On a Monday morning, Oct. 9, 2017, Francisco Pardo, the host of the Mañanitas Campiranas radio show on KBBF, drove from Petaluma to the station’s studio in Santa Rosa.
“He called me later and he said he realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the only car going towards Santa Rosa,’” says Alicia Sanchez, the board president of the Bilingual Broadcasting Foundation, the nonprofit which oversees KBBF, a multilingual radio station which has broadcast from Santa Rosa for nearly five decades.
Hours before Pardo drove north that morning, a historic series of fires erupted near Santa Rosa, threatening the city and panicking hundreds of thousands of Sonoma County residents. However, local officials weren’t issuing evacuation orders—much less any other information—in any other language than English, making Pardo’s radio show, which had a large following among Sonoma County farm workers, more crucial than ever.
Sanchez calls the radio station’s volunteers the “first responders” of local media for the Spanish-speaking community. “There was nothing [in Spanish], not even from the commercial radio stations,” Sanchez says.
To fill the gap, Edgar Avila, KBBF’s programming director, and other volunteers wrote down information from English-language press conferences, translated it and then re-broadcast the news in Spanish.
Sanchez says that one of Pardo’s daughter’s later told him, “Dad, on those days, you saved lives” by transmitting crucial information.
However, KBBF, which has broadcast a variety of shows in Spanish, English and Indigenous languages for 47 years, offers its listeners much more than disaster coverage.
“We have a lot of shows that make you think about the relationship of the government to your personal life, but we also have a program by a psychologist about mental and emotional health,” Sanchez says. Other shows cover dental health, local school systems, financial advice and a variety of other topics. Some shows are also broadcast in indigenous languages like Mixteco and Triqui.
Earlier this month, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) honored KBBF with a Silver Heart Award as part of the journalism group’s 2020 Excellence in Journalism awards, a sign of outside recognition for the station’s decades of work. SPJ’s Silver Heart Award is issued to journalists and media outlets that strive to expose important social issues and make significant contributions to their communities.
“Broadcasting from studios in Santa Rosa, [KBBF’s] mission is to create a strong multilingual voice that empowers and engages the community to achieve social justice through education, celebration of culture, and local and international news coverage. KBBF played a critical role communicating in indigenous languages to ensure farmworkers could stay safe during wildfires that threatened their lives,” the journalism group’s Feb. 3 announcement of the award winners states.
KBBF’s transmitter is located on the south peak of Mount Saint Helena and, at one time, broadcast the station’s signal into 18 counties. Although the station does not have the resources to pay for a detailed audience study, Avila, the station’s programming director, says the signal currently reaches an estimated 5 million households, 1 million of which are Spanish speaking, according to 2010 Census data.
Although the radio station has a loyal base of listeners and volunteers, the station doesn’t always receive recognition outside of that group.
Sanchez, who has been an activist for decades and has won awards in her own name, says she was pleased the station won the recognition, which may help it win more grants and supporters outside of the current listeners.
“KBBF has a legacy that I want to keep going. Not my legacy, but the legacy of KBBF and the whole family that contributes to it,” Sanchez says.
The station again proved its value to the non-English-speaking community when the volunteer staff took on the translating work the county did not during the October 2017 wildfires.
A December 2019 report by the California State Auditor’s office faulted Sonoma, Butte and Ventura counties for failing to issue evacuation orders in any language other than English during wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
“When counties do not provide translated evacuation warnings, residents who do not speak English may unknowingly remain in unsafe locations or may have to find others to translate the messages for them, delaying their ability to safely evacuate,” the auditor’s December 2019 report notes.
Although faulted for a lack of services in the October 2017 fires, Sonoma County issued emergency alerts and other information in Spanish in more recent wildfires, including in the October 2019 Kincade fire. County and state fire officials now also offer live translations of press conferences held during wildfires.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted the county’s Latinx community, the county has begun offering more translation services in response to further criticisms regarding a lack of equal language access to public meetings and documents.
For instance, the Board of Supervisors now offers translation services for its virtual meetings, but only by request. Meanwhile, most day-to-day government publications, like Board of Supervisors’ agendas and staff reports, are never translated into any language other than English.
Still, many argue the county still has a long way to go in terms of translation—and trust of government institutions within historically marginalized communities.
“This county is rich because of people who pick grapes. This county gets its money from farm workers,” Aliva says. “Every single government document, every single word that’s printed on every single document, and every single office and building needs to be translated.”
Avila is currently reporting on why some of the people on Sonoma County’s Latinx and Indigenous communities are distrustful of Covid-19 vaccines.
To Avila, the issue stems in part from the county’s mishandling of past scandals, including the 2013 killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus.
Instead of prosecuting Gelhaus, the District Attorney declined to press charges and the county gathered public input from community members about possible law enforcement reforms for nearly two years.
More than seven years after Lopez’s death, the county has passed some reforms—often opposed by law enforcement unions and their allies—but many feel that justice was never served in the case which caused so much pain in Lopez’s community.
“Now, people are baffled that the Latino community is suspicious of the vaccine,” Avila says. “So, what I’m working on right now is a special report to convince people to take the vaccine.”