Since fires broke out across Sonoma County, KZST 100.1FM in Santa Rosa has transformed it into an essential news source, broadcasting information about the wildfires, live, 24/7.
Early Monday morning, KZST owner Gordon Zlot was sure his station was about to burn to the ground. He could see flames just a few feet from the building.
“We’ve been here for almost 35 years,” he tells me. “And this is my whole life right here. I was fully prepared to walk away and have the building be in ashes.”
Employees were advised to evacuate Monday morning, but came back to save equipment and get back on the air. They fought encroaching flames with their own fire extinguishers until the fire department finally arrived and put them out.
Once the station was saved, then the team at KZST really got to work.
Answering the call of duty
Starting about midday on Monday, KZST and their four affiliate stations cut all their normal programming as well as their ads, and have been airing nothing but live coverage of the California wildfires around the clock.
It’s been really difficult to get reliable information in Santa Rosa. Many people don’t have internet or TV access, and cell service is down in parts of So, for some Sonoma County residents, radio is all they have.
One listener calls in and asks, over beeps and clicks, whether people actually have to evacuate in Geyserville.
All hands on deck
When I walk into the studios on Tuesday evening, all the cubicles are dark, the offices, are empty — everyone who’s here is either in the studio recording, or darting in and out to bring to the on-air hosts.
The whole system is held together by “kite string and paper clips,” Creative Director Karen Lehman tells me. “When something horrific happens, it’s all hands on deck. Anybody that can get here safely gets here.”
Frank Kulbertis is the station’s regional sales manager — on-air time is not part of his job description. But he’s been hosting for hours, giving out his personal cell phone number.
At one point he pauses to thank an engineer who comes to bring in a fan — it’s hot in the studio, and smells smoky.
“We’re running off a generator,” Kulbertis tells listeners.
Hosts read information on shelter capacity or school closures scribbled down on pieces of paper.
The fan keeps blowing the paper off the desk, so they have to snatch them out of the air or scoop them off the ground while relaying information.
This time, it’s personal
Darren McCormick is an afternoon host.
“You know I played music, I have trivia,” he tells me. “I talked about events and things like that, but I'm not used to sitting in a chair talking for hours and hours about tragedy.”
McCormick is just one of many Santa Rosa residents whose home is in an evacuation zone — in fact he learned the news only a few minutes before I spoke with him.
“This is a nightmare,” he says, shaking his head. “I was saying earlier can I wake up now? Wake me up.”
The wildfires are still nowhere near fully contained, but station owner Gordon Zlot says we need to think ahead to California’s next major disaster — like an earthquake.
“You know you're not going to have cell, you're not going to have power,” Zlot speculates. “You won't have anything. What do you do? Now you might have the radio. That's where we come in.”
No end in sight
If you tune in, you may hear hosts yelling into the other room, asking someone to move their car because fires are getting closer. Or you may hear a marriage and family therapist who talks about the very messy and painful stages of grief.
Wednesday morning, KZST’s generator failed and they scrambled to find another back-up power source — but they were only off-air for about an hour and a half before they were back in studio.
“We’re going to be with you throughout the evening,” Kulbertis said later, on-air, to listeners. “And as long as we need to be, to keep you informed about the wildfires that are raging throughout Sonoma County.”