KPOO radio keeps community roots

Left of the dial, between KQED and UC Berkeley’s KALX, is a community radio station with deep roots. KPOO 89.5 FM, one of the few remaining non-commercial terrestrial radio stations in the city, has managed to vibrate at a uniquely San Francisco frequency while similar stations have tuned out.

The all-volunteer 270-watt station owns a green storefront on Divisadero Street, broadcasting 24/7. In addition to being the last long-time community station still standing in San Francisco, KPOO can claim credit for a number of firsts: the first West Coast station to break hip-hop, among the first stations to play salsa and, possibly, the first American station to host a young Bob Marley.

There’s a calm energy in KPOO’s split-level studio in the Fillmore, where a half dozen volunteers prep for shows and log songs. The booming, jolly voice of Jerome “JJ” Parson, the station general manager and only paid employee, is unmistakable among the many personalities broadcasting on 89.5. Parson is on air for about eight hours each week, including a four-hour program on Saturday nights where he plays “scratched, scratched, scratched and distorted” 1960s and 1970s soul records.

“The uniqueness of [KPOO] is you actually have live people that come in and do their programs every week and it’s not a format kind of thing,” Parson says, chuckling. “I went into a commercial station, and you can go in on a Monday and see your logs and know exactly what you’d be doing on Friday. I thought, this is ridiculous!”

KPOO is a free-form, block programming station. Around 40 programmers host as many shows featuring gospel, Latin music and local news, as well as the voices of incarcerated people on “Prison Focus” and discussions about the Middle East on “Arab Talk.” Many of those programmers have been on the air since KPOO’s inception in the early ‘70’s.

Mary Jean Robertson hosts “Voices of the Native Nation,” a thrice-monthly Wednesday program dedicated to American Indian music and cultural affairs. Sorting through a stack of CDs with indigenous music in preparation for a Veteran’s Day show, Robertson estimates she hasn’t missed more than four programs in 40 years of broadcasting.

“KPOO gives a viewpoint that very, very few major media voices have. It’s the viewpoint of the artists, the writers, the creative people, the people who are hanging into rent control and everything else,” says Robertson, who is of Cherokee heritage. “Lots of people call in and say they learned something they’ve never known before.”

KPOO was born of the 1968/69 student strike at San Francisco State University that led to the establishment of the first College of Ethnic Studies in the country. Current station president Terry Collins and original general manager Joe Rudolph were both organizing for the strike when they met at a Page Street commune. Collins was taken with Rudolph’s philosophy and energy, which led to the creation of a community media center that taught video skills and to KPOO.

“His whole concept was we should leave nobody out of nothing. When he got this station, he wanted to make sure it was inclusive of all kinds of people,” Collins says, adding that Rudolph’s philosophy endures today.

The social history of KPOO stands out to DJ Adam Tadesse, who sees the station as a modern extension of ‘60’s- and’70’s-era Fillmore District. “You’ve still got those old school personalities on there. It represents the old San Francisco, the real San Francisco,” he says.

“Back in those old days, all the people on the radio had personalities and style. A lot of times people would tune into the station for the music and a particular person,” Parson says. “[As a child] I wanted to be just like the announcers. So if you listen to JJ on the radio, he’s just kinda imitating the people he heard on the radio back the ‘60’s.”

There are no volunteer requirements at KPOO and everyone does a little something to help the station get by. At nearly 80, Collins runs a program called “The Spirit of Joe Rudolph” from 10 p.m. till midnight on Tuesdays; he took over the slot after Rudolph died in 2001.

Although the programming is tight as ever, KPOO volunteers are aging, with the majority of programmers in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Unlike many stations, a decent number of DJs are originals from the early ‘70’s – “It’s not station politics—people just come in and they never leave,” Tadesse says.

Phone calls and emails often go unanswered at KPOO, which is understaffed and supported by volunteers who are already spread thin or too old to staff late-night benefits for the station. Collins dreams of the day he can afford to hire two staff members to assist Parson.

Help is hard to come by because high rent and population changes have kept would-be volunteers busy making ends meet, Collins theorizes. Nor are young people knocking down KPOO’s door to do occasionally tedious station work.

KPOO is also short on fundraiser staff, though the station relies entirely on donations to foot its $10,000 monthly operating cost – which includes transmitter location, Internet, royalties and a mortgage. KPOO will also have to spend about $11,000 in early 2016 for earthquake retrofitting.

Before Gov. Jerry Brown cut redevelopment department budgets statewide, KPOO received about $110,000 a year to broadcast San Francisco Redevelopment Commission meetings. Now, “We’re just scraping by,” Collins says.

KPOO is attempting to raise $50,000 by the first of the year when bills are due. Last year, the station exceeded its $25,000 goal with one large donation; most donations come as $25 to $35.

“Every week I wake up and I’m like, is this the week something’s going to happen?” Tadesse wonders, pointing to the gentrification happening throughout the city. “It would not surprise me if [City Hall and real estate speculators] tried to eliminate KPOO.”

Streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify have largely taken over radio’s share of headphones and car stereos. Anyone stumping for community radio knows the conundrum of encouraging people to open their wallets to donate when few ever flip on a radio.

“People just want what they want, when they want it and you can do that with Spotify,” Tadesse says. “I still believe in radio. People don’t know about it, but when they find out about it they get into it. Especially KPOO because it’s a one-of-a-kind station.”

Tadesse is one of the newer programmers on KPOO and runs an early Jamaican ska and reggae program on Wednesday afternoons called “Wake The Town.” After arriving from neighboring (and now defunct) KUSF 90.3 FM in 2012, Tadesse says he gets more calls and emails from listeners around the world than ever before.

Apps like TuneIn Radio and iHeart Radio might be responsible for the increased reach of terrestrial stations. KPOO’s TuneIn stream has 67,000 subscribers.

Parson has been on air since 1977 and while he’ll tell you radio is dying, he isn’t depressed about it. KPOO’s terrestrial signal still gets around by word of mouth or by an accidental flip of the dial in the car, he says, and broadcasting at night has its own unique joys.

“People would call me up that I would listen to when I was a kid,” Parson says, adding that DJ Ronnie Dark — who came to fame alongside Sly Stone broadcasting on KSOL AM in the ‘60’s — regularly called his Saturday night show.

“We are basically a historical monument,” Collins says. “We’ve been around so long. We’ve seen so many changes happen in this city. We’re a mouthpiece, a voice for the community. People listen to us because they know they won’t find this on no other station.”

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