Just a Whisper on the FM Dial
KPFZ takes to the airwaves as if its broadcasts reached
a few miles.
By SUSAN CARPENTER
TIMES STAFF WRITER
April 9 2002
LUCERNE, Calif. - The transmitter is on a shelf in Andy Weiss' laundry room.
The antenna is attached
to the branch of an oak tree behind his house. His personal telephone line? It's the same one he uses to
take calls for KPFZ-LP, the 100-watt radio station broadcasting from his home in Northern California.
It's just a few minutes after 6 p.m. Saturday, the one day each week the station is live, and DJs Lonnie
"Eimo" Moultry, 51, and Tee Watts, 51, are on the air spinning vinyl. During their two-hour show, "In
the Free Zone," they mix it up with everything from the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd to the Supremes
and Temptations-not unusual music, just an unusual format, which is whatever they want to play. Their
music show, one of several the station hosts, follows a string of public affairs programs: "The
Environment Hour," "I'm Not a Lawyer, but I Play One on the Radio" and "Artwatch."
No one knows how many people are listening. Anyone who is, though, is within 15 miles of Weiss'
house. KPFZ is a low-power FM radio station, or LPFM. It is one of only two stations to get up and
running in California since the FCC approved this new class of license two years ago. The other is
KEFC, operated by the Evangelical Free Church ofTurlock, which airs Christian music and religious
services. The new licenses were created to bring localized radio programming to small communities and
to diversify the content of what's broadcast. Last year, the FCC began issuing the first of about 240
construction permits for LPFMs to schools, churches, Indian reservations, community organizations and
other noncommercial special-interest groups across the nation-21 of them in California.
Run by the nonprofit Lake County Community Radio group, KPFZ has been on the air since September.
It's among a few to be operated out of a house. Nationally, only about a dozen LPFMs have managed to
get on the air since the FCC made the licenses available. Duct-taped to the chain-link gate on Weiss'
driveway is a ragged piece of cardboard with magic marker lettering that reads, "KPFZ 104.5." There's
no gargantuan radio tower, no flashy sign to give the station away. Just a humble three-bedroom house
on a hill overlooking Lucerne, the "Switzerland of America," according to its welcome sign. A lazy lake
community supported by agriculture and tourism. Lucerne, population 2,000, is one of several small
towns that ring Clear Lake, the state's largest natural inland body of water. On any given day, boats dot
its surface, and motorcycles cruise its 100 miles of shoreline.
On-Air Legal Advice
On Saturdays, beginning at 7 a.m., a steady stream ofDJs travel the
dirt road to Weiss' home. They
will host talk shows on topics ranging from the environment to local politics and music programs
featuring folk and jazz, and they are carting records, interview materials, food and friends.
Catherine and Steve Ellas, a husband-and-wife team, are at the station to host a legal talk show
called "Both Sides Now." It runs from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Neither Catherine, 62, nor Steve, 60, had been at
the controls of a radio station before a friend told them about KPFZ, but, united in their belief that radio
should be used as a tool to inform and educate, they got involved last summer. Catherine, a former
paralegal trainer, is now KPFZ's president; her co-host husband is a retired attorney.
KPFZ's left leanings are evidenced in the DJ studio, a room Weiss once used as his office, where
local maps and stickers supporting the Green Party and Ralph Nader give the small space a cozy,
crunchy-granola feel. The DJ console is a hodgepodge of turntables, tape decks, CD players and other
studio gear. Weiss decided to get involved in the grass-roots business of creating an LPFM station because he
believes that it is important to have local voices on the airwaves and that those airwaves be accessible to
voices outside the "mono-culture" of mainstream media.
KPFZ broadcasts live only one day of the week to limit the disturbance to Weiss' personal life—his
regular job is as a community college computer instructor.
"It's great most of the time, but sometimes it's not," said Weiss, 55, who re-broadcasts Saturday's
shows and prerecorded programs from other sources during the rest of the week. "When you're in the mood
to make radio, which is most of the time, it's terrific. But if you're not, then ... it's like having a party when
you don't want one."
Of Local Interest
Like many people who live in small communities far removed from major
metropolitan areas, the people
of Lucerne are too far away to be able to tune in to most of the radio stations broadcasting from the Bay
Area (three hours south) or Sacramento (two hours southeast). Even so, only a portion of what is
broadcast on those stations is directly relevant to their lives. Much of it is not.
"People need to know what the [local] board of supervisors is doing," Catherine Elias said. "They need a
traffic report. They need to know if there's a five-car pileup on Todd Road so they can drive down Main
Street. A lot of community groups are offering services, but no one knows they're around.... There's all
kinds of levels of needs that could be broadcast."
Except for KPFZ, Lake County does not have a noncommercial station to broadcast in-depth or detailed
community news. A commercial station in Lakeport, the county seat, airs headline news once an hour. In
what is becoming standard industry practice, programming that originates on a single station is simulcast
over a number of channels in different markets for cost efficiency. Local news is a casualty, as is
esoteric programming, which is bumped off the air in favor of more profitable and proven formats, such
as rock and hip-hop.
Until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, broadcasters were allowed to
own no more than four stations
in a single market and 40 nationwide. Today they are allowed to own up to eight in a single
market with no overall cap. Infinity Broadcasting Corp., based in New York, and Clear Channel
Communications, in Texas, are the country's largest radio broadcasters. Today, Infinity owns 186
stations, most of them in major markets. Clear Channel owns 1,165 stations in 45 of the top 50 markets.
Though the economies-of-scale simulcast strategy "makes sense as a business model, it doesn't make
sense as a medium," said Hub Brown, who teaches broadcast journalism and ethics at Syracuse
University in New York.
And though Brown wants to see that diverse voices have access to me airways, he is not a fan of low-
power radio-not because of its content, but because he thinks it has a quality of tokenism. "It puts a lot
of legitimate community interest into this sort of ghetto on the radio dial. The stations don't have very
much reach and therefore can't command large sections of a community to get them to focus on issues."
Fostering local ownership and diversity is part of the reason the FCC approved LPFM licenses. "There
was a real grass-roots movement for people to be able to create their own small radio stations ... and the
administration at the time was interested in providing them an avenue that really wasn't available to
them," said an FCC spokesman. A similar type of license called a Class D used to be available, but the
FCC stopped issuing them in 1978, and only a few still exist.
The FCC began considering LPFM in 1998, but it wasn't until January, 2000, that it was approved, after
one of the most contentious FCC battles of the last decade. The National Assn. of Broadcasters, a
Washington, D.C., trade group that "promotes and protects the interests of radio and TV broadcasters,"
according to its Web site, lobbied against low-power radio saying it would interfere with existing
While the NAB was not successful in keeping LPFMs off the air entirely, it did succeed in lowering the
number that could be licensed. When the FCC first approved LPFM, it estimated that more than 1,000
licenses would be approved. More than 3,000 LPFM applications were submitted, but the FCC granted a
little more than 200.
That doesn't sit well with people such as Pete Tridish, 32, founder of the Prometheus Radio Project, a
Philadelphia group working to "incite people to radio" and to help low-power stations get on air. "There
are so many more that should have gotten licenses," he said. "So many more people in the more urban
There are no LPFM stations in cities. The licenses are only available in places where there are so-called
"third adjacencies" on the FM dial. Which means stations that are 800 megahertz away from each other.
A station can operate at 91.1, for example, only if there are no stations closer than either 91.9 or 89.3.
Though that situation exists in less populous places, it does not in metropolitan areas.
"There's most definitely more room for these things out there," the FCC spokesman said, though the
agency has no plans to expand its LPFM program at this time. "The question is, 'Is there room at the
same location where there's interest?' As with a lot of these things, the more interest is where the more
population is, and where there's more population there's a higher likelihood of there being more full-
service stations in existence that would prevent the creation of low-power stations."
A Limited ReachAt KPFZ, even with a transmitter that puts out 100
watts and a well-placed antenna, the signal does not
travel far enough to reach all of the Lake County area's 55,000 residents.
The station has applied for a full-power, 500-watt license but is waiting to hear from the FCC. The
LPFM licenses are either 10- or 100-watt, enough power to reach between 1 and 3.5 miles, according to
FCC estimates, though signals may travel farther. By comparison, many fall-service FM stations have
licenses allowing them to operate at 50,000 to 100,000 watts-enough power to reach, in some cases, up
to or beyond 100 miles.
California was one of the first states in the country to receive LPFM construction permits-all of them
granted between April and June 2001. The groups that received them were given 18 months to get on air
from the time they received notice they were approved. Nearly a year has passed, but KPFZ is the only
California LPFM to get up and running. Most of the rest are experiencing difficulties, from insufficient
funding and staff to a lack of broadcast know-how.
"We're a small church. We don't have a lot of money. We're looking for the best deals we can get," said
Calvin Palmer, pastor of Calvary Chapel of North Edwards-one of five branches of the same church in
California that were granted LPFMs. "We're doing the best we can with what little we have."
Palmer, who intends to use the radio station to broadcast Sunday services and community news,
estimates it will cost $15,000 just to buy the basic equipment to run the station.
The FCC does not charge a fee for LPFM licenses, as it does with other classes of radio license. The
greatest cost for LPFMs is the infrastructure-transmitter, antenna, studio gear. Depending on the
equipment, it can cost thousands of dollars. Operating the station is significantly less expensive-in
many cases, just the cost of electricity to run the studio. For KPFZ, that's about $100 a month.
Run more on enthusiasm than cash, KPFZ is a registered nonprofit with about 36 active members. It
does not accept money from businesses-the board of directors does not want the station's programming
to be influenced-only individuals, whom they solicit on air, via word of mouth and through fliers placed
at coffee shops and book stores.
In late May, KPFZ will move to a more centralized space in the nearby town of Lakeport so the station
can expand its programming and "serve the community better," Weiss said. It's "the 'happening' part of
the county," he added. "At least as 'happening' as it gets up here."
Until then, Charlie Kittleson, 50, will remain the last DJ of the night. A San Francisco transplant,
Kittleson DJs a stellar jazz and blues program from 8 to 10 p.m.
His entire show is planned in advance, each song listed in the order he intends to play it, with the artist
name, song title and length. He's even choreographed in his microphone breaks. This night's show began
with San Francisco jazz musician Greg Cooper and ends with Wes Montgomery
At 9:58 p.m., as the last song is winding down, he leans into the mike. "You've been listening to 'Jazz by
the Lake,'" he coos in a mellow voice modulated for radio. "Thanks again, and God bless."
He lets the song run out and pulls down the mixing board faders.
Meanwhile, Weiss is waiting in the laundry room to turn off the transmitter for the night. He'll be back
in the room tomorrow morning to start it up again at 7.