The Value Of Things
I have a pair of Cole-Haan loafers that I swear are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. Dennis, our local shoe-repair expert appreciates the shoes far more than anyone in my family. He once asked how long I’ve had them. I quietly whispered “well I bought them in 1988.” I think he liked the idea that I was still wearing them, and I’m grateful he continues to bring them back from the dead every few years. What about you? How about that pair of comfortable (and tattered) slippers you continue to wear? Or that ratty shirt? Things that bring us some measure of personal comfort are not to be lightly dismissed. Which brings me to public radio. Sometimes it feels as if public radio is like those old shoes of mine. Eminently comfortable.
I met then KZYX GM Belinda Rawlins in 2007 and was surprised to find myself working for her a year later. Me, in public radio. But it was stimulating, since KZYX was not a mega station (like KQED in San Francisco) but a truly local idea. Some national content, yet the majority of the programs then and now created by people right here in Mendocino County. And like the county itself, the local programs seem born of the towns, roads, hills, valleys, and rivers; reflecting the wide breadth of taste, interests, and topicality.
We’re comfortable that Morning Edition turns up every morning, or that Terry Gross brings us a bit of Fresh Air every day. And we take for granted a group of almost 100 dedicated (and unpaid) volunteers who create local programs of local interest; friends and neighbors talking about their vegetable gardens, or bringing us a local view on politics, or food, or the environment. There’s music for every taste, from almost every genre (well no barbershop quartets. . . .) They do this for the pride and love of what they’re doing, and for the audience.
It may be difficult to acknowledge but far too many of us take public radio for granted. After all, ‘it gets tons of money from the federal government’ (untrue), ‘it costs nothing to operate’ (also untrue), or ‘everyone else pays for it so I don’t need to.’ This last idea is interesting because in reality, only one-in-ten listeners contributes to public radio. Line up ten random public radio listeners from the Mendonoma coast and the odds are you’ll find that only one of them supports a public station with a financial contribution.
There are some essential qualities required to work in public radio. For example, you must be self-motivated, willing to work long and weird hours (often at the same time), and believe in what your doing. You might accept that those traits apply to every job, and perhaps they do. But one of the realities of public radio is the fact that the wolf is regularly at the door. Not always, but he makes an appearance once or twice every year, so everyone understands that public radio is fragile, always a little on the edge. But we love it and believe it’s worth the long hours, the modest pay, and the angst.
We all learn to perform a myriad of jobs at a station like KZYX. I’m ostensibly working on the business side, but on any given day at any time I often find myself in the studio helping out on the air. Or answering the phones. Or cleaning the station’s bathroom; or picking up a volunteer who’s stranded on highway 253 halfway to Ukiah. You name the job, and every staffer has done it at one time or another, and continues to do so. And so it was on the evening of Sunday, October 8.
Our Sunday night volunteer programmer began receiving calls from listeners about a fire in or near Redwood Valley. Anyone and everyone who called in to the studio late that night spoke with Bob, who then passed along the anecdotal information to the rest of the listeners. I emphasize ‘anecdotal’ because there were few official reports available. By Monday morning many of us were at the Philo studios providing non-stop information to our listeners. Some time that morning Jeffrey Parker, the station's General Manager, created a shared online document enabling all of us to add information as we received updates by email, internet, text, and calls from the sheriff, police, highway patrol, volunteer fire departments, Cal-Fire, officials throughout Mendocino, Lake, or Sonoma County, and our listeners. Our news people were shuttling between locations on either side of Highway 101, gathering information from Laytonville to Hopland. And we heard from local residents who wanted to share details gleaned from conversations with local authorities. At one point that shared document of information ran more than twenty pages, totaled almost 3000 words, and enabled us to get fresh information to our listeners quickly.
As the days passed we knew that, absent an unexpected rain shower, this fire was going to be with us for another week or more. Every volunteer programmer (and the paid staff) took time every hour (and sometimes more often) to get the information out. Numerous people contacted us on a borrowed phone or by email to tell us their stories. Some cell networks weren’t working, yet some landlines remained active. Internet access was beginning to disappear in many areas, whether it was via satellite dish or cable. Then it got real scary. We were receiving multiple reports of (and from) people who were in the midst of preparing to leave their homes for safer areas, who turned toward the edge of their property and realized they were now out of time. They jumped into their car or truck or bus and hightailed it toward what they hoped would be safer ground. This fire was devouring grasslands, woodlands, sheds, storage facilities, homes, farms, and commercial businesses. Everything and anything in the way was likely to be damaged or destroyed. Over almost two weeks, our staff and volunteers stayed at it. At this writing, the fires are now contained or completely extinguished, but the devastation and rebuilding of lives and property begins.
That two weeks of manic efforts on everyone’s part is exactly what public radio is about. Serving everyone in our listening area, not just our members. It’s worth keeping that in mind as we consider just how public radio can be supported. We were fortunate that there was no major damage to the station; the fire came oh so very close to one of the KZYX transmitters but fortunately there was very little apparent damage to the station's equipment. That’s in stark contrast to the obvious devastation throughout northern California. Everyone affected will need help. And along the way, if you can consider throwing some money toward your local public radio station, that might be a good idea as well.
above: KZYX transmitter above Redwood Valley
left: KZYX transmitter site.
bottom: Fire assitance in Gualala
far left: those shoes....