Public broadcaster KRCB’s shoestring success story tied to CEO Nancy Dobbs
When it was a brand new thing in 1984, KRCB found its plea for donations answered by a young boy in Kenwood.
It was 35 cents - a quarter and a dime Scotch-taped to a piece of cardboard. With it came a note saying: “Finally, I can see Sesame Street.”
Years later, looking back, Nancy Dobbs, the station’s only CEO ever, has regretted that this first donation wasn’t framed on the studio wall.
“We should have saved it,” she said, “but we needed the money.”
Now, at the start of 2017, Rural California Broadcasting reaches some 825,000 viewers, working from a $2.8 annual million budget patched together from sponsorships, memberships, donations, bequests and about $500,000 in federal grants.
Next year, they’re going to need a bigger piggy bank.
The news came with a big headline earlier this month. KRCB has, in language other than government-speak, hit the jackpot.
It has been chosen for a share of the Federal Communications Commission’s $20 billion auction to clear the airwaves for the burgeoning telecommunications industry.
Channel 22’s share: a cool ?$72 million.
NOW THAT the news is out, there’s a back story that bears telling. It is tightly wrapped around Dobbs, who didn’t set out to become a media tycoon. In fact she didn’t even like TV. In an interview years later, she confided to a reporter that, at the time, she certainly did not see TV as a positive force in our society, and wasn’t interested in promoting it.
Born in Los Angeles, she grew up on the East Coast and suggests she may have been “politicized” living in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis and being a student at UC Santa Barbara in the riotous ’60s. By the late 1970s, married to an SSU political science professor - with her own degree in political science - she was firmly entrenched in state politics as administrative assistant to Sen. Barry Keene and assumed that politics would be her career.
In 1979, a conversation about the possibility of public television for the area began on the Sonoma State campus.
Serendipitously, John Kramer, chair of the political science department, was just back from a sabbatical in Washington where he researched telecommunications benefits to rural areas. And he had discovered that a television bandwidth had been assigned to Cotati a decade or so earlier. And nothing more had ever been done.
An assembled board of directors applied to the FCC for seed money and also severed ties with the college when the then-president, the controversial Peter Diamandopoulos, stated firmly, “If I don’t control the board of directors, it cannot be on campus.”
Ultimately, the station also left its first Cotati address, receiving FCC permission to build on a site in Rohnert Park.
WHEN KRAMER approached Dobbs to be interim director of the embryonic public TV station, she was inclined to decline, but he was insistent, assuring her it would be - “only for about six months.”
Now nearly 40 years later, Dobbs is still running the show(s) at KRCB.
There is a side story, too. Her marriage broke up in 1982 and, four years later, she and John Kramer were married. Together, they not only raised a family but raised the profile and the importance of public television, and later, of public radio, in the North Bay. John Kramer died in 2014. In so many ways, KRCB is an important part of his legacy.
THE FIRST YEARS of Channel 22 were tenuous at best. The station survived a public pronouncement from the manager of Santa Rosa’s KFTY, that commercial television “owned” the local audience and a nonprofit station was unnecessary.
There was a bit of a dust-up, too, with the Bay Area’s other, much bigger PBS station, KQED, which refused to yield any claim on territory or prospective members to the upstart in Rohnert ?Park.
(The disagreements with KQED were settled long ago and the only two PBS stations in the Bay Area get along fine, Dobbs says.)
But board members recall reading in a San Francisco newspaper about Channel 9’s lavish holiday party at a very fancy hotel. At Channel 22, one supporter told the press, “We celebrated by drinking a bottle of bad wine that no one bought at the holiday auction. And we ate some brownies.”
SO FROM whence came such riches for the future? From the wireless revolution one might say.
The Federal Communications Commission, with mounting requests from wireless providers (think Verizon, or AT&T) for more space on the broadcast spectrum organized an auction early last year for funds to “buy out” broadcasters willing to trade their UHF transmission spot for a less powerful VHF band.
For KRCB, an enthusiastic entrant in the run for the money, it was win-win. All of Sonoma County still has access to the station - same old Channel 22, much more secure for the future.
So today we say that “The Little PBS Station that Could,” conceived at Sonoma State with a channel that was assigned (no one remembers just how or why) to the town of Cotati, and built slowly and carefully by a supportive community is alive and well.
Dobbs says the $72 million will be used on improved technology, including a required conversion at the transmission site high on Sonoma Mountain, and on more local programming. And a big chunk of it will go into an endowment to assure that KRCB will continue to provide public broadcasting to the county in perpetuity.
Permit me a reminder that none of this absolves us from renewing our memberships, bidding big on the annual fundraising auction or heeding ongoing pleas for donations and sponsorships.
And don’t look for lavish parties from the FCC windfall. Nor will it be spent on big fancy studios. Plans are to stay at the LaBath Avenue address - between, as staff members like to say, “the casino and Costco,” - in the 1980s assemblage of converted portables from the old Synanon site on Tomales Bay. (That’s another story.)
The small change from the kid who wanted to see Sesame Street, the bad wine and the stale brownies (and, ?just guessing - the times that Dobbs skipped her salary to pay a studio bill) as well as that rabbit warren of a studio are all part of KRCB’s shoestring success story.
As Bogart misquoted the Bard, it’s all “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Or, should you prefer a reference to more recent bards, “What along strange trip it’s been.”