments the application came dangerously close to being dismissed. In 2003, the F.C.C. opened a filing window for applications for translators, which can extend the reach of radio stations. Such openings are a rare occurrence due to the limited bandwidth available in the country, and KWMR jumped at the
The station’s main transmitter sits on the top of Mount Vision, but the area’s rolling topography sometimes interferes with the signal. A translator, like one that provides extra coverage to Bolinas and Stinson Beach, can pick up the signal and disperse it.
The F.C.C. was flooded with 6,000 applications from across the country, and there were originally two other applications for the same site sought by KWMR. But even after those were rescinded, the station’s application sat for years. And years.
“We were unable to get out of pending status,” said Amanda Eichstaedt, the station’s executive director and manager since 2010. That year Congress passed the Local Radio Community Act, which President Obama signed into law at the beginning of 2011. It was the result of years of work by local radio stations that wanted to secure bandwidth for low-power FM stations before the air waves were eaten up by big corporations.
In order to open a filing window for low-power stations, the F.C.C. was ordered to start dealing with its backlog of applications. KWMR grew concerned as it watched the commission apply heavy-handed methods in an attempt to dismiss large numbers of applicants, such as by creating “quadrants” around major metropolitan areas and automatically dismissing applications within them. KWMR fell inside the proposed Bay Area quadrant.
In 2012, fearing that a law that should be helping it might instead spell its demise, KWMR reached out to the Prometheus Radio Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for small stations.
After the project contacted the F.C.C. on KWMR’s behalf, the Bay Area quadrant was shrunk, albeit not quite enough. “If the signal, the potential signal, were to even extend into the quadrant from its location, you would be dismissed. And guess what? Our signal would go just into quadrant,” Ms. Eichstaedt said.
The station found an elegant, if bureaucratic, solution: KWMR modified its application, asking for just a single watt. Then they waited for the low-power FM application window to close. When the F.C.C. determined that none of the new applications would interfere with the station’s translator, the commission allowed KWMR to again request 10 watts. Finally, in 2014, the application was approved.
Last Friday, Ms. Eichstaedt and transmitter wrangler Richard Dillman drove his Volvo Cross Country Wagon—outfitted with multiple radios and conspicuous antennas—along a bumpy road to the top of Mount Barnabe. They had been up a few times before, trying to connect the antenna on top of the county fire lookout to the translator, located in a closet below, through a conduit that leads to a hole in the ceiling.
It was a tight squeeze, since other agencies have cables and equipment at the fire lookout, too. The county originally hadn’t believed there was room for their cables. “They were actually telling us they were at capacity when we began this process. Well, we couldn’t accept this, so we really put a big effort into it,” Mr. Dillman said. “It was one of the few times where 235 pounds of weight came in handy, to pull those cables.”
On Friday the pair applied lubricant to slide the cables through the conduit with all the others. (“It’s very slimy,” Ms. Eichstaedt said.) Some curse words were muttered. But at 4:45 p.m., she flipped the switch. They went live. Then she and Mr. Dillman jumped into the car, tuned into 92.3 FM and cruised around the valley, street by street, testing out the new signal.
Reports from valley residents have been overwhelmingly positive, although there are a few strange coverage blips. Inverness Park resident Susanna Henderson, who hosts Hawaii Calling, tuned her radio to 92.3 FM and walked through her house. Standing in her office doorway on Friday evening, she began to hear someone speaking Chinese. “It’s just in that one spot, though, in the doorway,” Ms. Henderson said.
She was likely hearing a 32,000-watt San Jose station that broadcasts shows in Chinese, Persian, Vietnamese and Russian on the same channel.