With the purchase of a more powerful FM station, Sonoma County’s NPR affiliate will expand its reach across the North Bay in 2021, complete with a new channel number and larger staff.
Northern California Public Media’s KRCB will migrate to 104.9 FM in the coming months, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission of its deal with Amaturo Sonoma Media Group to acquire one of the company’s five commercial radio stations. The two broadcasters announced the agreement Tuesday.
“I’m so thankful and impressed that they heard us out and were willing to entertain the offer,” said Darren LaShelle, president and CEO of Northern California Public Media. He initiated conversations with Amaturo Sonoma Media Group last summer.
KRCB had for years considered a way to bolster its signal on channel 91.1 FM. Since 1993, when the station first broadcast, the signal had been limited, LaShelle said.
“If we covered a story in Cloverdale or Petaluma or out at Bodega Bay, those folks couldn’t hear it,” LaShelle said. “Of course, they could go online and listen to it, but we knew that we had to expand the signal if we were truly going to be a resource for Sonoma County.”
Problems were exacerbated, however, in 2019, after the company lost its main transmitter and tower in the Kincade Fire. KRCB switched to an even smaller broadcast area from its headquarters in Rohnert Park. But the signal covered little else beyond Rohnert Park and part of Santa Rosa.
“We did get the transmitter replaced, the tower back up and back on the air with 91.1 FM just a couple of months ago,” LaShelle said.
But, “we knew we had to be bigger to make this work,” he said.
Michael O’Shea, president and co-owner of Amaturo Sonoma Media Group, said that his company hadn’t been looking to sell anything when LaShelle first approached them last summer. But after a few months of conversation, he said, combined with the effects of the pandemic on the commercial broadcasting company, O’Shea and co-owner Lawrence Amaturo were both persuaded.
“(The purchase) gives us a little more stability and little more insurance,” O’Shea said.
Northern California Public Media will pay $1.5 million to purchase the FCC license from Amaturo Sonoma Media Group, along with a main and auxiliary transmitter. The public media nonprofit will also make some upgrades to its studios, so that its growing staff can continue to produce local reports remotely.
“Our audience is telling us they want more from us,” LaShelle said. “And we need to fulfill that need.”
Money from the nonprofit’s endowment and additional community donations will fund the development, LaShelle said. In 2017, Northern California Public Media, which also operates two TV channels, received a $72 million payment from the FCC. The payment was one of many distributed to television broadcasters that year after an auction that redistributed crowded airwaves among the wireless telecom industry.
Chris Lee, longtime Sonoma Valley resident and news industry veteran, is one of several recent hires in the nonprofit’s growth. He will fill the role of executive producer, overseeing an incoming news director who will manage a team of reporters, two of whom will also be newcomers.
Lee said he aims for KRCB to provide Sonoma County listeners with a more consistent offering of local news content in its programs, “as opposed to listening to KQED drone on about traffic in Fremont.”
“I want to put as much local news into ’All Things Considered’ and morning coverage as we can,” he said.
To help the newsroom determine where best to focus its efforts, KRCB is inviting members of the public to weigh in using an online survey.
“This is the kind of station that, to really reach its fullest potential … it can’t be us thinking we’re smart and telling the community what it needs,” Lee said. “It has to be the community participating and forming what this radio station should be, and the topics we should cover.”
FCC approval of the deal could take approximately 10 to 12 weeks. Following approval, the needed technology will change hands, and KRCB will migrate to its new channel, while retaining its same call letters.
The new signal covers nearly all of Sonoma County, extending into Novato and parts of Napa County.
“We want to make sure we’re maintaining and pleasing the people that we have,” LaShelle said. “And we want to increase the people that come to us.”