When Northern California Public Media announced on Sept. 19 that longtime President and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Dobbs will retire in December, it seemed like the end of an era.
Dobbs, along with her late husband John Kramer, founded Sonoma County’s first and only public television station in 1981. In 1984, KRCB TV 22 went on the air as a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In 1994, Dobbs and her staff launched KRCB FM 91.1, a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate serving the greater North Bay. In 2018, after an infusion of cash from the sale of part of the station’s frequency, Dobbs and the board of directors of Northern California Public Media acquired KCSM TV in San Mateo.
As part of the organization’s succession plan, the station’s current Content Manager Darren LaShelle will succeed Dobbs as president and CEO.
Dobbs started training for the deeply social life of a public media CEO from an early age. Though she was born in Los Angeles, her family moved around the country every few years as she was growing up.
“A lot of kids find that very hard, but I found it kind of enlightening,” Dobbs said. “It taught me how to walk into a situation where you don’t know anybody and get along pretty fast because kids are not very forgiving.”
Dobbs started college as a political science major at UC Santa Barbara, but finished her degree at Sonoma State, moving to Sebastopol in 1972.
She married twice — both husbands were political science professors — and she has three grown children — Ian Dobbs-Dixon, Annie Dobbs-Kramer and Andrew Dobbs-Kramer.
Sonoma West sat down with Dobbs to talk about her long tenure at Northern California Public Media.
How did you end up starting a public broadcasting station?
I was friends with the little nucleus of people who initially were working on the idea. The main part of the nucleus was John Kramer, a professor at Sonoma State. He went on a sabbatical to the White House Office of Telecommunications (this was during the Carter Administration), and when he was there, he discovered that the license for Channel 22 had been assigned to Cotati, and nobody had ever applied for it.
He came back after the end of the sabbatical and got a small group of people together, who were involved with Circuit Rider up in Windsor, where they’d been doing video training, and he said, “What do you think? Do you think we can pull this off?”
They applied for a planning grant from the Department of Commerce, and they got it … They hired me in January of ’81, despite the fact that I had absolutely no background in broadcasting or telecommunications. But I had worked for a member of the legislature. I’d done public speaking, I’d done fundraising, I'd done community organizing and writing press releases and all the stuff that was going to be needed there at the beginning.
I got the job, thinking it was going to be temporary, and then it just never stopped. It became so interesting to me, and I was excited by the challenge of seeing whether or not we could really make it work.
And all these years later, I’m still there.
What parts of your job did you love and what didn’t you like?
I loved creating programming ideas. I loved being able to use the fantastic public resource for what seemed to me to be the greater good of the community. Because, of course, we know television is not always run for the greater good. Larger commercial television stations are advertising-driven enterprises, where the advertising dollar rules the content. In public broadcasting, it doesn't. So when we could dream something up, we could put it into effect. That was the best part.
What I didn’t like was the constant anxiety … You know,worrying, worrying, worrying. For years on end. Could we make payroll? Were we going to be able to make it another year? How was the membership drive going? How was auction going to do?
Things got a lot easier financially when you sold a part of the station’s frequency last year.
Yes, we traded our Channel 22 A UHF frequency for Channel 5 VHF frequency, which is a less desirable piece of the broadcast spectrum. The broadband people who were going to buy all this spectrum from the FCC wanted the higher frequency.
The station got a major chunk of change in this deal, didn’t it?
Seventy-two million dollars. It was suddenly a whole different universe. All of a sudden, we could think more long term and more creatively, and we could also, to some degree, pay off the debt that we owed to staff. One of the nicest things was being able to bring everybody's pay grade up; being able to start a retirement plan.
Now our goal is to put $50 million in a permanent endowment.
The $72 million turned into $50 million, because, we gave $12 million to buy KCSM, and the rest of it is going to pay for the transition from Channel 22 to Channel 5 — we have to buy a whole new antenna and transmitter, and we are moving our transmitter to Mount Sutro in San Francisco, because it just makes a much better coverage area.
And will the signal continue to reach up here in Sonoma County?
One of the commitments of the board was that, once we turn it on at Sutro, if we have holes in the coverage in Sonoma County, we’ll put “repeaters” at various locations to continue free over-the-air service in the county.
What are you most proud of from your years at the station?
That’s easy: our programming.
We observed maybe 15 years ago that there was no series on television around environmental issues. There were nature series, of course, but nothing that took on environmental topics directly … So we created “Natural Heroes,” which ran for eight seasons and won eight regional Emmys.
We specifically looked for content that showed how people in their own communities were addressing environmental issues and having some success. Other stations picked it up and by the seventh or eighth season, almost 50% of the American public had the opportunity to see the programs.
I can’t help but feel that that kind of thing sprinkles ideas all over the place and inspires people. So that was really cool.
I’m also very proud of an initiative we started about five years ago called Health Connections, a series of short-form programming about the social causes of ill health in Sonoma County … and I also want to mention “Rebels with a Cause,” a documentary by filmmakers Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto about the race to save the Marin and Sonoma coast, based on interviews with the people who were instrumental in that. It’s a beautiful film, but more than beautiful, it’s inspiring.
I’m really proud of those things. And I think that they all have had an influence on people’s understanding of what it takes to make change in your community.
And that’s really what KRCB has always been about. We’re not in the business of trying to get people to watch TV or listen to the radio. What we’re trying to do is get them engaged in the community. We wrote that down as a part of our mission statement all those years ago and it’s what we’ve always been about — long before the notion of community engagement became a popular concept.
So what’s next? Any plans for your retirement?
I’ve thought a lot about it, but I really don’t know. Of course, I love to garden, and maybe I’ll travel, if I have the wherewithal. But I really don’t know.
What do you do for fun?
Besides gardening, I read mysteries. My daughter and I are great fans. In fact, she brought me over a new Montalbano yesterday. And I like Louise Penny and there’s a great new mystery writer from Iceland. A lot of people are embarrassed to admit they read mysteries, but it really helps your deductive and observational skills. It keeps you on your toes.