Lost in transmission

KZFR Community Radio turns to listeners for help

KZFR’s transmitting tower in the woods outside of Magalia.

KZFR’s transmitting tower in the woods outside of Magalia.

PHOTO by Steve O’Bryan

Donation info:
Go to www.kzfr.org to make a donation to the campaign or for a full schedule of upcoming benefit concerts.

Regular listeners of KZFR Community Radio 90.1 FM may have noticed the station’s signal has been weak of late, particularly in Butte County’s eastern foothills. On some radios, the station’s programs have been marred by static, while others lose the signal entirely.

“If you’re traveling south on Highway 99, the signal gets a little funky around Live Oak,” said Rick Anderson, KZFR’s general manager, during a recent interview. “Orland is still OK. Going east, the signal loses [clarity] around Stirling City. People are calling, wondering what’s going on; they’re upset they can’t hear us anymore.”

The fuzzy signal is due to the station’s transmitter, located in a remote and heavily wooded ridge near Magalia, which has been on the fritz since Thanksgiving Day. Anderson explained that a faulty temperature gauge has been falsely sensing that the transmitter is overheating, which prompts an automatic shutdown. After determining that the heat-sensing unit must be replaced at a cost of roughly $2,000—in addition to the $10,000 KZFR has spent maintaining the transmitter since purchasing it for $40,000 in 1999—Anderson decided it was time to “stop throwing good money after bad” and install an entirely new transmitter.

“[The transmitter] is the mechanical heart of the radio station,” he said. “The radio station is the transmitter. We’d be nothing, just an Internet music-streaming service, if we didn’t have it.

“Not having a healthy transmitter severely impedes our ability to be a part of the community, to reflect the community.”

Rick Anderson, general manager of KZFR Community Radio 90.1 FM, in the station’s studio in downtown Chico.

PHOTO by Howard Hardee

As Anderson discovered, much has changed in the electronics industry since 1999. At $30,000, the new transmitter will actually be less expensive than the old one, but $10,000 more in improvements to the site’s air-conditioning and air-filtration system are needed to ensure the longevity of the new equipment, bumping the total cost to an estimated $40,000.

About $5,000 of that will be offset by selling the old transmitter, but KZFR will depend heavily on the community to bridge the gap. On Tuesday (Jan. 28), the station will launch a crowdfunding campaign via Indiegogo.com that will run between a month and 40 days with a goal of raising $25,000. Additionally, KZFR will host a series of “Power to the Tower” benefit concerts at Chico Women’s Club, beginning Feb. 1.

The success of similar campaigns last year by the Pageant Theatre and The Bookstore, both of which were able stay open through crowdfunding, is a good omen for KZFR’s prospects of staying afloat, Anderson said.

“I’m confident our community will come out and help us out. Our listeners want us to sound the best we possibly can, and this new transmitter is going to sound really good—it’s going to make our sound a lot fuller,” Anderson said. “I think the community will come to our aid and help protect the valuable resource KZFR has become over the last 24 years.”

For Anderson and the volunteer DJs at KZFR, addressing the issue of the failing transmitter is just the latest challenge in their ongoing crusade to preserve community radio as a relevant medium.

In KZFR’s early days of broadcasting, for instance, the challenges were great. Programmers recorded their shows on a reel-to-reel tape machine, made the one-hour drive to the transmitting station and waited in real time as the shows were broadcasted. And while technology has made conducting some aspects of the operation much easier—such as the studio’s rooftop dish, which eliminated the need to drive to the transmitting station—it also represents traditional radio’s greatest threat.

“The industry is suffering in a lot of ways; radio in general has experienced decreased listenership because of all the different options,” Anderson said, referring to online music-streaming services. “New cars are coming out with Pandora [Internet Radio] in them, Wi-Fi Internet on the dashboard, or without radios at all.” Since about two-thirds of KZFR listeners tune in from their cars, Anderson said, that trend is particularly alarming.

But for KZFR specifically, the outlook is not all doom and gloom. In fact, the station’s annual pledge drive raised an all-time high of $50,000 last year. “I think it’s a positive reflection of our health as community radio,” Anderson said of the continual support KZFR has received from its listeners. “It’s obviously important to people—they find a place in their budget to help us. I’m convinced our audience is there for us.”