After a sometimes-tumultuous tenure, Santa Rosa’s KBBF, the country’s first bilingual public radio station, is celebrating 50 years on the air.
“KBBF is a trusted and vital community institution. It is the only Northern California station that provides local news, public affairs, and emergency information in the region in Spanish and English as well as in several indigenous American languages,” Alicia Sanchez, president of the board of directors of the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation, the station’s nonprofit backer, wrote in a newsletter earlier this month.
The founders of the station included local college students and community leaders, all caught up with the political energy of the moment. The project was initially funded by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation.
When the signal first went live on May 31, 1973, volunteers hopped in their cars, tuned in to KBBF and drove off in various directions.
“It turned out that the signal reached, at that time, 18 counties,” Sanchez said in an interview.
For a few years, between the mid 2000s into the early 2010s, the station was subject to public scrutiny, with in-fighting and controversy about its use of funds, according to press coverage from the time.
However, KBBF managed to weather the storm. While the station still operates on a shoestring budget and relies heavily on volunteer labor, it continues to make a meaningful contribution to the community, especially during times of crisis.
“For us, there have been significant events that make it all worth it … One of them was during the killing of [13-year-old] Andy Lopez [by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy]. Because we [as a nonprofit] cannot advocate, what we did is we opened our airwaves for people to grieve the loss of a child,” Sanchez said. “What was so interesting was to hear the people calling in and talking about the grief and sending prayers to the family and all that, but also the grief they had gone through personally.”
The station also proved a vital resource for Spanish speakers during the October 2017 wildfires, when Sonoma County was revealed to have lacking translation services. Since then, they have offered important coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
KBBF’s anniversary celebrations kicked off on Sunday, July 23, with a public party at Santa Rosa’s Bayer Park. On Aug. 3, the station will hold a private, ticketed fundraiser dinner at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. Seats at the event will cost $150 and up, with proceeds going to pay for various costs.
“To be sustainable, we need your support for backup broadcasting equipment and to expand our operations, which is crucial for us to stay viable and broadcast to our listeners, who depend on us for invaluable life-saving emergency information,” Sanchez wrote in a recent fundraising pitch.
Information about KBBF’s Aug. 3 event is available at kbbf.org/50th-anniversary-gala-fundraiser.