Local Radio KVON/KVYN Provided Fire Information, Comfort & Relief
New Station Owners Focus on Keeping It Local
While traveling back into the Napa Valley from a business dinner the evening of Sunday, October 8, 2017, Will and Julissa Marcencia were somewhat astounded with the high winds kicking up that night. The new owners of local radio stations KVON AM and KVYN FM, who had recently moved to the Napa Valley from Southern California, simply were not sure if the 50 mile per hour wind gusts were typical to the North Bay Area.
Due to the unsettling weather however, Will Marcencia could not get to sleep. “I honestly couldn’t go to bed with the winds. So the reason I stayed up, was more because of the strong winds,” Will Marcencia remembers. So he started researching the situation, then noticed some posts on social media about the weather conditions and some nearby fires. “It felt wrong, and that’s why I had trouble falling asleep.”
At 1:07 a.m. an email from Napa Valley Vintner and KVON radio host Judd Finkelstein arrived. Finkelstein reached out to Will Marcencia, and KVON General Manager / Programming Director Larry Sharp (known on the air as Sharpie). Finkelstein had tuned into KVON which was airing sports coverage, and suggested going live on air to cover the emerging situation. “The information I’ve seen seems very serious,” Will Marcencia replied at 1:24 a.m. He did not have experience running sound boards prior and needed a radio-host savvy partner, he agreed that they needed to go on-air and met Finkelstein at the station a little before 2 a.m. on Monday, October 9, 2017.
Although the station has a generator, it was dark. The power kept going off and on. While information was sketchy, the reality was that the Atlas Peak fire was raging down the eastern side of the valley, and the Partrick fire developing in the southwestern edge, while the fire up north in Calistoga, later known as the Tubbs fire, began its devastation in Napa County before raging over into Sonoma County with a vengeance.
“Judd came in and he knows the equipment really well. We went on air live, and started with the phones, but there was very limited information,” said Will Marcencia who used his cell phone flashlight to illuminate the boards so that Finkelstein could operate the equipment and begin the dialogue with the community. They started the programming around 2:00 a.m. and took calls until 1:00 a.m. the following day, twenty-three hours commercial free.
Ira C. Smith, the “Voice of the Napa Valley” remembers the evening that the fires began as unusual, “The winds were gusting 50 miles per hour and more, and up in the mountains 70 miles per hour or more. You knew something was wrong just the way the winds were blowing.”
Smith arrived at the station right after 6:30 a.m. on Monday, October 9 and stayed on until just before 7 p.m. that day. “Ira walked straight into the AM studio, put headphones on, and took the reins, as he’s so used to communicating to the Napa Valley,” Will Marcencia said. “The next day I only had an 11-hour shift,” Smith added.
“This was similar to the ’86 flood, the ’81 Atlas Peak fire, I was in and on the air for quite a while in the ’86 flood, it wasn’t a long problem. We didn’t have that much time on the Atlas Peak fire of ‘81. This is by far much more extensive, by far,” Smith emphasized.
As a Napa Valley resident without power and cell service, I too turned to listening to KVON at every chance I could get during the first few days of the disaster. I had no television and no Internet connection. I listened very closely from my car!
Will Marcencia and Ira C. Smith recall that there was such a range of calls: eye witness accounts, road conditions, road closures, evacuation information, questions about whether certain areas were burning, and air quality inquiries.
Callers were giving their specific addresses over the air to try to find out if their home survived. Others were asking for their friends and loved ones, with questions such as, “I haven’t been able to get ahold of so and so, if you are listening to the radio please call this land line.”
Because the broadcast is streamed online, the station actually connected a family listening in England, with their daughter who lives here. Another family in upstate New York, called about their relatives in Browns Valley.
Will Marcencia said that someone called to inquire about the block on which their home was located, “Then their neighbor called and said their house didn’t make it, so they actually found out about their loss over the air.”
“We also had a caller who asked if the Aaron house on Mt. Veeder was saved, a short time later Peggy Aaron who lives at the top of Mt. Veeder called to say, ‘Yes we are okay and the house is okay,’” Smith said.
“We were cognizant to try to not only be right up-to-date, but to also make it authentic and stay away from misinformation,” reports Will Marcencia who had an intern as well as members of their production team fact-checking reports, along with himself and his wife Julissa who were in constant contact with the Napa County Sheriff Emergency Operations Center (EOC) either via telephone or text.
Smith remembers many locals that would call in and say, “You just said” and he would have to remind them that the observation was made by a caller, rather than the station, and that they hadn’t yet been able to confirm, “The information was very fluid.”
While callers continued to dial-in, the station also became a platform for disseminating public information. The Napa County Sheriff Emergency Operations Center began to supply information and spokespersons to the station on an hourly basis. All five Napa County Supervisors, Congressman Mike Thompson, State Senator Bill Dodd, several local mayors such as Jill Techel, CHP Commander Chris Childs, Napa Chief of Police Steve Potter, Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark and Dr. Karen Relucio and Cara Mae Wooledge of Napa County Public Health are just some of the many guests that spent time on the air with valuable information.
The KVON / KVYN team did some heroic efforts of their own during the crisis, as their FM transformer located northeast of Yountville completely burned down on October 9, “On Monday when morning radio host Bob St. Laurent left his shift, Big Rick went on air. We were running both stations ‘normally’ and then all of a sudden Big Rick realized he was not on air. So at that point we started to simulcast, the stream was still available through KVYN online,” Will Marcencia explained, “Our engineer who lives in Alta Heights actually put a temporary transformer on top of his house! But we were always in full power on KVON. Those KVON towers are in Kennedy Park.”
The new owners are very appreciative of their lean and mean staff, the KVON/KVYN team, for their dedication, energy, and positive commitment to the community at all times, and especially during this devastation.
At KVON/ KVYN, they received an enormous amount of love and gratitude from the community the first week of the firestorm. They were taken care of all week with gifts such as home-cooked foods, pizza deliveries from listeners, a case of wine, a beautiful fruit basket with a very heart-felt note, “They were energizing us to keep going!” said Will Marcencia.
Two weeks later, the stations had logged more than 200 hours of coverage, updates and calls. Now that it has calmed down a bit, the conversations have shifted to cover topics such as recovery, next steps, FEMA information and distribution of donations and services.
Upon arriving in the Napa Valley, the Marcencias kept the mission “Being Local” central to their plans for KVON/KVYN. “We want to keep the local aspect and the local flavor. We want people to keep calling in. This event has made us pull the trigger,” said Julissa Marcencia, “We had a long-term vision for KVON’s local programming that we were planning to put into action once we settled in, but
this event has made everything fast-forward.”
While the commitment to local sports remains, the stations will also be moving from Foster Road to a new location. “We really wanted to focus and wait until we had the resources before making the programming changes,” said Julissa Marcencia, now, due to the fire disaster experience, “We will focus on AM first and then do the move.”
One example of the KVON programming change is the return of long-time Napa Valley radio pro, and local arts activist, Barry Martin to the KVON morning slot, daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Martin knows Napa as he was with KVON/KVYN from 1986 until 2003, when he left to work as a public information officer for the City of Napa. The Marcencias encourage locals to stay tuned, as exciting changes will very rapidly be coming up. I will be listening, and hope that you