Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pirate Radio: The Destruction of KUSF

A round of musical chairs among radio stations has just occurred in San Francisco, and the results are looking to be disastrous for the 30-year-old-plus public access station, KUSF 90.3 FM. The abrupt, unannounced closure of the station by University of San Francisco deputies on January 18th came as a complete shock to its announcers and listeners, and the outrage has been mushrooming ever since.

The story begins with the Pennsylvania-based Entercom Communications Corporation, the fifth largest radio conglomerate in the country, buying the commercial classical music station KDFC-FM 102.1 in 2007. They also own "Classic Rock" KFOX in San Jose, so now 102.1's strong signal is being used as a repeater for the San Jose station, creating a Bay Area Classic Rock superstation.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based KUSC, a classical radio "public" station on the NPR/KQED donations model, has been creating a larger network for their brand, and they have bought the call letters KDFC, along with the broadcasting transmission rights from FM signals KNDL 89.9 and USF's 90.3. The price for the latter, payable to the University of San Francisco, was $3.8 million. In terms of broadcasting power, KUSF 90.3 has always been a small community station, beloved by neighborhoods in the Inner Richmond, Sunset, Haight and wherever else the radio waves would stray.

Most Bay Area classical music fans I know aren't going to be shedding any tears for the demise of the current version of KDFC 102.1, with its years of timid musical selections that started to sound like Baroque Muzak Wallpaper. There are going to be plenty of people missing the broadcasting power of the station, though, particularly in Marin and the Peninsula where there's no classical music station anymore. (Update: Click here for a FAQ page from KDFC telling you how to tune in the station.) Thank goodness my dentist's office is just down the street from USF, since KDFC plays all day there on account of its "calming" properties during drilling.

The supporters of the old KUSF, meanwhile, are horrified and angry. Yesterday, protestors showed up at City Hall's Tuesday board meeting to speak in support of a "non-binding resolution" by Supervisors Mirkarimi and Mar asking for the Jesuit-run USF to change its mind, though there is probably a better chance that hell will freeze over. There was a meeting between the community and the USF administration last week, well recounted in a Bay Guardian article by Johnny Ray Huston and Carly Nairn, where Father Stephen A. Privett, the president of the university, basically dismissed them and their station, saying they weren't important to "our core mission to offer the highest-quality Jesuit education to our students."

In a tone-deaf op-ed he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, Privett continued:
"It is true that USF was unable to give prior notice of the sale. This was part of our legal agreement with the new owners. We did not intend to cause hard feelings with those who believe they had a right to be informed beforehand, but we were obliged to follow this part of the contract. On Tuesday, we closed the station for engineering and other changes necessary to make the transition. In doing so, we took a number of reasonable and timely security measures. We believe these were appropriate and regret if any individuals were inconvenienced in that process."
In other words, having deputies throw you out of a station in the middle of broadcasting a show while having the airwaves go dark for all its listeners is now an "inconvenience."

KUSF specialized in music that mainstream rock stations wouldn't play with a focus on local bands, and were a key node in a whole ecosystem of live music venues and musicians dependent upon the station for exposure. As the articulate DJ above put it, "When I was at the South by Southwest festival recently, somebody told me that KUSF was the most perfect microcosm of San Francisco that ever existed. It's a jewel and a symbol of who we are. You wouldn't let some individual decide to get rid of the cable cars on their own whim, so why should you let somebody destroy this treasure?"

Supervisor Mar brought up the fact that it's one of the few radio stations with Chinese-language programs, and indeed KUSF broadcasted in nine different languages, and played all kinds of music, including classical. In fact, KUSF picked up the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when KDFC management decided their audiences weren't sophisticated enough to listen to opera once a week.

Though this is probably a done deal, the fight to save this institution is worth joining. Here are a few websites with updates on the organizing efforts and attempts to sway the Federal Communications Commission to deny this sale.


Juan Rapido said...

Thanks for the article, but KUSF is 90.3 and KNDL is 89.9.

sfmike said...

Dear Juan: I knew I was screwing up something. I'll go and change it in the copy. Thanks for the correction.

kml said...

there are 30 days now the FCC application is filed. this is not a done deal. this week: write your district supes & usf board of trustees. share your thoughts. ask them to 1. stop the sale 2. strike a fair, transparent deal -- that benefits the school, the city, the students, the station, and the public.

sfmike said...

Dear kml: I hope you're right about it not being a "done deal," but I've seen too many similar shenanigans involving City Hall since writing "Civic Center" to have much hope.

sfmike said...

Received this email from a friend who wants to remain anonymous with a differing point of view:

"The cynic in me can see that the station doesn’t really have much to do with USF’s mission or student body and it might be the kind of station better run by the city it serves anyway. Terrestrial radio seems so passé these days that I can’t imagine a promising young student spending a lot of time to learn how to do it as a career path. It seems so old school now that everyone I know streams their music on the web. Maybe I’m naïve but streaming this college station on the internet, if that’s what they’re really going to do with KUSF, might serve the students better anyway."