Thursday, May 27, 2010

Radio Station Field Trip 22 - KZYX in Philo, California

For over a decade I've been intrigued by community/public radio station KZYX in the small town of Philo, California. As I drove through the area during weekend get-aways to Mendocino and Anderson Valley I listened to the station and became a huge fan of their weekend show "Trading Time." After citing the show as one of my favorite radio shows of all time on Radio Survivor, I got a nice email back from KZYX's General Manager John Coate. So, with another trip planned to Anderson Valley, I decided to stop by the station on May 13th to learn more about what they are up to.

Philo is a small town located in Anderson Valley, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive north of San Francisco on scenic highway 128. Known for its wines, Anderson Valley was a hub of activity when I visited KZYX two weeks ago, as it was the weekend of the annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.

Back Deck of KZYX
Photo by Jennifer Waits

When I arrived at KZYX on a Thursday afternoon, I was directed out to the station's outdoor deck area to find General Manager John Coate. Situated in a rented house just off the highway, but nestled in the woods, KZYX's physical location couldn't be more idyllic for a small town community radio station. As we began to chat in the afternoon sun, it was hard to miss the mellow, country, hippie vibe emanating from both the speakers and from the surroundings. I was delighted by the sight of a lizard darting out from under a rock while we spoke and by the presence of a radio station dog.

KZYX in Philo
Photo by Jennifer Waits

Moments later the calm was disrupted by the buzz of a helicopter directly over our heads. As it continued to circle the station at a very low altitude, John and other staffers were both surprised and perplexed by its presence. We speculated that it was scoping out the woods for marijuana plants, as that's not uncommon in Mendocino County. But then the in-the-know locals quickly added that it was actually the wrong season for pot plant surveillance. After getting no response from the local airport, the collective theory changed and we were told that it was probably a rich tourist joy riding in advance of the Pinot Noir Festival.

After the excitement subsided, we continued our conversation and tour of KZYX. The FM station (at 90.7 in Philo) began in 1989 and has additional studios in Willits (KZYZ) and Mendocino, allowing the station to broadcast on a few FM frequencies in different parts of the country (as well as online). John has been the General Manager of the station since August 2008, after working for many years in new media. A pioneer in online social networking, he was employee #2 at "The Well," arriving there in 1986, becoming part of a very influential online community. He went on to found SF Gate, one of the first websites devoted to bringing newspaper content online.

KZYX Studio in Philo
Photo by Jennifer Waits

It was interesting talking to John about both new and traditional media, as much of what I love about KZYX hearkens back to an earlier time. Their call-in "swap" show "Trading Time" is truly a slice of small town life, as its hosts read off a laundry list of items that neighbors are offering up for sale or trade. Old refrigerators and pick-up trucks are proffered, along with requests for rides or for help hauling. John told me that it may be the most popular show on KZYX as it "speaks to commonalities" among listeners as opposed to a niche audience.

The programming at KZYX is interesting in that it includes a mix of music, public affairs, local, and syndicated shows. They air shows from NPR, PRI, APM and Pacifica radio, as well as their own locally produced shows. When I visited the station a DJ was doing a world music show and for that particular week she was focusing on music from Asia. John told me that most of the music shows are "specialty shows," playing a specific genre. He mentioned one DJ who only plays acoustic Delta blues music and another who plays Doo Wop on a late night show. KZYX has also broadcast live events, including a reggae festival.

KZYX General Manager John Coate in the Vinyl Library
Photo by Jennifer Waits

Half of the programming schedule is devoted to public affairs shows and John mentioned that they were doing a lot of local election coverage for an upcoming June election, including interviews, debates, and appearances by various candidates for judge, supervisor and district attorney. Archives of their election coverage can be found on their website. John pointed out that the election coverage has been quite lively, adding that " not that mellow," describing the local community as being quite engaged and "way more Berkeley" than "Haight Street." He said that the mission of the station is "to cover the county" entirely, adding that, "My job is to keep my views out of it." The station's one-person news department is actually run out of a caboose (a left-over train part from a chain restaurant in Japan) out behind the main station building

In talking about the role of KZYX for the community, John said, "We're serving up the whole's a Renaissance approach." He added that since there is no local television station that reaches everyone, it's been important for them to be a community resource. Additionally, one transmitter isn't enough to cover all of Mendocino County, so KZYX invested in a second transmitter in Ukiah and a translator above Ft. Bragg. Local shows can be broadcast from any of their studios using ISDN lines. The combined moniker for all of their studios and frequencies is KZYX and Z.

Part of the International Library at KZYX
Photo by Jennifer Waits

I was happy to see that KZYX has a large music library, full of both vinyl and CDs. John said that vinyl does get played at the station. He also said that the local programming at the station is really good, adding that in particular the jazz and classical music shows are some of the best he's heard anywhere.

John also reflected a bit about the state of radio, arguing that music and culture used to be "propagated" over radio, but that today that seems to happen more "virally" in the online world through "attachments." He agreed that college radio is "still a potent force for developing culture" and said that it has launched music careers. He said that to him it's just important for DJs to focus on being "really good at what you do." Impressed by the devotion of KZYX DJs, John mentioned that one of the new music DJs will spend 6 hours planning for a 2 hour show. A few nights later I caught one of the new music shows, Amplified Mixtape, and enjoyed the DJ's pairings of cover songs and originals and was immediately taken by the fact that she played the first dance song from my wedding (Cat Power's cover of the Velvet Underground song "I Found a Reason").

KZYX General Manager John Coate looks out at the NPR Satellite
Photo by Jennifer Waits

As we left the station we were shown a large NPR satellite used to beam in programming and were then warned about a beehive in a tree. The juxtaposition of nature and technology could not have been more pronounced and seemed to be a metaphor for KZYX, with its blend of both folksy small town programming and slick syndicated public radio shows emanating from a funky station in the woods.

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco
Radio Station Field Trip 18 - Flirt FM in Galway, Ireland
Radio Station Field Trip 19- WRXP 101.9 in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 20 - WGBK at Glenbrook South High School, Illinois 
Radio Station Field Trip 21 - KPDO in Pescadero, California


Jennifer Waits said...

Hi Nickie,
Thanks so much for your kind words. I really enjoyed visiting the station and was happy to stumble across your show while driving around that Friday night.

We were enjoying the music so much and wanted to hear each version of the "covers" pairs that you were playing that we ended up sitting in our car in a parking lot with the radio on until the songs ended. It was truly magically to end our evening with some songs that were so meaningful to us. And, that's why I love radio!

testy said...

Jennifer, cool site. I'd like to interview you about thought passion and thoughts about college radio.