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Nonprofit Occidental radio station KOWS-FM relocates to Sebastopol

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HAM FOR KOWS Station programmer and host Minkoff Chatoy is thrilled about KOWS’ new location inside a classroom at the United Methodist Church.
  • HAM FOR KOWS Station programmer and host Minkoff Chatoy is thrilled about KOWS’ new location inside a classroom at the United Methodist Church.

KOWS is on the move, or as they like to say, they're on the moooo—OK, you get it.

Mandatory cow joke dispensed with, here's the news: the offbeat Occidental community radio station, 107.3 on the FM dial, is poised to sign a new lease and start the process of relocation this week to a classroom at the United Methodist Church in downtown Sebastopol. They'll be fully jacked-in at the new space come Dec. 1, if all goes according to plan.

And it looks like it is. Late last week, a few members of the all-volunteer nonprofit descended on the new space to sketch out the hows and wheres of installing a control studio in the classroom. Programmer Arnold Levine, a Brit with an elfin mien and a gold ear cuff, scoped out the work ahead with another station volunteer while a church employee, the man with the key, looked on.

Meanwhile, effervescent volunteer programmer Minkoff Chatoy provided spirited color commentary to the technically involved proceedings getting underway. Chatoy is host of A Fool in the Forest, Tuesdays from 8pm to 9pm, and she bursts into the new space with a delighted gasp, grabs some chalk and draws the KOWS logo on a chalkboard as she raves about KOWS coming home to Sebastopol; the station has been scoping a new home here for about a year and a half.

The community station has been broadcasting for eight years and serves both as quirky cultural redoubt and as the area's go-to emergency broadcast system. It has become a destination of sorts for touring bands working the San Francisco to Portland thoroughfare, says Chatoy, who's hosted some of them on her show. One was the Americans, who stopped by for an in-studio show. Chatoy takes delight in these encounters: "They've been on Letterman!"

For its first three years in operation, the station broadcast out of a space above Howard's Restaurant on the strip in Occidental; now they're in a space downtown, but that deal is coming to an end on Dec. 1. The owner gave plenty of notice, two years' worth, to find a new space. "This is not a kick-out," says programmer Dave Stroud during an interview last week at KOWS' present digs. "We want to be out as soon as we can."

Levine says there's been some inevitable and understandable pushback from Occidental residents who have come to love the radio outpost nestled in their midst. But the reality, says everyone, is that the station had to move. There was a deadline from landlord Steve Chatham, whom everyone loves for the opportunity to broadcast from a property he owns, and also for giving them ample notice to find a new home.

And now here they are, at the looming and mission-like Methodist United Church at 500 N. Main St.

According to station materials, KOWS operates on about $20,000 a year—all of it from donations. The station is raising funds to move the antenna and transmitter, now located up the Coleman Valley Road a mile or so out of downtown Occidental.

Stroud, who hosts the Deeper Roots show, notes that community-based nonprofit radio in the era of live streaming means that a tiny station like KOWS can leverage its online presence—they've got a great website at kows107-3.org—to build a worldwide audience, while remaining intensely local and attuned to the surrounding community. There are currently around 80 programmers on the volunteer roster, aged nine to 90-ish, lots of worldly people with worldly ideas, says Levine. Stroud chimes in that they get phone calls from people all over the world.

"We're not just on the radio—we here at KOWS are free range KOWS!," says Chatoy, by way of explaining the station's reach and sensibility—a sensibility reflected in the legendary KOWS interview with a 28-year-old cow.

The station is licensed as a Low Power Community Radio Station, defined under Federal Communication Commission rules as a station whose signal runs up to 100 watts. The KOWS signal was hit-or-miss and subject to getting crushed by, among others, a Christian station nearby on the dial. You could hear KOWS on a hill in Santa Rosa, but not necessarily in nearby Sebastopol, Stroud says (he lives on a hill in Santa Rosa).

That should change with the new Sebastopol location and a new antenna to broadcast the bovine truth. And the move, says Stroud, will be of service to the larger West County listenership in the event of an emergency. The relative isolation of KOWS in Occidental meant that a storm-downed tree branch could be enough to knock them off the air.

"We are better off in Sebastopol and will be more secure," Stroud says.

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