KZYX Fire Response Showcased In Mendocino Real Estate Magazine

Nov 10, 2017

Real Estate Magazine of Mendocino County, a monthly community magazine, showcased Mendocino County Public Broadcasting in its November 2017 issue by publishing a story headlined "Public Radio Saves The Day" about KZYX Radio's response to the Mendocino Lake Complex Fire and the importance of community radio to public safety and community life. The story is reprinted here in its entirety, courtesy of Real Estate Magazine.

Story by Jeffrey Parker
General Manager, Mendocino County Public Broadcasting

Living off the grid as I do, with limited electricity to squander on outdoor lighting, one becomes attuned to the phases of the moon and the light it paints on the forest. So I took notice during the wee hours of October 9, 2017, confused that the waning moon wasn’t shining in my window as expected. It must be fog, I figured. The dawn told a more apocalyptic tale. Chunks of soot and ash born on a hot, desert-like wind rained down on my homestead barely a mile from the Pacific above Elk, tincturing the sunrise crimson and presaging the unfolding disaster two ridges away.

Like thousands of residents of Mendocino and Lake Counties, I switched on KZYX in search of news. And there it was: Wildfires! Ripping westward through Potter Valley and Redwood Valley! And there that morning was the reassuring voice of Rich Culbertson, KZYX operations director, morning host and broadcast miracle-worker at Mendocino’s venerable twenty-eight-year-old community radio station.

By the time I tuned in, before 6:00 a.m., KZYX already had been informing the public about the fire for five hours. Veteran programmer Eclectapus, known to some as Bob Vaughan, had broken the story during his late night Under the Radar program, interrupting Bruce Cockburn’s “Stolen Land” shortly before 1:00 a.m. to cite a phone call about a blaze in Potter Valley, and urging listeners to call with further information. He gave out the studio number, then queued up “Instant Karma” to mark John Lennon’s birthday—and to give himself time to check with CAL FIRE, the sheriff’s office and others, and take further calls.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Bob said calmly, stating the station’s public safety mantra. “I’m trying to raise someone at CAL FIRE. There’s nothing on their reporting system. I’ve had two callers now with details. The fire is climbing the ridge toward Redwood Valley. The wind is blowing really hard. If anyone has information, please call me here. If you speak to any official, have them call me here.

“This is where the community comes in,” Bob said. “Call your neighbors, call your friends, call your enemies. Let’s help each other out. It’s windy and probably moving fast. It’s jumped the ridge.”

By 1:40 a.m., based solely on calls from listeners, Bob was reporting widespread evacuations at specific locations across Potter Valley and Redwood Valley—Gibson Lane, Tomki Road, East Road, West Road, Powerhouse Road. Black Bart Road. Pine Mountain. Then more music to allow himself time to make and answer calls.

At about 2:40 a.m., Bob reported news of the firestorm plundering Santa Rosa. His source was again a caller, KZYX programmer “W Dan” Houck, ringing from inside the Santa Rosa evacuation zone and reporting that he could see houses burning within a few hundred yards. “Westside Road. Mark West Springs Road,” Bob said. “Mandatory evacuations.”

Still well before dawn, the KZYX team had grown to three, with Bob Vaughan retailing more eyewitness reports from frantic mobile phone callers before cell service collapsed, reporter Jason Morash in Willits confirming the first catastrophic details with CAL FIRE, and Rich Culbertson anchoring the reporting in the studio.

The week that followed is a blur. Already exhausted from the nine-day fall pledge drive, KZYX staff, programmers and other volunteers rallied to the cause of keeping Mendocino County updated on the evacuations, efforts to contain the fires, road closures and danger spots, government and nonprofit assistance efforts, losses and casualties from across the North Bay fire zone, and many other developments. Though often hobbled by crippled telecommunications, KZYX strove to broadcast official news conferences live as they happened. For several days, with mobile and landline telephone, Internet services and even electricity unavailable in Willits and many other parts of the county, radio was the only source of information for thousands of residents of Mendocino and Lake Counties.

At the KZYX studios in Philo, supporters mindful of the exhausting round-the-clock reporting effort began showing up with food, cash donations, and moral support. Throughout the week listeners frequently called in with new updates, and many called to thank KZYX for the effort.

As Eclectapus said, this indeed is what nonprofit community radio is here for.

For me, now eleven months into my tenure as general manager, KZYX is a near-miraculous real-time work in progress. Every day, KZYX lives up to its founding commitment to weave Mendocino County into the national fabric of listener-supported, nonprofit, noncommercial public radio, and to serve its listeners with National Public Radio and other national and international programming while simultaneously organizing a dizzying array of locally produced music, public affairs, and news programming to keep listeners informed, entertained, and empowered.

We manage to reach much of our vast county and beyond despite a rugged, mountainous terrain that lacks a single great promontory that might efficiently beam our signal to every corner of the county and beyond; this is why we finance two full-power transmitters atop Cold Springs Mountain (90.7 MHz) northwest of Boonville and on Laughlin Ridge (91.5 MHz), which separates the Redwood Valley from the Ukiah Valley, and a medium-power translator (88.1 MHz) on Bald Hill east of Fort Bragg. Our signal is sent from our broadcast center at Philo in the southern part of the county to the Cold Springs transmitter, and beamed over the air to the other two. But how to get production closer to far flung listeners and programmers? Over the years we have opened satellite studios on the coast, in Mendocino, and inland, in Willits, to broaden our geographic reach and afford greater access far beyond the Anderson Valley. Across this complex production/broadcast web, we struggle to manage with expensive but outdated copper-wire telecom services because major telecom companies can’t be bothered to string advanced fiber optics into a sparsely populated county they see as not worth the investment. To keep our broadcasts running 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, without the expense of having staff and programmers in the studio around the clock, we’ve invested in automation systems that allow the scheduling of broadcasts.

We’ve also invested in redundant backup systems, to better ensure we can stay on the air during emergencies. These strategies served KZYX and its listeners well during the Redwood/Potter fire. As the blaze ripped westward from Redwood Valley, it slammed head-on into Laughlin Ridge transmitter tower. When Rich and I visited a few days ago, everything in all directions was burned, including poles that carried electrical power and many companies’ phone and data signals down the mountain from the tower’s antennas. Copper and fiber optic cables melted in the inferno, crashing cell and telephone service across much of the county, but the KZYX transmitter soldiered on, receiving its signal not via wire but over a microwave link from Cold Springs tower fifteen miles away. A backup generator kicked in, keeping us in power and on the air.

Most miraculous of all is how the station is funded. I call it the world’s most daring and probably stupidest business model: We give away everything we do for free, and invest heavily to ensure everyone can enjoy it by merely switching on a radio or browsing electronically to, then a few times a year we organize on-air pledge drives and mailings to ask listeners to send the station money. Needless to say, every donation is a cherished vote of confidence in the work we do, and, yet, as costs of NPR and other programming, salaries, utilities, staff development and training programs, mandatory audits and so much else continue to rise, it’s never enough. We supplement member donations with two other main revenue sources: a federal grant and local underwriting.
Because of our mission of service and nonprofit status, we qualify for an annual Community Service Grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, established under the federal Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to support community radio. This federal funding, which covers about 20 percent of our budget, is constantly under threat. The new president’s budget calls for its defunding, but so far Congress has not played along. Across the political spectrum, lawmakers understand the importance of community radio for reaching their constituents, knowing that commercial radio focuses more on ratings and ad revenue than community service.

Underwriting, often confused with advertising, comes from businesses and nonprofits who wish to associate themselves with our community radio mission. Practically speaking, underwriters surely do obtain commercial benefit through public radio messaging, but listen carefully: strict Federal Communications Commission rules forbid messages that urge a specific action or state a comparative advantage. At its best, underwriting tells listeners about the underwriter and expresses their support for the important community-building work of local broadcasting. Underwriting shows KZYX listeners that a company thinks beyond sales and profits, and cares about the intellectual, cultural and spiritual life of its customers—as well as the station’s public safety broadcasts in times of crisis.

It’s easy to take community broadcasters like KZYX for granted. We’re one of dozens of choices on the FM and AM dial. Listeners with Internet, a smartphone or satellite radio have tens of thousands of listening alternatives at their fingertips, and can zoom in on favorites to the exclusion of the programming we work so hard to provide.

But when you think about it, it’s easy to see how damaging this “tuning out” of local programming can be to the nurturing of a healthy community.

Last week I was at North Coast Brewing Company’s Sequoia Room to hear a quartet led by Helen Sung, who plays the Fort Bragg club every fall to show gratitude for its financial support of her alma mater, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at UCLA. Sequoia Room manager Joe Seta overheard me telling Helen I’d joined KZYX, and made this unbidden observation: “This station, KZYX, is the reason there’s such a healthy jazz audience here in Mendocino. Their jazz programmers are as good as any anywhere. The audience that KZYX nurtures is the reason the Sequoia Room even exists.” Similar comments have been made about the county’s vibrant Celtic music scene, which is nurtured by KZYX’s weekly Oak & Thorn program whose listeners turn out in droves for our annual winter series of top-flight Celtic concerts that benefit KZYX. 

Being part of community radio is easy, and fun, and enriching to those who join. The story of my engagement with KZYX is unusual, but illustrative. Until returning to the United States in early 2016, I’d spent the past twenty-six years in China, initially sent in 1990 by United Press International as a correspondent, then spending a decade at the Reuters news agency, all the while harboring hope of finding a path to Mendocino, where I’d summered as a child with my grandparents. In recent years, the best I could muster was a month or two each year of homesteading on a forest property above Elk; my work kept me in Shanghai. My first pledge to KZYX was a drive-by. It was pledge time. Driving up Highway 128, I dropped by the station, offered my pledge and was asked my address. “It’s complicated,” I explained, noting my long working residence in China. Thirty seconds later I was in the air booth, being interviewed on the air about my weird Pacific bi-coastal life, what I was doing in China, and why I pined to return to Mendocino.

By then I was running a nonprofit that was fostering surgical training collaborations between ophthalmologists in China and India, and consulting to rural Chinese eye hospitals keen to provide high-quality, affordable cataract surgery to anyone who needed it, regardless of ability to pay. It began to dawn on me that my long experience and skills in journalism, rural economic development and nonprofit management might actually be of value to a public radio station in a rural community struggling to provide quality, affordable health care, quality, affordable housing, safe, affordable food supplies and other essential services to a relatively small population spread across a vast rugged region. While in China and India, I listened obsessively to the KZYX Web stream, giving myself a crash course in Mendocino affairs and sharpening my resolve to repatriate myself here. A couple of years later, I heard the words “our acting general manager” during a KZYX pledge drive broadcast. Once again, I dropped by the station and learned that KZYX was recruiting for a new GM. I knew instantly this would be my way of engaging with KZYX.

Community engagement is the life blood of public radio. It’s why I’m so committed to reaching out and building listener participation and growing our audience. Even before I joined KZYX in December 2016, I was consulting with Mendocino Community College about collaboration that would put our public radio ethos and operations in close proximity to students and the teaching process. The school’s renowned Recording Arts and Technology program has sent students to KZYX for broadcast training, and supplied student engineers to record important civic events, including town halls by Congressman Jared Huffman and Assemblyman Jim Wood. Engaging students in these events gives them far more than mere job training, as valuable as that is; by helping to produce broadcasts aired across their home community, these students actively participate in the essential community service of informing public opinion and debate. We’ve proposed to broaden our collaboration with Mendocino College, and to bring high school students into public radio programming as well.

Another core area of outreach is giving voice to unserved populations and unsung organizations. KZYX has begun running a public service announcements showcasing the work of numerous nonprofits that advocate on behalf of abused, neglected, and delinquent children, including those in foster care. We’ll be writing grants to support production of programming to further explore the work of these organizations. Similar programming efforts are in the works to explore other acute community issues:

  • the affordable housing crisis, now intensified by the loss of five hundred homes to wildfires, and efforts to transform the way residential communities are financed and built;
  • the collapse of fishing, logging and other traditional industries, and strategies to foster innovative services and industries to replace them and give hope to our youth;
  • the challenges of providing affordable healthcare, recruiting and training quality doctors, and meeting the growing need for services for the elderly;
  • the crisis of farming and safe food production in the face of attacks on the migrants, documented or not, who grow our food, and corporate mistreatment of the farmlands that sustain us. 

Just as KZYX cannot flourish without community support, we cannot excel without collaborating with the public radio movement nationwide. We’re investing heavily to improve Community News programming, and allying with public radio pioneers across California and America to share programming strategies and best practices. KZYX reporters and programmers are collaborating with KQED’s California Report to get Mendocino stories and perspectives to a wider audience, and to exchange stories with other small, rural stations. We’re working with Capital Public Radio in Sacramento to develop a National Public Radio programming and training hub in northern California that aims to strengthen NPR’s reporting and increase its sensitivity to issues important to KZYX listeners while also providing training, story-sharing and networking opportunities for our own reporters, editors, and producers. We’re looking to adapt a radio programmer development program called the Audio Academy pioneered by KALW in San Francisco, one of the oldest and most innovative stations in the West, so we can train up a new generation of radio programmers and producers right here in Mendocino. We’re consulting with KRCB and KBBF in Santa Rosa, KWMR in Marin, KMUD in Humboldt, KPFZ in Lake County, and KGUA on the Mendocino south coast as well as KQED, KALW, CapRadio, and others to develop a news sharing and emergency support system.Regular listeners will notice substantial improvements in KZYX Community News production and public affairs programming in recent months, a trend that we will drive into the future. It’s not just a strategy for survival; it’s a precious opportunity for all of us to take Mendocino County Public Broadcasting to new levels of service to community, and enrichment of our special Mendocino way of living. 

Try to imagine Mendocino County without KZYX. You may not listen to every program; you might not be a listener at all. But KZYX touches you in more ways than you might imagine, ways that became apparent in the first hour of October 9 as the wildfires gathered speed. If you are a business or nonprofit, have you thought about the importance of Mendocino County Public Broadcasting to your customers, to your community, to your employees, to your own family? If you are not a member, or listener, or an underwriter, I encourage you to give KZYX a try. It could change your life.

Here’s what we KZYX programmers, staffers, and supporters believe: Only by engaging our community, and by growing our audience and finding new listeners, can we earn the volunteer and financial support we need to continue promoting community through public radio, to keeping this twenty-eight-year-old community radio on the air.

As Eclectapus said so well as he turned down the music and warned listeners of the advancing firestorm: “This is what we’re here for. Call your neighbors, call your friends, call your enemies. Let’s help each other out.”