KWMR The Early Years 1995 – 1999
The Beginning when Magic happens
Scrolling below 92 MHz on the FM dial is like fly fishing in a shared, secret river bend. There the hidden jewels, like fat trout, are to be found in community radio. Locally, our own particular river bend is home to several overlapping radio stations that speak to the joined urban communities encircling the San Francisco Bay. But none of those stations focus on the rich diversity of the West Marin Community. Here, at this turn in the river, lie a school of hidden academics, artists and wood goblins, fishermen, farmers and the Latino population that increasingly finds its way from the farms to the churches and schools of West Marin.
The idea of a radio station for West Marin had been tossed up, down and around for decades. As we know from religious and war stories, all histories depend on memory and who is holding the pen at the time of the writing. If our first circle of comrades were to gather again each of our tales would be a little different. These are my memories of our early years, added and blended with those of others.
Are you sitting comfortably? … Then we will begin ….
One summer afternoon in 1994 there was a knock on the door of Donna Sheehan’s house in Marshall. Outside stood the beret-capped, young, James Stark. James, with his pal John Gouldthorpe, were curious about the possibility of transmitting radio waves from a boat in the middle of Tomales Bay. They had heard that Donna had also been exploring how to originate an alternative media outlet to the local newspaper. She was rumored to have in her hands a little black box that could possibly spark the magical transmitting connection. Liquid refreshments were surely enjoyed as minds and ideas expanded from ‘How can we?’ to ‘Why don’t we try?’ To begin it appeared that $200 needed to change hands. James reached into his wallet, extremely well for a Canadian Scot, and produced the necessary greenbacks. Money and black box changed hands. The afternoon had sparked Donna’s energy and imagination and she began to work the phones.
Like mushroom spore after a first flushing rain the word spread through the community and more radio heads began showing up at Donna’s home as John Gouldthorpe and James Stark spearheaded this adventure into the airwaves. Meanwhile, Richard Dillman had begun cruising the back roads of West Marin in his babe magnet 1958 jeep. Maria Gilardin, a radio gal from TUC Radio, rode by his side. They too had a little piece of equipment installed in the jeep, a 10-watt transmitter borrowed from Greenpeace. While driving they started testing and it was not long before Richard was up on top of a mountain in Inverness with an antenna and a Boombox, broadcasting Pavarotti to the cows.
John, James and Donna put a notice in the Point Reyes Light newspaper with a date, a time and a place to see who else might be interested in the adventure of creating local radio. At this gathering I met for the first time folks who would remain friends to this day, Kay Clements, John Gouldthorpe, Charlie Morgan, Kate Munger, James Stark, Donna Sheehan and Paul Reffell among others.
Sitting, circled like kindergarteners, we listened attentively as Donna, James and John led us into the story so far. What emerged was tremendous enthusiasm fueling commitment and desire to be of service to the community, interest and passion for different musical genres and zest for giving and receiving information. Out of that first meeting came the seeds of our mission statement, to serve the community with a combination of entertainment, News with Bite, and emergency information. The vision of a station with community volunteers sharing their skills, talents and passions was the big picture for all of us.
My contribution seemed to be radio experience. In 1989, under the mentorship of Erik Bauersfeld, then director of the Drama and Literature department at KPFA Pacifica, I had began to read the literature he fed me. At KPFA I learned and practiced skills in all areas of production that would serve us well.
Another meeting was held at Gallery Route One. Already the collaboration of artists and organizations had begun. With a 1975 Sony TC-D5 tape recorder left over from ‘Apocalypse Now’ and two £ 25 Edgeware Road microphones as our first equipment those who dared came forward to hold the mic, speak into it and for the first time hear their voices played back from tape. From this group I began to train the first raw recruits. Charlie Morgan was among them and is still heard on KWMR today.
Programmers were one need, equipment another, studio space a third and then those engineering studies and the FCC licensing and not-for-profit status. What could we scrounge as hand me downs, and what needed how much funding?
Don Pitt negotiated our $1.00 lease for the broom cupboard in the Red Barn then owned by the Point Reyes Lions Club. Don also managed to keep us in place when the barn changed hands as the Lions Club sold the building to Rick Golet. We carefully scrubbed the counter and swept the space. Charlie climbed ladders, painted, strung cables and built shelves. John and James joined in too. Tech heads rummaged around their vans and garages. Soon a small mixing board, two microphones, cassette and reel-to-reel players sat on the bench of that little room and we were ready to begin. In all senses of the word we became connected with Horizon Cable TV, cablecasting the voices and music of those first programmers over the TV screen. Doris Allen, Daniel Bradley, Chris Breyer, Rick Clark, Kay Clements and Charlie Morgan were soon joined by others. Our first broadcasts were intermittent, but some fine programming emerged from those days and those who were listening enjoyed a rare treat. Enthusiasm was high and skills were learnt. Passion and knowledge of music and literature deepened. Throughout this time Richard continued his tests on the cows. Kay Clements, more than I, was his trusted helper in this endeavor but we both duly climbed up and around the hills of West Marin, while Richard drove …. The cows accepted our presence and the music though we never got a chance to check on any increase of milk yields.
With non-profit status came a board of directors headed by James Stark and John Gouldthorpe. A name was needed and it took a surprisingly long time and much laughter before we embraced the natural call letters of KWMR. The Mount Vision Fire in October of 1995 had a big impact on the profile of the station. During that fire, with the cable TV burned to the ground, we had no locally originated news coverage. The news came from everywhere but West Marin. We could not get out evacuation warnings, shelter locations, road closures, fire updates or any other information. It was humbling and exciting for the board to realize the power the station could have and kept us all inspired during some of the more gritty and disheartening moments. In that respect the timing of our station couldn’t have been better.
Miraculously the board procured funding from some silent souls who understood the importance a radio station would have for our community. Sooner than we expected, a bigger space upstairs in the Red Barn, the previous headquarters of the West Marin 4 H Club, became available. Once again Charlie took up his hammer and with a team of willing cohorts a ‘real’ studio and office space was built. Furniture was found. There was a desk for Kay and one for me, some storage space and even a couple of chairs for hosts and guests to meet. In the studio, a bigger console, room for four microphones, and playback equipment, reel-to-reel for analogue tape shows, turntables for vinyl and cassette players.
News of our efforts spread through the radio and film communities within the Bay Area. We were supported on all sides, radio and film engineers offered up redundant equipment and their expertise in installations. Howie Hammerman brought in, patched up and wired together console to mic and mic to console. Redundant Mac computers were found for us from Pixar studios. Digidesign gave us our first Pro Tools 4 editing software. Radio shows were offered and accepted from producers at KQED, KPFA, Radio Netherlands and others. Music producers started to send us new releases of their artists and publishers mailed books for review. It was exciting, it was work, it was fun, and we never considered the possibility of failure.
In those early years the technology, the business and magic of the arts joined hands and began their dance together. The mixture of personalities was, and remains, intoxicating. The knowledge and skills that we brought to the station were engaged, enhanced and interwoven with each other. As different pieces of the project took hold it became clear that Kay Clements had an equal ability and interest in talking with the engineers, lawyers, and music studio producers as I carried with local programmers and so the board in its wisdom blessed our partnership, Kay as Station Manager and Muriel as Program Director. The boys, John, James, Charlie, Howie and Richard were, as always, right behind us.
Meanwhile magic was happening in the broadcasts themselves. The first time I heard Doris Allen and Daniel Bradley re-enact the transcript of the Sadler Committee Report from 1832 for their Labor Day Special, we were all still in the closet studio. Doris and Daniel sat side by side, two artistic liberals well into their senior years playing out this story with spine-chilling clarity. Rick Clark came out of hiding to bring his Jazz and Bebop. Chris Breyer came in from Hog Island Oysters and, on the occasion of his passing, played William S. Burroughs tapes far into the early morning. Wandering Poet mystically wandered in and out again. On True Heitz’s 60th birthday her 90 year-old father, Richard B. Wall, a radio producer from Los Angeles in the 1930s joined her in reading radio drama live on air. Then there were the children journalists from the Nicasio School 6th grade reading from their school newspaper while their parents sat in cars in the parking lot listening. Ana Maria Ramirez was the first from the Spanish speaking community to join us. She came, as every good abuela does, with stories, children, grandchildren and Spanish. Ana Maria planted, tended and watered the seeds that became our bilingual stories, music and youth programming. Today airing Spanish-speaking programs, hosted by such local luminaries as Gus Conde, Jesus Martinez, Jaime Crespo and Jorge Ramirez remains a vital part of the station.
Richard went further afield in his van. Kay bravely went with him. Up more hills, cow pastures and woodlands. Charlie built, tinkered and fixed. Kay reached out to engineers, lawyers, kept her hand on the reins that guided us all as she took on the tasks of FCC licensing, paying the phone bills and the rent. We attended those never ending board meetings that, as board meetings do, played the range from mutterings to the occasional table-thumping. It was no mean feat to get the FCC licensing. When we applied (if memory serves correctly) there were immediately five other applications for the same wavelengths; two were ‘educational’ and three ‘religious’. It became resoundingly clear that to claim the airwaves for service to our community was a serious imperative. Through the guidance of our staff, board and others who gave their time and expertize, we did it.
We received our 501c3 status in 1997, our FCC license in 1998 and we went on air, broadcasting for the first time on 90.5 FM on May 2nd, 1999. Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and Richard Dillman pulled the switch and the David Thom Bluegrass Band was the first sound to play on air at KWMR 90.5 FM. As soon as we flipped the switch, everyone rushed out of the barn to turn on their car radios and listen to their new community radio station.
Constrained by geography and the glut of Bay Area frequencies, we didn’t have a strong enough signal to reach Bolinas and Stinson Beach so we immediately set to work on finding a spot where we could install a translator that would relay KWMR to those potential listeners. In December, 2003, during Kay’s Roadhouse Twang show, we installed the Bolinas translator and began broadcasting on 89.3 FM to the southern area of West Marin. As this was happening talk had begun about another ‘real’ space opening up in the Creamery Building. We knew now to move quickly. Charlie gathered the lads who took up their hammers again. Sheet rock went up. Michael Stocker, musician and poet from Woodacre, plotted out our first studio design. Jerry Lunsford was heard muttering at electrical cables.
Harriet Kossman wrote a grant that allowed for a summer series of lectures. Another wave of new programmers joined alongside Lyons Filmer, Janet Robbins, Peter Martinelli, Anthony Cosani and Tony Palmer. Over thirty souls crammed into the bare space sitting on uncomfortable metal chairs while eagerly listening to radio personalities they had heard on national radio stations. We were blessed by the generosity and enthusiasm of everyone who said ‘Yes, I will.’ All of them believing in and encouraging us. Film sound recordists and mixers Randy Thom and Dan Gleich demonstrated a variety of microphones for different purposes; Davia Nelson of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters joined Susan Stone of KPFA’s Drama and Literature department. They spoke softly yet passionately of the power of story, the eliciting of from guests and the serving to an audience. Walter Turner of KPFA’s Africa Today and a history professor at College of Marin gave a superb lecture on preparing for ‘That’ interview. On the last night of the series, a storm raged and took out the electricity. We lit candles and placed them in every sheet-rock cranny while a bone weary Michael Krasny swiveled in the only big chair, reminiscing and sharing stories about his early days in radio. The series came to an end and as we gathered up the chairs for one last time we all realized we had begun a new chapter. There was still work to be done, walls to be built and painted, wiring to be muttered at, phone lines to be installed and equipment to be wrangled. We were young still but on our way to becoming a real radio station.
KWMR was truly a grassroots endeavor from the founding board and staff to everyone who has participated along the way. At each step we’ve had to learn, grow, adjust, extend, compromise and consider. We lost the 89.3 wavelength, and struggle now with the coverage we need there with a weaker, replacement frequency. We originally thought of ourselves as a pioneering but homey little station that would support itself out of the love of the members. Our first fundraising effort was to elicit Founding Members at $100 per person. Our early budget was less than $25,000 and included the antenna installation and annual rent on the small room in the old barn with no staff compensation. Today, lead by Amanda and Lyons we are proud to have one full time staff and six part time staff and a budget of $340,000 80% supported by listener members.
KWMR has touched the community in ways we couldn’t have anticipated and inspired support up and down the Pacific Coast of California beyond our imaginings. Each person has brought something unique and valuable to the station’s success. It has, in fact, more than fulfilled our written mission statement by becoming a real community center, a resource for the other non-profits and organizations in our communities, a place to connect with friends and neighbors and a touchstone in times of crisis. The generosity of everyone involved and the love of what the radio is to our community and us remain the key to its success.
Muriel A. Murch