Affixed atop one of the steel poles that holds an array of stadium lights high above Laney College’s baseball field near Oakland’s Lake Merritt is a small 100-watt antenna. Hardly anyone ever notices this discrete steel spike and bundle of wires, but starting at 7 p.m. each night, with the flip of a switch, a current of electricity begins flowing and the tower radiates an invisible wave of electromagnetic energy carrying the sounds of KGPC as far south as San Leandro and north to Berkeley.
And people definitely notice the sounds. On the FM dial at 96.9, KGPC is the Peralta Community College District’s low-power radio station. Although it’s licensed to Peralta, the station is really more of a community-oriented media organization. Broadcasting since 2015 for twelve hours each night, KGPC plays what may be the most diverse mix of music and talk in the East Bay, all of it is produced by locals. Those who are involved with the station are fiercely proud of its scrappy origins and growing roster of DJs and shows.
But KGPC is threatened with closure due to looming budget reductions that are expected to hit the Peralta college system this year. According to records and interviews with faculty and staff, the district — which includes Laney College, Merritt College, Berkeley City College, and the College of Alameda — is facing a $4 million deficit.
Staff at the radio station, who work as independent contractors for the district, told the Express that Peralta administrators informed them on June 5 that their contracts might not be renewed and that the funds used to pay them would be reduced from $110,000 to $65,000.
“If funding isn’t restored, our station will go dark on July 1st,” Kathryn Styer, the co-director of KGPC, told the Express. In addition to handling the administrative work of keeping the station on air, Styer and two other contractors help students and community members learn how to produce radio shows and podcasts.
At a meeting of the Peralta District’s board of trustees last week, Chancellor Jowel Laguerre appeared to grant the radio station a reprieve, assuring about two dozen of its supporters — including contract staff, DJs, and students — that the signal won’t fade out due to lack of money.
But for years now, faculty and staff have been critical of Laguerre’s promises. They say that in past budget cycles, programs, classes, and staff positions have been cut despite assurances to the contrary. The campuses have, in fact, weathered cuts in recent years and now the radio station has become symbolic of the kinds of community resources that are at risk.
According to Jennifer Shanoski, the president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers union, the district’s budget process hasn’t engendered much trust. It’s supposed to involve the issuance of a tentative budget proposal by the administration for review by a shared-governance committee that includes faculty and staff members. This should include detailed budget data like line item spending and revenue and expenditure trends. But this year, the administration didn’t provide a draft budget to the committee. Instead, five days after classes ended, the administration notified the four colleges’ presidents that they would be expected to cut their budgets by 10 percent each in the coming year, and to freeze hiring for currently vacant jobs. The presidents, in turn, sent emails to faculty and staff warning of the financial squeeze.
Mary Shaughnessy, a counselor at the College of Alameda, told the district’s board last week that this notice of impending cuts had a “chilling effect” on faculty and staff given that it came without warning.
“The process wasn’t transparent, it wasn’t collegial, and it wasn’t collaborative,” Shanoski said.
As Peralta prepares for budget cuts, KGPC’s situation is especially perilous. If the station’s contracted staff aren’t re-hired for the coming year and the signal goes dark for any period of time, Styer said that it’s almost assured Peralta’s FCC license will be pulled. The license is contingent on constant programming each 24-hour period, and once withdrawn by the federal government, the license can’t simply be renewed. The last time the FCC granted low-power broadcast rights on the radio spectrum was in 2015, and there are no current plans to issue new licenses. In other words, the result of de-funding the station would be the undoing of over a decade’s worth of work.
“If lost, it’s almost certain it can never be acquired again,” said Styer.
KGPC’s roots go back to 2003 when then-chancellor Elihu Harris floated the idea of creating a radio station for the college. Peralta carried out a feasibility study, but the main obstacle was the Bay Area’s overcrowded FM airwaves. The FCC wasn’t willing to issue new licenses, and some existing radio stations lobbied in opposition, fearing their signals could be encroached upon.
In response, Peralta created a web-only station called 9th Floor Radio. Housed in a little room on the 9th Floor of Laney Tower, the station’s early internet-streaming shows included college radio mainstays like the indie-rock-focused “Argyll Adventure Tree” and hip-hop-heavy “Return of the Underground.”
“We did that with very little money, a computer, mixing boards, and CD players,” said Jeff Heyman, Peralta’s longtime public information officer and the director of the district’s Department of Public Information, Communications, and Media. Heyman recently left Peralta, but he remains deeply involved in the radio station.
In fact, Heyman played an integral role in launching 9th Floor Radio and later KGPC. He’s also hosted his own show on the station for years, “Outcasts Revisited,” which features 1970s and ’80s punk. Heyman’s show, like a lot of KGPC content, is richly infused with Bay Area sounds. Tuning in is like getting an expert lesson in music history. For example, in one recent episode, Heyman broadcast the Sex Pistols’ legendary and ill-fated final concert in 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
“Sid Vicious could barely stand up,” said Heyman to introduce the recording. Heyman, in fact, actually attended the concert four decades ago.
When the FCC announced in 2014 it would issue two low-power radio licenses for the East Bay, Heyman and others jumped at the opportunity. “It was a lot of work,” he told the Express about the college’s bid, but Peralta prevailed over about 20 other applicants.
Flo Wiley produces and hosts “Black Beat Bay Area” for KGPC. Her two-hour-long show at 7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of every month is a sweeping look at film, dance, music, theater, visual arts, and poetry of the African Diaspora, featuring interviews with guests from the Bay Area’s arts community.
“It’s a wonderful place for showcasing the community,” Wiley said of KGPC.
In April, Wiley interviewed poets Tureedah Mikell and Jessica Care Moore. “Each of those women is a star in her own right, but some people don’t know about them because where are they going to be heard on the radio, if not KGPC?” she said.
Another DJ, Bob White, feels similarly about the importance of KGPC as a place that fosters diverse and non-commercial voices. White formerly worked in commercial radio but said the medium’s freedom and creativity has been decimated over the years, especially as large conglomerates have bought up many of the signals. He got involved with KGPC before it had rights to the airwaves, back when it was 9th Floor Radio, and stayed on to continue his show, “East Bay Oldies.”
“I can play whatever I want to,” White said. “During International Women’s Month, I had an all-female show for two hours. But when I was in commercial broadcasting, there was an edict — you don’t play back-to-back female singers.”
Styer feels confident that the radio station can be saved and continue to grow. But she said it depends on what happens over the next several weeks, which is likely to be a confusing and stressful period as Peralta grapples with painful budget reductions. The radio station’s supporters have definitely made their case to Peralta’s chancellor, however, and for now, the station’s existence appears to be ensured.
The Express was unable to reach Laguerre for comment. A receptionist in his office said he was “out for the week” and unavailable to be interviewed.
“I know some of you are here tonight having to do with cuts to the radio station,” Laguerre said at last week’s board meeting. “I want to tell everyone that neither I nor anyone in my administration have made any plans to make any cuts to the radio station.”
Laguerre even joked that because one DJ, Todd Stadtman, is known to play the obnoxious Swedish pop band ABBA on his eclectic show “Pop Offensive,” that he’ll be sure to keep money in the budget for KGPC to continue its mission.