Radio airwaves can provide a refuge where people feel at ease listening to their favorite music, but they can also carry messages that challenge the way an audience thinks. KSLG program and music director and DJ Sabina Gallier aims to do just that. During commercial breaks at the local radio station, her Black Voices Humboldt PSAs have brought listeners the emotional stories of anonymous contributors recounting racist experiences in Humboldt County.
For the past six years, Gallier has focused solely on indie and alternative music curation for her shows. But, as the Black Lives Matter protests continued across the country, she wanted to use her platform to speak out and show support. As a Black woman with her own experiences of racism in Humboldt County, Gallier decided to create a collection of audio stories from Black community members to share on the radio.
"In Humboldt County, the Black community is small and their voices are not heard — they tend to be overshadowed," Gallier told the Journal from her home studio. "With radio, thousands of voices are heard, people are constantly listening, and turning them into audio stories makes it more personal."
Gallier said the process wasn't easy. After talking to Lost Coast Communications General Manager Bill Prescott and getting approval, Gallier put out the call on social media. Initially, people were supportive of the idea but there was a lot of hesitancy from potential participants. Some weren't ready to share their stories or found it emotionally difficult. So she assured respondents they could remain anonymous and their self-made recordings started rolling in.
Prescott said that a project like Gallier's has the ability to continue increasing awareness, it showcases the problems Humboldt County faces and the need to work as a community to face them.
Gallier knew the process for this project was going to be tough but ultimately a good thing for the community. However, listening to some of the responses and reading the written submissions brought her to tears, like one respondent who wrote, "I recall with clarity being in the first grade on the playground the first time someone called me the N-word and spit in my face." Another tells of being threatened and called slurs, only to receive no help from police. Yet another shares how she was taunted by classmates over her hair. Gallier said she needed to take a bit of a break and step back from the project and ask herself, "Am I ready to take on this emotional load?"
"I wanted these stories to really highlight why [the larger community] needs to start understanding this issue," Gallier said. "Racism is still happening and these experiences are extremely valid. We live in a beautiful, forested area with a cloud of hate over our head."
Gallier's post calling for contributions also created its own ripple effect as members of the Black community started re-posting and talking about it, encouraging each other to share their stories.
"It is good to engage local happenings because it helps reinforce ideals in how our brain perceives patterns," said Anthony DeLuca in the comments to Gallier's PSA posts. "It warms my heart to see positive, productive programming."
Gallier compiled the responses working from home after having to move her studio into her closet. She said it was the best spot in her house with the least noise interruption, so she started putting up soundproof foam and, when that ran out, folded blankets and nailed them into the walls. She said it was mentally difficult to get used to since her work space was now in her bedroom, but she feels fortunate that she can work at all.
With all the responses in hand, Gallier split the audio stories and produced three short pieces in the style of public service announcements. Two focused on personal experiences with racism in the county, alternating speakers' voices in different sections to show the power of anonymity. For the third piece, Gallier worked with Sharrone Blanck of the Eureka chapter of the NAACP to create a PSA dedicated to local resources.
"The weaving of stories through different voices has a great impact and to have several voices describe similar experiences is powerful. It was done beautifully," said Lorna Bryant, who is Black and the former office manager and radio host at KHSU. "In a community where you don't really see others that look like you, to know that you have resources, it gives you a greater sense of connection, safety and comfort."
To Gallier's surprise, the PSAs have received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the public, which listened as voices filled with heartbreak talked about experiences all too many have in Humboldt County. She said during her time as a radio personality social justice issues have tended to be brushed off by listeners who typically tuned into KSLG for the music. By taking on this kind of community project, Gallier challenged her audience and potentially reshaped their reactions.
Bryant said the community needs more of this, especially from white residents.
"Don't be afraid to damage your white social capital," she said. "You may feel discomfort but the moment where you step away from your privilege outweighs the discomfort you feel for that short time."
Prescott hopes listeners will take those steps. "I think in Humboldt County, people believe in social justice, but don't know how to approach it or how to be allies," he said. "I hope that the people hearing these will take a moment to look at their own thoughts and biases."
If the project is challenging listeners, it first pushed Gallier herself.
"It gave me more purpose," Gallier said. "Off-air, I'm very outspoken and loud about social issues, and I've found that music and social issues can really go hand in hand, and they're powerful together."
Gallier said she wants to continue the momentum of the project but isn't sure what's next. The three PSAs are running during commercial breaks on KSLG but she's taking some time before tackling more recordings. But she hopes this conversation continues.
"Death, anger and silence need to stop," Gallier said.
Silvia Alfonso (she/her) is a freelance reporter from the Bay Area based in Arcata.
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.