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Santa Rosa's pioneering bilingual public radio station, KBBF, has endured its share of struggles since it started broadcasting 38 years ago.

Despite limited financial support, poor facilities, internal power struggle, and increasing competition from commercial Spanish language radio stations, the scrappy KBBF has always managed to stay on the air with music, news and programs aiming at Spanish speakers throughout the region.

But the station's new leaders say they have inherited such profound challenges that the survival of the station is now in doubt.

"It feels like we are facing a time when the station, under this particular group, will either go out of existence all together or will rise out of the flames," said former station manager and current board member Josue Lopez. "We're not going to be able to limp along much longer."

The station and its owner, the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation Inc., face a daunting array of financial, physical, legal and licensing challenges.

Members of the new board say they are hopeful they can persevere, but acknowledge the difficulties before them have never been greater.

"It's a sad situation we are in right now," said Alicia Sanchez, president of the board and a one-time union organizer.

KBBF's downward spiral began about three years ago when it was revealed that station manager Jesus Lozano had a drug conviction. In December of 2008, Lozano began serving a 5-year prison sentence in Oregon, where he had been arrested in 2003 and charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell.

Also in 2008, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public radio and television stations and programs, audited KBBF and found "egregious" violations in how taxpayers' money was used by the station, according to spokeswoman Nicole Mezlo.

As a result, the station lost its annual community service grant from the corporation, which at the time was about $125,000 per year, or about a third of the station's entire budget, said board member David Janda, a retired postal worker.

The station could reapply in 2012, but before becoming eligible, it would have to repay the $66,000 auditors claim was misspent.

In addition, the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses radio stations, is investigating how Lozano's drug conviction affects the station's broadcast license.

FCC investigators appear to be looking into whether Lozano or others perjured themselves when they reapplied for the station's license, Lopez said.

People convicted of drug felonies are not allowed to serve on the staff of public radio stations, Lopez said. Lozano was convicted in 2007, and investigators are looking into whether he and others lied on the applications when they swore that to their knowledge no staff had such felony records, Lopez said.

Janda said he expects the FCC at most would levy a fine in the case, not revoke the station's license. But Lopez said the investigation is "nail biting" because no one really knows what will come of it.

"We don't know precisely what it is they intend," Lopez said.

The most pressing problem facing the station is far more mundane.

Last week the Santa Rosa City Council slapped a $56,000 lien against the station's Finley Avenue property for repeated failures to resolve code issues. For years, the city has been trying to get the station to deal with a failed septic system, an unpermitted addition and lack of water for fire suppression.

Previous station leadership had either ignored or avoided the issues, board members said. The city has given the foundation until mid-May to resolve the violations. Access to the property is now sharply limited. A portable toilet sits beside the conference room built with volunteer labor but no permits.

All told, the required upgrades to the property will cost between $150,000 and $250,000, said Bernie Hovden, a retired Agilent engineer who is volunteering to help the station.

The high cost is due in part to the location. The station's compound of decaying building and sheds is located down a long dirt road off Finley Avenue. It is located in a low-lying area on the site of the former Santa Rosa Naval Auxiliary Air Station.

Because the area often floods, the septic system can't be fixed. Instead, it must be abandoned and a line dug 300 yards to tap into the city sewer lines. A series of pumps will be required to move the effluent, increasing the cost, Hovden said.

"The problem is the station is completely broke," said board member Evelina Molina.

The board is trying to demonstrate to the city it is serious about resolving the code issues even though it lacks the resources to tackle the upgrades, Molina said.

Sanchez said volunteers come forward all the time asking how they can help, but she has to put them off, explaining that they need the city's permission before they do anything on the site.

The station has a fund-raising committee working on a plan to bring in the money. Membership drives, on-air appeals, private grants, and loans are all being considered, Sanchez said.

At the moment the station has less than $600 in the bank, he said.

The station had received $200,000 in a licensing swap with Sinclair Communications, which owns four Santa Rosa radio stations, including 95.6 KRSH. That money was earmarked for the upgrades, but previous station leaders like Lozano, who was a paid staffer, "dipped into it as they were going along" until it was gone, Lopez said.

Today there are no paid employees. Everyone is a volunteer. The station has about 400 members, most of whom pay $20 a year.

While the financial challenges are huge, Janda and others say they are optimistic because the board is working well together.

"This group is united in a way previous boards have not been," Janda said.

Since the departure last November of the previous board president, Juan Hernandez, the station has made great strides toward resolving various issues, Janda said.

"Maybe its false optimism, but I think we can do this," he said.

Abandoning the site is not an option because the station would have additional costs of leasing space in a new location. Plus, the station's home, despite its remote location, is a significant part of its history and identity, Sanchez said.

"There would be outcry in the community if we were just to say close it down," she said. "We just need to get the word out that we need help."

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