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Sonoma County’s KBBF-FM was lifeline during fires for Spanish-speaking community

While much of Sonoma County slept in the wee hours of Oct. 9, Françisco Pardo, who lives in Petaluma, noticed a rim of fire creeping over the mountains northeast of town. Soon, he was headed to KBBF-FM, the region’s only bilingual public radio station, where he hosts a music and talk show on weekday mornings. As he drove along Stony Point Road toward Santa Rosa, traffic heading south grew increasingly heavy. His was the only car traveling north.

When he arrived at the station, located a few blocks past the DMV office on Corby Lane, Edgar Avila, who serves as program director, on-air host, volunteer coordinator and underwriting specialist, was already there, speaking by phone with Alicia Sanchez, president of the station’s board and acting general manager, who was in Reno.

“Stream any Spanish language station,” Sanchez urged, but none of the commercial stations were covering the unfolding disaster. By then, KZST was off the air because of the station’s proximity to the Tubbs fire.

They began streaming KSRO and then, beginning that first morning and continuing for several days, Avila translated what he heard into Spanish and passed the translations on to Pardo, who interrupted the broadcast to convey crucial information. As a result, they became the sole Spanish language station covering the fires in their earliest hours.

A farmworker himself, Pardo’s drive-time show is popular with farmworkers, landscapers, housekeepers and others who listen and call in as they commute to their jobs, but on that October morning, the phones were eerily silent.

When a few listeners did call, it was to express concern for the host’s safety.

“You need to go,” they urged, “we are worried about you.”

“If I’m going to die,” he said, in Spanish, “it will be in front of this microphone.”

The following day, the first fire-related press conference was held in English with a sign language interpreter.

“I listened to the conference online,” Sanchez, who had returned from Reno, recalled, “and translated the information.” She handed it off every few minutes to on-air hosts for broadcast.

For the next two weeks, regular programming was suspended. Avila called in all of the station’s volunteers and he and Sanchez worked nearly around the clock to keep the community informed about the progression of the fires. They’d shift to automated music programming as late as 1 a.m. so they could get some rest before returning to fire coverage at 6 a.m.

“We didn’t feel tired at all,” Sanchez reflected, “but when I saw a photograph of myself and Edgar I realized, we were all totally exhausted.”

“We like to think of ourselves at the first responders in the Spanish community,” she added, as she recalled those first few days.

The community reacted with overwhelming gratitude and support. With the National Guard standing watch at shelters and with evacuees required to give their addresses, many listeners were reluctant to visit a shelter, fearing that the Guard and others were cooperating with immigration. The fires had burned for several days before public officials confirmed that there was no risk to the undocumented community seeking assistance or refuge.

Still, listeners preferred coming to the station. Before long, the conference room was filled with donations, from masks, bottled water and food to diapers, baby clothes, adult clothes and hygiene supplies. When the station ran out of masks, people chose to wait until more arrived. Some listeners showed up with home-cooked meals for the staff and others came to help, answering phones and doing whatever else needed to be done.

As the end of that first week approached, Sanchez considered canceling the fundraiser that had been on the schedule since long before the fires.

“No way,” Avila countered, “the money keeps us on the air.”

To avoid interrupting programming, the fundraiser was shifted to the Internet, but listeners rebelled.

The message from people arriving at the station, sometimes with small children in tow, was: “We don’t want to donate online.” They came to the station offering $10, $20, $100 and more. And some are still coming, seven months later. An employee of a nearby tamale cart, for example, walks over every few weeks to fulfill his monthly $20 membership commitment.

KBBF was founded in 1973 by students from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State College, as it was then known.

Inspiration began in 1971, during the Chicano movement, when the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation, Inc. was founded with a grant from the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation. The group flirted briefly with establishing a television station but it quickly became clear that the costs were prohibitive. KBBF-FM became their focus. At that time, FM broadcasting was in its infancy and there were plenty of frequencies available.

The grant allowed the fledgling group to secure a broadcast license, a place for a tower on Mt. St. Helena, the means to install the tower and the tower itself. A helicopter lifted the tower to the mountaintop and once it was installed, volunteers drove off in every direction, testing how far they could go and still pick up the station. Initially, KBBF served 20 counties; today, with the FM band packed solid, the station reaches 12 counties and streams worldwide via the Internet, at kbbf.org.

The station receives no government funds; support comes exclusively from underwriting and listener contributions. Everyone who works at the station is a volunteer.

As Alicia Sanchez thinks back on those two weeks, she recalls the station’s initial purpose, which was, simply, “to provide information that will empower our bilingual community.”

“I believe we have fulfilled our mission,” she said.

Michele Anna Jordan can be reached at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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