KWMR - The Early Years 1995 - 1999
The station was conceived one afternoon in 1995. A knock on the door of Donna Sheehan's house in Marshall revealed a young man toting a small, black box - a transmitter, in fact . He planted the idea of transmitting from a boat in the middle of Tomales Bay - Donna Sheehan, artist, activist and local bon vivant had been ruminating on how to originate an alternative media outlet to the Point Reyes Light newspaper, at that time the only media in West Marin. The radio idea captured Donna's imagination and once captured, she began to work the phones.
As Donna and James Stark began to research, the word went out over the ether and the radio nuts started showing up at Donna's -John Gouldthorpe, and Richard Dillman being among the very first. They started testing and tinkering and at one point, Richard was up on top of a mountain in Inverness with an antenna and a Boombox, broadcasting Pavarotti to the cows transmitting from Donna's backyard - just a test, mind you, no need to worry about licensing yet.
They decided to put an ad in the paper and get some folks involved - Aggie Murch, Kate Munger, Charlie Morgan and many others answered the call but only Aggie actually had radio experience, having read for the Drama and Literature Department at KPFA for a number of years. Aggie became our first Program Director and began to gather and train her raw recruits.
The mission from the first day was to serve the community with a combination of "news with bite", emergency information and entertainment. Donna was using the legendary KFAT, her favorite radio station, as a model which was good for a start - but the vision of a station with hundreds of volunteers sharing their skills, talents and passions with the community was the big picture. We now needed to put in place the underpinnings of the plan.
First step - raise money to pay for engineering studies. Second step: navigate the FCC licensing: Third step, raise money to pay for rental of facility, modest (i.e.cheap) equipment to work with in the studio. Fourth step: raise money to buy the equipment needed to install our first antenna. Fifth, sixth and seventh steps - raise money to keep it together - (this part never ends, by the way).
We were planning to cablecast until we got our broadcast license but just as we were about to spend money on a dedicated digital phone line to carry our programming to the cable, the Mt Vision fire started and immediately burned the cable head-end to the ground...We immediately regrouped, rented a place in the barn and instead of running our (very expensive) phone line to Inverness, we ran it down the hall and started cable casting. As the local ads scrolled down the page, you could hear Charlie Morgan or Off the Cuff or Chris Breyer playing and talking behind the ads. It was an odd beginning and while we didn't believe many people were listening, it proved to be an excellent training ground. Everyone who had a program in the early days was very prepared to go live as some of us had had 3-4 years on the cable at that point!
The Mt Vision Fire had a big impact on the profile of the station - during that fire, with the cable TV burned to the ground, we had no locally originated news coverage. It came from everywhere but West Marin so we had no way to get out evacuation warnings, shelter locations, road closures and fire updates and information. The timing of our station couldn't have been better in that respect. It was humbling and exciting for the board to realize the impact the station could have and kept us inspired during some of the more gritty and disheartening moments.
We received our 501c3 status in 1997, our FCC license in 1998 and we went on air, broadcasting for the first time on 90/5FM on May 2nd, 1999 - Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and Richard Dillman pulled the switch that put us on the airwaves and the David Thom Bluegrass Band were the first band, the first sound to play on air at KWMR. As soon as we flipped the switch, everyone rushed out of the barn to turn on their car radios and listen to their new community radio station.
Constrained by geography and the glut of bay area frequencies, we didn't have a strong enough signal to reach Bolinas and Stinson so we immediately set to work on finding a spot where we could install a translator which would relay KWMR to the listeners in Stinson Beach and Bolinas. In December, 2003 we installed the Bolinas translator and began broadcasting on 89.3, (during a Roadhouse Twang show as it turns out) to the southern area of West Marin.
The station has truly been a grassroots endeavor - from the founding board and staff to everyone who has participated along the way. Each person has brought something unique and valuable to the station's success. It has, in fact, gone beyond what was envisioned to become a real community center, a resource for the other non-profits and organizations in our communities, a place to connect with friends and neighbors and a touchstone in times of crisis.
At each step of the way, we've had to learn, grow, adjust, extend, compromise and consider. We originally thought of ourselves as a pioneering but homey little station that would support itself out of love of the members. We have found instead that KWMR has touched the community in ways we couldn't have anticipated and inspired support beyond our imagings.
Our first fundraising effort, 11 years ago was to garner Founding Members at $100 per person. Our early budget was $25,000 which included the antenna installation and annual rent on a small room in an old barn - no staff compensation. As we enter our 10th year on air, our 2009 budget is $430,000. and includes 3 FT, 4 PT staff and over 100 program hosts who voluntarily produce programs the breadth and variety of which is quite astonishing and only what we could dream and hope for early on.
The keys to our success have varied at different times - early on it was the tight group of founders who worked hard and persevered with no experience or money and only the dream to move them forward. Over the years it has been stability, a sense of economy,and the skills and dedication each board member, volunteer and staff person has brought to their job. The generosity of everyone involved and the love of what the radio is to us and our community seems to be a key to its success. As somebody once said, it's a righteous project!