Niche radio station launches in Marshall

David Briggs
A ranchhand in Marshall is among the first fans of West Marin's new radio station, KXCF. Lisa Radke works at Barinaga Ranch to the tunes of Open Sky Radio's new frequency, which features jukebox-style music and a handful of West Coast DJs.  
11/05/2020

A tiny radio station has quietly begun broadcasting from a Marshall sheep ranch, playing commercial-free music 24 hours a day. The station, KXCF, is about as small as it gets: At 10 watts, the antenna is just powerful enough to reach the west shore of Tomales Bay. 

It’s a passion project for Jeff Cotton, director of Open Sky Radio, a nonprofit that has been building stations in rural towns across the West Coast since 2007. Open Sky now has seven stations, all in places that don’t make sense for commercial radio, playing music that defies genres and a selection of weekly live shows.

“We want borderless,” Mr. Cotton said. “Our listeners expect to be surprised. The number-one feedback note is that they’re so happy to hear stuff they haven’t heard before.”

Most of the programming is pulled from a large, curated playlist out of Mr. Cotton’s laptop in Surprise Valley, in the northeast corner of California where he lives. For the few disc jockeys who play live shows, the only rule is that they can’t play anything screechy or sonically offensive. 

Lisa Radke, a ranch hand on the Barinaga Ranch, where the new station launched last month, said she loves the music. She carries a pocket radio while she works, and the station is one of just a few that reaches her in the rolling hills. “I listen to it pretty much all day when I’m out there roaming around, feeding the sheep and whatnot. The music is great,” she said.

Mr. Cotton grew up in Marin and was attracted to Marshall for romantic reasons. The pump shed that holds the setup for KXCF lies in the footprint of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s old receiving station, where seven 300-foot tall towers once stood. The towers supported antenna that received telegrams from Asia, a historic radio achievement. The antenna, built in 1914, served as the ears of the system, while the transmitting site, or the voice, was located in Bolinas. Today, only the concrete foundations remain for the sheep of the Barinaga Ranch to play upon.

It’s hard to find a frequency in the Bay Area that doesn’t have interference, but 91.5 FM was discovered years ago by a group called Common Frequency, which licenses airwaves from the Federal Communications Commission to prevent them from expiring. Common Frequency played progressive rock on 91.5 FM, but its equipment was corroded, and the frequency had been silent for at least three years when Mr. Cotton purchased it for $5,000. 

On Oct. 14, he traveled to Marshall to rig the station. He threw out the old computers, filled with animal nests and droppings, then connected three new boxes: a music decoder, an emergency alert decoder and a transmitter. He put up a picture of Mr. Marconi, connected the four-meter antenna to the outside of the building, and the station was ready to go. The broadcast reaches Inverness, Inverness Park and pockets of Marshall. The setup cost him another $5,000, funded by his nonprofit.

“Some people spend their money on ski boats,” Mr. Cotton said. “I happened to convince my board to buy the license in Marshall.”

Mr. Cotton is a fan of KWMR, West Marin’s community radio station since 1999, so he assured chief operator Richard Dillman that any listener donations would go to the local station. He didn’t want to compete—not that his 10-watt antenna has anywhere near the reach to do so. By comparison, KWMR broadcasts at 235 watts, and KQED uses 110,000 watts. Their antennas are also at higher elevations. The F.C.C. sets limits on wattage and antenna height to prevent interference, so Mr. Cotton’s station has no ability to expand.

KWMR director Amanda Eichstaedt said it’s exciting to have another radio station in town, though she sees the two of them playing different roles, as KWMR is more likely to compete for listeners with online podcasts or regional radio stations. “It’s nice for people to have options,” she said.

Mr. Cotton plans to change the station’s current call letters to something catchier. Being west of the Mississippi River, the four letters must start with K and be unused. He likes to use call letters that are quirky or funny, like his station in Gerlach, Nev., which is called KLAP. The catchphrase “You can get the KLAP in Gerlach” makes listeners laugh in the heart of the Black Rock Desert. In Marshall, he’s looking for something that relates to Marin or the ocean.

He also hopes to add local musicians to the playlist, which is 8,000 songs and growing. All of Open Sky Radio’s stations broadcast from this playlist, though not simultaneously. The music is marketed as Jive Radio.

Besides the jukebox style, Jive Radio has three live shows played by an impressive cast of DJs from small towns across the West Coast. They all span genres and have an affinity for the obscure. One of the stud programmers is Sister Tiny, a former DJ for KFAT, an old station in Gilroy that helped define Americana. She’s in her 70s but still does 11 hours of fresh music every week out of Dayton, Nev. Mr. Cotton calls her a musical seamstress.

“She can go from the honking horns of Zimbabwe to tiny Tibetan throat singing monks, and she can stitch that together with Emmylou Harris or Merle Haggard or Hendrix,” he said. 

Sister Tiny was excited to hear that she could now talk to folks in West Marin, because her parents frequented the Marshall Hotel back in its heyday. Other regular programmers include Diane Michaels, who appreciates the respite from her day job at a commercial radio station in Sandpoint, Idaho, and Don Darue, a 45-year radio veteran from Truckee. His show, “Risky Biscuit Hayseed Hoot,” plays mostly acoustic music, the closest the station gets to a specific genre.

For his own part, Mr. Cotton had an illustrious career in the music industry as an audio engineer and concert promoter. He said he has worked with pretty much everybody famous in popular rock and roll, touring with groups like the Grateful Dead and working for Bill Graham.

His experience with a diverse array of artists cultivated his appreciation for music that defies categorization. In 2007, he built his first station for Open Sky Radio in Cedarville. The organization is growing organically: After rigging the station in Marshall, Mr. Cotton set up another two stations in Glendale and Chiloquin, Ore., both towns with fewer than 1,000 residents.

 

To listen to KXCF, tune your dial to 91.5 FM in Marshall, Inverness or Inverness Park, or visit 104.167.4.67:8288/stream.