Off the air (for now)
Radio Bird Street preps for full power
The Radio Bird Street office in Oroville is more than a quaint building tucked away along Oro Quincy Highway; it’s a meeting place for residents of all sorts, including almost 40 programmers and volunteers who broadcast from the location and fill the airwaves with a wide range of programs and music that engage Oroville’s culturally rich community.
But now the airwaves have gone quiet.
KRBS 107.1 went off the air in early May to prepare for its next big step: switching from a low-power to a full-power license. The change will stretch the station’s broadcasting radius from just a few miles in Oroville to Paradise, Magalia, Concow, and maybe even Chico, said Erwin “Erv” Knorzer, one of the station’s founders. It will also move the frequency from 107.1 FM to 91.1 FM.
Before all that happens, there is a lot of work to be done. The station is waiting for approval from the Federal Communications Commission to give its low-power license (it is illegal to sell it) to the African American Family Cultural Center in Southside Oroville, whose station that would serve youth, Knorzer said.
In addition, KRBS must update its equipment to meet the FCC’s guidelines for a full-power station, including adding a production booth in addition to its recording booth, and installing a new antenna and the hardware required to broadcast by microwave signal.
That’s not to mention other major renovations happening inside the station, such as the construction of an area where musicians, poets and actors can broadcast live, and the addition of other equipment that will allow the station to develop a presence on the Internet.
“I really can’t give an estimate for when we’ll be back on the air,” said Knorzer, an astute man who loves to talk about folk music. “We could be back up in two months or some time before then—there’s a lot to be done.”
Radio Bird Street has been on the air since 2002, when Knorzer and two buddies made real their vision of a diverse and eclectic community-radio station that gave locals of different races, backgrounds and interests an outlet in which they could share information. (Knorzer retired from the station almost two years ago, but still acts as its chief financial officer and stand-in project manager.)
Near the end of 1999, Knorzer, Allen Rice and Tom Opdenaker (the director of the Birdcage Theatre at the time) heard about Congress’ plans to establish low-power FM stations (stations that transmit signals of 100 watts or less).
The three established the nonprofit Bird Street Media Project off Bird Street in downtown Oroville and applied for a license. Their efforts weren’t all smooth-sailing, but KRBS 107.1 became one of the first low-power FM stations in the nation licensed by the FCC.
Contributors filled the airwaves with diverse music and offered analysis on culture, health, gender and other topics, trying to fill the gaps created by a heavily commercialized radio industry. Individuals from the Hmong, Hispanic and even youth communities hosted talk shows and played music in a format very similar to community station KZFR (90.1 FM) in Chico, Knorzer said.
“It was very eclectic, and still is,” said Knorzer, who is passionate about the evolution of music around the world. “Programmers played just about every genre that is out there.”
The station’s board of directors consistently scraped the bottom of the money barrel, but they stayed on-air through diligent underwriting (a process in which the station mentions companies on-air in exchange for financial sponsorship), collecting community donations, and dipping into their own pockets.
Despite these challenges, the board applied for a full-power license in 2010 when the FCC announced they had become available. The application was thick, Knorzer said—and it involved out-of-pocket expenses including an attorney who reviewed the paperwork—but the station got the full-power license. The application itself cost less than $1,000, and the attorney cut the station a deal at less than $800, Knorzer said.
To fund the application process and new equipment, the station is in the midst of an ongoing donation drive with the goal of raising $9,110 (in honor of its new 91.1 frequency), he said.
The station’s mission will stay the same, but major in-house changes are being made to usher the station into the digital world. Those changes—including launching a new website and collecting material to be posted on sites including YouTube, YouStream and Facebook—will require contributors to be flexible as the station gets its bearings.
“The important thing is that the programmers are going to have to cooperate with the changes and realize that people on the [radio station’s] committee are trying to make it as simple as possible,” Knorzer said, noting that programmers will not be asked to do tough technical stuff.
In addition to immediate changes, Knorzer and the station’s board have long-term goals, too, such as improving the station’s journalism (by attending the occasional City Council meeting, for example), and enhancing its emergency-notification system, a responsibility Knorzer takes seriously.
Oroville resident Ida Febbo, a Serbian-born woman who writes the station’s newsletter, has been lending a hand at the station for more than five years. Her willingness to volunteer alongside dozens of others stems from her belief that Radio Bird Street—and the medium of radio itself—is an integral way for people to connect, especially in rural communities.
“I truly believe that this little town needs an outlet to keep it together, to bring the community and the people together,” she said during a stop into the office. “There is nothing else like this out there to reach isolated communities in this area.”