Gasping for air
Oroville’s community radio station faces audience and financial shortfalls
“I have chosen to be poor.”
The statement rolled from Marianne Knorzer’s lips much like Scarlet O’Hara’s declaration in the movie Gone With the Wind that she will “never go hungry again.” One could almost hear the Southern drawl, though KRBS’ program manager is anything but a Southerner.
She is, in fact, the soul of Oroville’s low-power community radio station, KRBS 107.1 FM. And the word “poor” is indicative of the struggle the 100-watt station has had over the past four years of existence.
“On a scale of one to 10 health wise, I’d have to be honest—we’re a four,” said Marianne’s father, Erwin “Erv” Knorzer, general manager of the station. If Marianne is the soul, Erv is the station’s heart. Together they keep the tiny station on the air, providing Band-Aids, money, miracles and incredible amounts of time and talent.
“I just believe in this damn thing,” Erv said, glancing about the station’s office, which must soon be vacated to make way for sorely needed renovations. “It’s what keeps me going, driving me; KRBS has to be the answer to the Great Question.”
The Great Question: Who owns the airwaves?
Recently, it’s been an issue that’s played out in Oroville in typical fashion. In the late 1990s, Clear Channel, the dark force of corporate radio ownership, bought KORV and KEWE, both mom-and-pop stations owned and operated out of Oroville. After the purchases, KORV was moved out to Marysville, and KEWE currently operates as an ESPN radio translator. The local content was gutted.
“I did this to fight Clear Channel,” Erv said about his motivation to start up KRBS. “The purpose of the station was to give a voice to the community.”
And the initial response was good. The city pitched in, the county waived fees, people ponied up the dough. But since the initial on-air date of April 14, 2002, support for the station has seriously waned. Last year, the four pledge drives pulled in a whopping $4,000 total, not enough to pay even the electric bill.
“What makes it hard is we are not allowed to do commercials,” Marianne said. “But even though we are low-power, we are still required to follow the same procedures and pay the same royalty fees, regulatory fees, and maintain an EAS (Emergency Alert System) as the full-power stations do.”
Which brings us to another question: Why? Is there a disconnect over what Oroville as a community is and what KRBS as a station provides?
“There is potential for drawing the community in,” said Bob Harrison, one of the station’s listeners. “But there is this disposition for the station to lean to the [political] left. It will be difficult for the station to grow if they keep up that mantra. I mean, if that’s the demographic they’re shooting for, then there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of it out there.”
Indeed, Oroville is much more conservative than Chico, perhaps because of the university’s historic impact on the latter community.
“But our mission was not to reflect the community,” Marianne says of the station, “but to bring to the community what was missing.”
And for followers and aficionados of radio, the missing element on today’s radio market is an alternative viewpoint. Canned popular music, religious broadcasts and right-wing talk shows on corporate-owned stations make up more than 95 percent of the AM and FM radio bands. Were it not for Chico’s community radio station, KZFR 90.1 FM , and the local National Public Radio station, the university-affiliated KCHO (91.7 FM), bandwidth ownership in the Chico area would be almost completely corporate.
KRBS does provide political viewpoints in its programming, but like the Zephyr, there exist plenty of programs with no political bent whatsoever. From zydeco to reggae, classical to Sunday morning gospel, KRBS attempts to pepper listeners with programming that’s reflective of the community.
Some of it, like Lynn Gerry’s Unwelcome Guests, certainly spouts political points of view. But for the most part, the programs stick to a concentrated interest.
During our interview, for example, Sue Few (no, that’s her real name), who programs Reel Talking (a movie review show) from 11:30 a.m. to noon on Friday, popped her head in to say she found a gem of a song.
“I just found Leon Redbone singing ‘Polly-Wolly Doodle,’ of all things,” Few said.
Another programmer at KRBS finds similar satisfaction.
“I do it because of the autonomy,” said Don Bendorf, a retired county worker. “I really enjoy finding and playing that song no one’s heard before.”
Tom Griffis, a 45-year-old landscaper, brings in his dog Brownie for the Tom and Brown Yard and Garden Show. When I interviewed Griffis, Led Zeppelin played and then was segued into some stellar advice on how to kill and remove poison oak.
“Talk and discussion by open-minded people” is the reason Burl Hammons tunes in. “KRBS gives us that chance to listen to those alternative views. This country needs that.”
But maybe not in Oroville. Money to the station arrives like the cavalry, just in time to save the day but darn near too late. According to Erv Knorzer, it’s a few key people who keep bailing out the station.
“It was that way for KZFR, too,” Erv said. “People forget they struggled as well.”
Lee Edwards, a volunteer programmer with an addiction for riding the radio waves, plays tunes for both KZFR and KRBS.
“The greatest dissimilarity,” said Edwards, “is that KRBS hasn’t really developed a strong enough community base to survive beyond a month-to-month existence. But both stations are oriented in such a way that their programmers only get paid in personal satisfaction.”
The Zephyr’s 6,400 watts of power eventually led to the station’s success. The frustration for KRBS is its current meager 100-watt calling card.
“KRBS differs from the Zephyr in our reach,” said Marianne, “which equals money, which equals our ability to do more community outreach.”
If it isn’t the money, KRBS fights Mother Nature. Last winter, the rains knocked KRBS off the air for two weeks. The station’s located at the old Oroville Inn, whose walls and roofing gave way, exposing equipment to a watery peril.
Yet not all is gloom. Any day now, KRBS will acquire a remote van, a deal Erv Knorzer worked out with KRPT “The Point” in Chico.
“That van will allow us to do many functions, from high school football games to farmers’ markets,” Erv said.
KRBS also owns the construction permits and an FCC go-ahead to build a translator at Bloomer Hill, in Berry Creek. With a translator, the tiny Oroville station could reach an additional 65,000 listeners.
“It will catch the lake side of the Kelly Ridge area,” explained Erv Knorzer, “all of Berry Creek, Cherokee, Concow, Yankee Hill, and the East Side of Paradise, and possibly Forbestown.”
The only thing missing is the $10,000 to do so.
“Right now we have two grand firm, another two promised,” Erv said. “By the end of summer I’m hoping to have enough of it that a construction engineer can begin the work.”
The arrival of a translator license was a major triumph for the tiny Oroville station.
“Although the FCC opened up the licensing process for translators,” explained Marianne, “many went to GodCasting,” a catch phrase that radio insiders have given to the translator purchasing process. More than half of all translator licenses issued in the United States have gone to stations dedicated to producing religious broadcasts.
It’s been a tough few years for Erv Knorzer and many of the KRBS faithful. One of the founders of KRBS, which stands for Radio Bird Street (the nonprofit moniker for the station), Tom Opdenaker, died during surgery shortly after the radio station went on the air. Allen Rice, another founder, moved out of the Oroville area shortly thereafter.
But through dogged determination the Knorzers and a handful of dedicated volunteers keep the station alive in hopes of better times.
“I’m a person that, once I make a commitment, I follow through,” said Erv, a retired Long Beach firefighter.
He leans back against his chair, grimacing because of a bad back. A small sigh escapes his lips.
“You know, I don’t expect to see the end result of this,” Erv said with a wave. “A long time after I’m gone, the answer to the Great Question will come.”
For now, KRBS plays on.
Table of comparisons
Radio dial — 107.1 FM, 90.1 FM
Wattage — 100, 6,400
Paid director/general manager? — No, Yes
Full-time underwriting/sales — No, Yes
Broadcast area — Up to 7 square miles, 250 square miles
Live Internet presence? — Yes, No
First year broadcasting — 2002, 1990
Cool bumper stickers? — Yes, Yes