Kristie Ronfeldt poses in front of the CD collection of her late uncle, David Patterson. She has operated the radio station he founded since his death in 2011. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

STANDISH — Running WJZF has always been a labor of love for Kristie Ronfeldt.

The low-power FM radio station – one of only 12 in the state – doesn’t have much reach beyond Standish and the surrounding towns. But it meant a lot to Ronfeldt’s uncle, David Patterson, who founded the station in 2005 and ran it until he died suddenly in 2011. So it means a lot to her, too.

As of today, the station is homeless.

Last year, Ronfeldt was told by representatives for SBA Communications, the Florida-based company that owns the tower where WJZF’s transmitter is located, that she would need to sign a lease and pay $1,200 per month or else be evicted.

The station had always occupied tower space for free, and Ronfeldt said she keeps it going with donations and volunteer time. She can’t afford monthly rent for the transmitter.

“This isn’t about me at all,” she said from her home in Raymond this week. “This has always been about my uncle and keeping his dream alive. I think that’s why it has bothered me so much.”

Since she was ordered to vacate the tower, Ronfeldt has been working to find another location, but her options are limited.

Kevin Saisi runs a similar low-power station, WMPF, in Rumford and reached out recently to Ronfeldt to see if he could help in any way.

The community radio station WJZF 97.1 has been broadcast from the tower next to the Standish Town Office since David Patterson started the station in 2005. His niece Kirstie Ronfeldt took it over in 2011, when Patterson died suddenly. The new corporate owner of the tower to wants to charge her monthly rent, which she can’t pay. Her station will continue to stream online while Ronfeldt looks for a new tower to use. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“It’s extremely sad what is happening to her,” Saisi said. “You’d think that a big corporation like that would be willing to write it off as a donation. It’s corporate greed, plain and simple.”

Lynn Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the company, said SBA tried to work with Ronfeldt and that the contract it offered her was at a reduced rate.

“We can’t have someone on our tower without a contract,” Hopkins said. “For her, it was all or nothing.”

A HANDSHAKE AGREEMENT

For Patterson, better known as “Unka” Dave, starting the station was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He ran the programming out of his home, and a local company, S.W. Management, allowed him to use space on a tower it owned near the Standish municipal building.

It was a handshake agreement, and S.W. Management President Douglas Wright said he told Patterson he could have the space free of charge.

“We let him go up because we had no reason not to,” Wright said.

Kristie Ronfeldt has photos of her uncle David Patterson in the office of the community radio station he started, WJZF 97.1. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The FCC created a system for allowing low-power licenses back in 2000. The goal was to create non-commercial educational stations that could serve as lifelines for local communities.

Patterson, who got interested in being a DJ while he was a radio operator in the Navy, focused on playing smooth jazz from the likes of Sergio Mendes and George Howard. But he hosted other music as well, and in keeping with his community-minded mission, offered time to local nonprofits and clubs to promote whatever they desired.

He died from a brain aneurysm at age 64.

Ronfeldt, who was close to her uncle and sometimes assisted him with radio programming, agreed to take over WJZF in his memory. The learning curve was steep, but she settled in and continued what he had built. She has 16 volunteer DJs who provide programming, some from other parts of the country.

Not long after Ronfeldt assumed ownership of the station, S.W. Management sold the tower to another company. That company bundled it with some other towers, Wright said, and sold to SBA, a Boca Raton-based corporation that is publicly traded and owns more than 20,000 communications towers across the world.

Kristie Ronfeldt got her WJZF tattoo after she took over the community-based radio station from her uncle in 2011. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

That was in 2014. Ronfeldt was aware of the sale to SBA, but didn’t hear from the new owners for nearly two years.

An email to Ronfeldt on July 7, 2016, from Mark DeRussy, a vice president of finance at SBA, indicated that the company planned to honor a previous agreement to use the tower space for free.

“I am advocating that we allow you to continue to operate your equipment as a tenant on our tower free of rent as part of our corporate philanthropic program,” he wrote. The only stipulation was that she needed to fill out new paperwork and to move her transmitter to a different location on the tower.

NOTICE TO QUIT ISSUED IN MARCH

Ronfeldt isn’t sure what happened next, but by September 2017, SBA had changed its mind.

First, it wanted her to sign a lease for $1,200 a month. The company then offered to reduce that to $1,000, but it was still too high for Ronfeldt, who runs the station on $2,500 a year, which covers music licensing, electricity, and internet and other fees.

“I don’t know what I could have done to upset them,” she said.

Hopkins, the SBA spokeswoman, said she didn’t know why a company representative offered to allow the station to stay free of charge because that’s not consistent with the company’s philanthropic program.

After months of back and forth, Ronfeldt got a letter in March from a Portland attorney representing SBA.

“You have failed to sign a written lease and therefore have no right to occupy the SBA tower,” it read. “I hereby give you notice to quit and to remove your antenna and other equipment and personal property from the SBA tower.”

In a follow-up letter March 22, the attorney, Rebecca Gray Klotzle, explained that SBA had found a paying tenant “ready to take over the prime location on the tower.”

“I recognize that it (WJZF) would like to continue to receive the benefit of its prime location on the tower at no cost, but my client cannot agree to a no-rent lease for the current space,” Klotzle wrote.

Ronfeldt was given a month to vacate the tower and made arrangements to move the transmitter and equipment on Friday.

Broadcasting equipment for WJZF 97.1 will have to be moved from Standish to Kristie Ronfeldt’s home in Raymond until she finds a new tower to use. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

SBA Communications employs 1,300 people. It has two subsidiaries, SBA Towers, which owns and leases space on more than 20,000 communications towers across the country, and SBA Network Services, which installs and maintains towers, antennas and radio equipment.

Wright, the president of the former tower owner, said he feels for Ronfeldt, but wasn’t surprised to see SBA ask for money.

“They are very aggressive about selling space on their towers,” he said. “And I think she has high expectations to think that could go on forever.”

LIMITED OPTIONS GEOGRAPHICALLY

Saisi, the Rumford station operator, doesn’t pay rent for tower space because he built his own tower on his property.

Ronfeldt, though, doesn’t have that option. According to her license with the FCC, she can only relocate her transmitter within a 3.5-mile radius of its current location. That doesn’t leave many options.

Tony Vigue, a Standish resident who has experience with communications towers through his work with local access TV, has offered to help Ronfeldt, but said nothing concrete has emerged yet.

Vigue knew Patterson, Ronfeldt’s uncle, and said he’s touched by her commitment to keep her uncle’s memory alive.

“Anyone who knew Dave knew this was his whole life,” Vigue said.

There isn’t likely to be a major uproar when WJZF goes off the air. The towns where the station can be heard are rural and not heavily populated. The station’s website had 1,190 visits this month, as of Thursday. Its Facebook page has 427 likes.

But Ronfeldt, who goes by Sunshine Girl when she’s on the air, has no plans to fold.

She intends to apply for a special temporary authority with the FCC that would give her one year to find a new location for a transmitter. She’ll get to keep her call letters and station number.

In the meantime, WJZF’s programming will still be streamed online.

“I just can’t give it up unless I knew someone else could take care of it,” she said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell