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Vox Populi: UFW activist Dolores Huerta helps KBBF celebrate its 35th anniversary and its return to its original mandate: serving the farmworker.

Voice of the Worker

Bilingual KBBF-FM returns to its roots

By Bruce Robinson

Thirty-five years ago, KBBF (89.1-FM) became the first community-based, noncommercial Spanish language station in the country. But that impressive precedent never translated into renown or riches for the tiny operation.

Today the station remains housed in a dilapidated building on the southwest edge of Santa Rosa, burdened with debt and eagerly working to complete the process of renewing its license. Such challenges are now being faced by a completely new board of directors, an activist slate that swept into office last fall determined to return the station to its original mission of serving the region's Spanish-speaking farmworkers and immigrant families. "That movement, which was a class struggle, got lost," asserts Evelina Molina, the new board's secretary. "It started becoming controlled by different interests, and it's been that way for over 25 years. It stopped being what it was born to be."

Among the new board's challenges is the continuing struggle to get the station's fiscal house in order, a deficit they hope will in part be addressed by a March 13 fundraising dinner and dance to celebrate the station's 35th anniversary, and to fete Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers Union.

No nonprofit is without its various upsets, and KBBF is not an exception. The new board's election was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Concerned Friends of KBBF--a group that included some of the new board members--contending that the prior board had violated the bylaws of the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation Inc. (BBFI), the nonprofit organization that holds KBBF's license. Their court case charged that the former board had failed to hold annual elections open to all station members and had sought to invalidate the previous election in which new board members where selected by the sitting board.

"This little station has been the Milagro Beanfield War of radio," Molina laughs ruefully. "Yet at the same time, we have people in our membership who have been tuning in for 30 years. We're like a really bad soap opera, but people love it and they're loyal."

But there simply haven't been enough of those people. Even the new election had just over 200 member votes cast, more than half by proxy. "Doing membership was never enough to keep the station going," sighs Maria Fincher, KBBF's general manager from 1994 through 2000. "It's always been a problem, because a lot of [listeners] are people who come and go" and who think, "'Why should I be a member if I'm not going to be here?' They didn't want to write a membership."

"A lot of the target audience doesn't even have an address. They live under bridges or in cars or with a group of other workers," agrees Josue Lopez, another past KBBF manager (1978 to 1982). Understandably, the all-volunteer station has also tried to appeal to settled and middle-class Latinos, although that, too, is problematic. "It's really hard to serve the recent immigrants and to draw the attention and allegiance of the established population," he explains. "The needs are very different."

FM radio was just emerging when KBBF signed on in 1973, after securing a transmitter on Mount St. Helena that operates at 1,000 watts, beaming its signal out into all or part of 18 counties, including Sonoma, Marin, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Yolo, Solano, Glenn and Colusa. At the same time, BBFI's noncommercial license means the station "can't go out and sell air time, can't sell the one resource that it actually has," Lopez says.

Yet BBFI holds another valuable asset. The station stands on roughly 4.5 acres of one-time federal surplus land in an area that developers are now eagerly eyeing for improvement. Over the years, two development proposals have been drawn up, including one with a dramatic Mayan-style tower as the portal to a 150,000-square-foot business park. However, the station's deed has so far precluded any sale or development of the property for 30 years, a deadline that has only recently passed.

That was no help to Felipe Ramirez when he took over a seriously broke station in 2002. "When I arrived, there were no sponsors, not even La Tortilla Factory," he recalls. "It was a big challenge to try to get the support of the merchants." He also sought foundation funds and grant-seeking partnerships with other nonprofits, such as the Red Cross, and implemented programming changes "to position the station as a candidate for funding from corporations," a move that alienated some longtime listeners.

Although he has been harshly denounced by some of the Concerned Friends of KBBF, Ramirez defends his actions as necessary "to help the institution stay alive, finding a way to keep the place open."

The new leadership promptly reversed many of those changes with programming "specially geared to farmworkers," Evelina Molina says proudly. "We're going back into history to bring the radio back to where it was meant to be 35 years ago."

KBBF's anniversary dinner dance celebration is slated for Monday, March 13, at Santa Rosa's Veteran's Memorial Building. A reception, dinner and dancing are included and Dolores Huerta will speak. 1351 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa. Admission is $50 per person or $100 to sponsor a low-wage earner's admission as well as your own. 707.623.3135. Huerta speaks at SRJC at 12:15pm that day before a march kicks off and ends in downtown Santa Rosa.

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From the March 8-14, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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