ALAMOSE – In late 2018, public radio station KRZA in Alamosa began having intermittent but significant issues with its transmitter. No transmitter means that no radio signal is broadcast. No radio signal means dead air. This is a problem for a radio.
So Gerald Rodriguez, General Manager of KRZA, took the problem into his own hands – literally – and started the three-hour (one-way) trip to the top of the San Antonio mountain where the transmitter is located.
The road is quite bad in some places where travel is only by four wheel drive vehicle. The fact that Rodriguez doesn’t own a four-wheel-drive vehicle didn’t stop him. The fact that he didn’t know much about transmitters didn’t stop him. The transmitter was not working as it should. The station could not afford a new transmitter or the cost of hiring someone to fix it. He was the general manager, describing himself as “a good leader in the trenches”. It was his job to take care of it.
After “about twenty” three-hour hikes up the mountain over the course of a month—complicated by no cell service, so no way to speak to a technician while he worked on the transmitter—Rodriguez the has repaired. “Everything we do here,” he says, “we do it ourselves.”
That’s how Rodriguez is, and that’s how he runs KRZA Public Radio, a unique but rarely famous radio station broadcasting throughout the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico to Santa Fe.
Unlike many public radio stations whose programming schedules consist solely of nationally produced programming from National Public Radio, International Public Radio, or the Pacifica Network, KRZA airs selected programming from these organizations that ” popular with audiences” as well as locally produced news programs such as “A Las Ocho”, “Science Views from the Valley” and “Local Foods, Local Places”.
News and feature coverage is divided into blocks of music, ranging from Latin mix to classic rock to classic – all, again, based on what “is popular with the public”.
KRZA Public Radio’s “audience” isn’t there just because it sounds good.
“Our slogan is ‘connecting cultures along the upper Rio Grande’ because that’s what we are,” he says. “We are the hub, the station that connects everyone. We connect communities like Crestone and Taos that are really art-oriented with Alamosa, it’s almost like a little Pueblo. And we’re centrally located, so we’re where people bring their PSAs. When musicians perform in the valley, we welcome them for interviews. But we are really there for the public.
Audience involvement includes the involvement of volunteer local DJs. KRZA has slots available in its lineup for volunteers who might want to try their hand at DJing on the station. After doing a background check, a staff member trains the volunteer in the use of the equipment until they are comfortable performing on their own.
Before Covid, KRZA had about 50 volunteers doing shows throughout the month. That number has since dropped to around 30, but includes DJs who have been on KRZA for years.
Being a “voice of the public” is what made Rodriguez fall in love with the radio station more than twenty years ago as a high school student in San Luis.
But that love preceded it with those roots planted in the mid-1970s when “a collective of women in the San Luis Valley felt the need for an outlet that would serve the area’s Hispanic community.” After ten years of fundraising, licensing and obtaining the “know-how” to launch a radio station, KRZA signed on the air on October 27, 1985, helped in large part by the purchase from a building formerly used by the Migrant Council for $1.
Over time, the station moved from solely locally produced content to incorporating national public radio news – again, at the request of the public and with the help of grants. During this time, KRZA was the starting point for some very talented people who went on to create nationally aired programs, such as “Art of the Song”, now syndicated to over 100 stations across the country, and “Alternative Radio”, also broadcast nationally.
Internally, KRZA has also evolved.
When Rodriguez started at KRZA in 2009 – first as a volunteer DJ, then music director, followed by news director, then programming director, and finally as general manager in 2014 – KRZA was as much a “center community than a community radio”, with a staff of eight people, volunteers who were on the station a lot during the day and a large council very invested in a programming schedule that they thought was the best for the valley.
“When you’re a public radio station, people have a sense of ownership,” he says. “It is a very good thing.” But when Rodriguez became general manager, the station was saddled with a $100,000 debt that had accumulated over the years. He knew changes needed to be made.
Helped largely by his “thick skin,” Rodriguez more than halved the number of employees, reminded people that if they had no reason to be at the station, they should probably hang out elsewhere and, over time, the board shrunk to its current size of five people.
When asked how some of those tough changes came about, Rodriguez said they “stopped serving pizza to everyone” — a comment he immediately dismissed with a laugh.
Rodriguez is now focused on buying better equipment and making the lineup even more responsive to audience feedback. And when funding became available through federal Covid relief programs, Rodriguez paid off the station’s outstanding debt.
KRZA’s latest audit shows that 87% of spending goes to programming, with the remaining 13% split between administrative costs and property operations.
Continuing its evolution, KRZA has new projects in the pipeline. They are collaborating with the Sangre de Cristo heritage area by digitizing 40-year-old interviews about “valley traditions” and putting them, along with photos, on youtube. KRZA is preparing to launch the new “Jam Sesh” program – studio concerts featuring local musicians and visiting musicians on tour. Podcasts are on the horizon. And, thanks to being debt-free, Rodriguez plans to upgrade equipment and “repair the building,” which was recently designated a historic site.
Big plans for a small but ambitious public radio station, driven by audience input and, frankly, funded by the audience as well.
“The women — all Hispanic — started the program because they wanted to create a voice that wasn’t heard in the Valley,” Rodriguez says. “They ended up creating a voice for everyone.”
KRZA will hold its biannual pledge campaign from April 1-10. All donations are welcome and needed, if the good work is to continue.
#1 Gerald Rodriguez, Managing Director of KRZA Photo by Priscilla Wagoner
#2 KRZA Studios Photo by Priscilla Wagoner
#3 Rodriguez half way up the hike up San Antonio Mountain Photo by Gerald Rodriguez
#4 KRZA at Alamosa Courtesy Photo