KOWS-FM 92.5 Finds Good Grazing in Santa Rosa
By Dan Kerbein
It's just what you'd expect from a radio station named KOWS, to celebrate the move to its new studio in Santa Rosa with a “barn raising”.
The afternoon of live music set for Saturday, May 25 at Three Disciples Brewing is actually a meet-and-greet, but after 12 years as an on-air “herd”, this crew of DJs extends, with bit of humor, a public invitation to meet listeners and prospective new programmers.
KOWS Community Radio started broadcasting in February from its new studio at 445 7th Street (near Orchard) in Santa Rosa. But it first went live on January 18, 2008, its studio a creaky flight of stairs over an Occidental cafe. The first and only DJ was Robert Feuer, who played both sides of “Surrealistic Pillow” by the Jefferson Airplane, and some selections from John Mayall, as KOWS founder, manager and engineer Phil Tymon, assisted with the console. Feuer's show was quickly joined by others, all trained by Tymon. Now KOWS is served by 60 volunteer programmers.
From the beginning, the station's stated goal has been “to provide exceptional quality programming that is diverse, and which is inspired by the lives of our local residents.”
That vision has sustained this low-power, thinly budgeted station through a series of eastward moves, as though the station was following its own signal.
“Our tag line is 'Serving Santa Rosa and all of Western Sonoma County,” Program Director Don Campau points out. “We're not forgetting our roots, we're bringing them with us. We are expanding our vision to include Santa Rosa and, via the internet, the world.”
That pretty much capsulizes the world of a low power radio station. Low power designation was created in 1999, intended to provide underserved communities their own local radio signal, only a few watts compared to the thousands commanded by larger, more known stations.
From the beginning KOWS' antenna has been located in a tall tree at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. The first KOWS “herd” primarily lived around Occidental, where the studio resided for 9 years.The quest for a new home led briefly to Sebastopol, and now to Santa Rosa.
Programmers of years' duration have brought their talent over to the new Santa Rosa studio, along with the live sound of community radio. Laura Goldman's show “Laura's Living Room” was the first show aired in KOWS' new home. Goldman was also one of the first to go live after Feuer's.
“I live between Occidental and Bodega, so it was easier to get there when the studio was in Occidental. I was concerned people would stop coming by once I got to the Santa Rosa studio, but it hasn't happened, they're still stopping by,” Goldman says.
She does, however, see a potential challenge for DJs who are aging and may need transportation assistance from the west county, she plans to keep that alive in future considerations.
Like other Dis who were with the original Occidental herd, Goldman had wondered whether KOWS, whose signal is in a tree above Occidental can move its studio to downtown Santa Rosa and still be a community radio station.
“It doesn't matter as much to me where we are, as long as we're embracing the community,” she feels. “The fabric of our community is really influenced when we keep it strong and together. The benefit in going local, trying to support neighbors and friends and vendors and farm markets, I think community radio is a big piece of it. So it doesn't matter as much where our studio is, except that we have to remember our roots, remember why we were formed. Community radio holds a space for people, gives them a chance to express themselves.”
The limits of KOWS' signal can be detected during a typical Sunday drive. In the case of KOWS, the drive would go from Occidental to Santa Rosa, encompassing much of the city up into the hills of Fountaingrove and Annadel Heights. Receivers around the outskirts of Sebastopol to the north and south also pick up the station.
“KOWS is clear as a bell in much of Santa Rosa,” explains Dave Stroud, Technician and Social Media person. “Due to the contours of the land heading out eastward. Although we tried we couldn't get a strong signal in Sebastopol, so it was hard to get much volunteer support with a blocked signal. In Santa Rosa we have a new base of listeners to draw from.”
Late reports show that several new volunteers have joined the herd since the move.
There is no Arbitron rating system in the low power world, since the stations are noncommercial and too small to afford a survey. Social media provide more accessible stats, which show for example that KOWS leads all the other North Bay public radio stations in Facebook followers.
The station has also cultivated an online streaming presence, found at www.kowsfm.com. This data shows a significant Santa Rosa audience. There are also clumps of listeners in Europe and the U.K. - largely the result of global networking on the part of Campau, who posts international jazz and alt rock programs on the station's 24-hr loop.
“Our beginnings were very West County,” Stroud recalls, “and they were modest. But the energy has always been positive. Our preference is for community members producing their own shows. Going forward we'd like to see even more diversity in the communities we represent - Latinx, First Nations, all people of color, the homeless, LGBTQ - we invite it.”
This invitation to diversity is in keeping with the station's slogan, “Free Speech. No Bull.”
Laura Goldman summarizes her assessment of the station with this thumbs-up: “We've been going for 12 years, that is a phenomenal achievement. We're expanding our community to include Santa Rosa. We're 100% volunteers, we do it for the love of what we do, and we have these talented and dedicated people. I'm glad to be part of it.”
For readers of the Sonoma County Gazette who would like to enjoy the afternoon with a herd of low-power but energized DJs, 3 Disciples Brewing is located at 501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.
The KOWS Meet-and-greet starts 5pm, with a silent auction, a no-host brew bar, and Mountain Mike's Pizza serving as a pop-up food vendor. A $5 donation is requested but nobody will be turned away.
More information is available on Facebook.