Radio free Oroville

FCC grants low-power license to Bird Street community radio group

RADIO FLYERS Tom Opdenaker, Erwin Knorzer and Allen Rice hope to raise the KRBS antenna atop the Oroville Hotel and begin broadcasting by Labor Day.

RADIO FLYERS Tom Opdenaker, Erwin Knorzer and Allen Rice hope to raise the KRBS antenna atop the Oroville Hotel and begin broadcasting by Labor Day.

Getting it on the air: A live-music fundraiser at the Lunch Box in downtown Oroville every Sunday from 1-3 p.m. is intended to help get KRBS on the air.

The lineup proposed for KRBS, a new, low-power FM station hoping to set up in Oroville, reads like any culture-conscious community radio menu. From 6 to 7 a.m., yoga, tai chi or meditation music is slated, followed by “get-moving” music and comedy until 9. Job announcements, health talk, community issue forums and kid talk all have their own time slots.

But if the big-radio lobbies have their way, no one may get to hear any of it.

Erwin Knorzer, Allen Rice and Tom Opdenaker want the airwaves returned to the people, and they have a plan to do just that. The station they hope to get on the air, KRBS (the letters stand for Radio Bird Street), is one of the first 25 low-power FM stations nationally to receive construction permits from the FCC.

Knorzer emphasized that, while permission has been given to build the station, permission to broadcast has yet to be granted. The FCC can still be swayed by the powerful lobbies, which include public radio stations, to pull the plug on the newly legalized and still vulnerable low-power FM stations and make them illegal again. But that doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Rice or Opdenaker.

“They are not going to stop us,” Rice said. By “they,” he means the National Association of Broadcasters, representing commercial stations, and National Public Radio. Both organizations filed protests against low-power FM, citing the possibility of interference with their transmissions.

Low-power FM, or LPFM for short, is used to define an FM broadcast station that has the power to transmit a signal of 100 watts or less—about the amount of power used for a translator or booster, and well below that used by most of the stations you find on your FM dial.

The concept of low-power FM has been around since the inception of radio. In 1948, they were called class D stations, were strictly non-commercial and were allowed power levels between 1 and 100 watts. Gradually, however, they disappeared, overwhelmed by stations with much greater power—as much as 50,000 watts.

The resurgence of LPFM came about thanks to pirate radio operators, who have popped up in cities all across the nation in recent years. Tired of trying to quash every individual who showed up on the air via a low-power transmitter, the FCC drew up plans for a new license that would cover the lower-wattage stations.

When Knorzer, Rice and Opdenaker heard about the new category of radio licensing, they saw an opportunity to revive community radio in Oroville. Rural areas could provide a better opening for LPFM stations than large cities, Opdenaker noted: “We are unique. The air waves in large cities may be too crowded.”

Along with hundreds of others, they went through the complicated application process. Initially the FCC was prepared to license as many as 1,000 LPFM stations, but ultimately it acceded to the larger stations’ complaints about band interference and decided to test out the new medium with just 25 stations. KRBS is one of them.

“The actual programming will be up to individual DJs,” Knorzer said. The DJs will be able to determine what they want to air so long as it conforms to FCC air standards.

Added Rice: “We have a chance to reinvent radio and get people on the air. We can afford to experiment and don’t have to worry about market demographics.” That is where they believe the community will really benefit from the new LPFM station. Some of the programming coming out of the KRBS studio will include the kinds of shows about the community that the profit-driven commercial stations don’t handle, like information about public assistance programs, older adult services and talk radio programming for and by the people of Oroville.

“Oroville is filled with a lot of talent,” Opdenaker said. “We mean to bring together programs that will bring it out of the woodwork.” One example is radio dramas reminiscent of the earlier half of the 20th century, which the group plans to bring back to the airwaves. The radio plays will be new works written and performed by local writers and actors.

What listeners won’t find is syndicated radio programming with digitally inserted “local” news, the type of programming offered by the larger commercial companies such as Clear Channel Communications, Inc., which owns several stations in Butte County.

As with any other govern- ment offering, there is a catch to the LPFM construction license. Once granted—and it can be issued only to nonprofit organizations—the station must be built and sending a signal within 18 months or the license gets pulled.

“Once built, they can go on the air,” confirmed Erik Mathisen, a regular DJ and “founding father” of KZFR, Chico’s community radio station. Mathisen, who worked on the successful application for an LPFM station at Red Bluff Union High School, added that, “in the world of the FCC, the authorization to build a station at a particular power level is equivalent to permission to broadcast.”

The station will need to go through a “test period” before it files for the actual broadcast license, but testing the signal means the station will be on the air—effectively unveiling its programming to the public pre-license. The only downside, Mathisen said, is that “[listeners] won’t be able to hear [KRBS] outside of Oroville.”

KRBS already has a home in a storefront on Bird Street, in downtown Oroville, and will put up its antenna on the roof of the Oroville Hotel. The Benell Corporation donated the space to the Bird Street Media Project (the official name for the nonprofit group). The founding trio hopes the location of the station helps to revive the historic downtown district. Programming is already in production at the Birdcage Theater.

The group has organized a run of fund-raisers it hopes will allow the station to meet its goal to be on the air by Labor Day. Fund-raisers—now that really is community radio.