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New radio station takes shape in Bodega Bay

The Sonoma County coast is notorious for being a bit of a vortex for anything that travels over airwaves: radio signals, cell service and in some places reliable internet.

Some of this could change soon thanks to a new FM radio station with the call letters KAPO.

The new outfit, which was granted a permit from the Federal Communications Commission earlier this spring, will not be a community radio station but rather a station for the community — an effort that aims to broadcast locally generated content and other shows, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

While few locals have even heard of the forthcoming channel, one man is celebrating it as another accomplishment on his inexorable march toward building a large empire of small radio stations. The man, Jeff Cotton, is director of parent company Open Sky Radio Corp., a company that has launched eight different radio and television stations since 2008, and has funded, built and handed over three other radio stations to community nonprofits.

Cotton, 68, doesn’t live anywhere near Sonoma County — he lives in the northeast corner of the state, in Modoc County — but said he expects KAPO to provide original programming to the entire Bodega area.

“This station, like all our stations, will become a voice of the local people,” he said.

Following the Marshall model

As Cotton alluded, KAPO isn’t his first rodeo. It’s not even his first station on the Northern California coast. In 2020 Cotton launched KDAN, a small station for the community in Marshall, a small city just south of the county line in northern Marin.

At 91.5 on the dial, the station had been idle for several years and was in danger of having its FCC license expire. That’s when Cotton swooped in and bought it for $5,000.

Today the station has a loyal following. Every week it offers roughly 20 hours of fresh programming that combines all sorts of different music. In any given segment, one of the station’s deejays might play rock, rockabilly, folk and roots. The deejays are located in Truckee, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Cotton described the vibe of the station as “schizoeclectic,” or without borders.

“We don’t do blues shows or bluegrass shows or Celtic hour,” he said. “Our programs have the element of surprise. They’re for music lovers with a high degree of tolerance who like to explore.”

The Marshall call letters are a nod to Dan Hicks, the late singer-songwriter from Marin.

The station could have been called KBAR — a shout out to Marcia Barinaga from Barinaga Ranch.

Barinaga is a patron of a special kind. Back when Cotton was getting KDAN started, Barinaga allowed him to store repeaters and other broadcast equipment in a pump shed on the back of her 800-acre property, effectively creating the opportunity to “build” a broadcast tower. She agreed to do this free of charge.

Today, a visit to the ramshackle shed reveals high-tech equipment powered by a solar panel outside. The equipment is suited to broadcast a signal at about 10 watts, which is strong enough to broadcast across Tomales Bay to Inverness. For perspective, public radio’s KQED-FM has 100 times more watts and reaches just about every city in the Bay Area.

Next to the repeater box sits a framed photograph of Guglielmo Marconi, the engineer who largely is credited with inventing radio. The ranch is adjacent to the grounds of the Marconi Conference Center, which was built originally to receive wireless telegraph signals from across the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’m a fan of radio,” Barinaga said. “I’m a busy person and it’s a great companion when I’m out and about. It’s also very funny to me that the station is basically broadcasting from our pump shed.”

Community-focused station

Another bonus: KDAN is part of the emergency broadcast system, so the station helps keep locals safe.

From a technical perspective, KDAN wouldn’t be able to broadcast if it weren’t for the pump house equipment on Barinaga Ranch. Cotton furiously is trying to find a similar broadcasting situation here in Sonoma County, seeking to build a station for the community around the very community itself.

Until that happens, one of the biggest challenges has been name recognition. Because KAPO is not broadcasting yet, because the Bodega Bay community is tiny, many locals haven’t heard about the new radio station, and therefore have nothing to say about it.

Cotton, on the other hand, never passes up an opportunity to trumpet about his new endeavor.

“It’s poetic in a sense — we’re building ourselves as a great community resource and now we are turning to the community to make it happen,” said Cotton, who worked for decades as a music promoter in Reno (among other cities). “We need people to step up and house our equipment in their version of a pump shed. In other words, we need people’s help.”

One of the station’s early advocates: Bill Bowker, a popular and longtime DJ from “The Krush,” KRSH on 95.9, in Santa Rosa.

For Bowker, who technically is retired, Cotton’s small-town radio stations typify a larger trend.

“Radio is making a comeback, and it’s nice to see it taking hold here in Sonoma County,” Bowker said. “I think with the COVID-situation and people being in their homes more, it’s like they rediscovered radio or they’re looking to radio to give them something that all these other media cannot.”

What’s next

With formal approval from the FCC and a programming model in place, KAPO is well on its way to being live on the air. Now, Cotton just needs the resources to broadcast it.

He said he’s looking for “a new Marcia Barinaga,” or someone who will allow Cotton and Open Sky Radio Corp., to set up equipment in a pump shed (or a pump shed equivalent). Once this mission-critical equipment is in place, once it’s online and working properly, KAPO can begin immediately, serving the Bodega community with another opportunity to come together and connect.

Of course, as Cotton sees it, finding a cadre of donors also would be critical. He said KAPO would benefit from several donors to keep the station operational. One of the other outstanding items on Cotton’s to-do list: A slogan.

KDAN’s motto is classic: “Broadcasting to more bivalves and sheep than people.” KAPO will need something just as clever to galvanize local support.

“People want radio to succeed,” Cotton said. “We’re just trying to do our part to make that happen.”

When KAPO does go live, listeners will be able to tune in on the FM dial and also by streaming online at jiveradio.org.

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