While the tireless members of the Save KUSF organization are realistic enough not to expect any miracles to come out of the NFCB's (National Federation of Community Broadcasters) 36th Annual Community Radio Conference at the Parc 55 hotel in downtown San Francisco this week, which features the pertinent panel discussion Saving College Stations on Saturday (June 4th) morning at 9am, there is an underlying hope that with this national gathering of like minded individuals - equally passionate about the importance
Since KUSF was abruptly pulled off the FM dial on January 18th, when the University of San Francisco (USF) management secretly worked out a deal with Public Radio Capital (PRC) replacing 90.3FM with an out of town programmed classical station, the ripples have been felt across the country by other college & small non-commercial radio stations who, particularly in this time of federal & state funding cutbacks and universities clamoring for ways to generate money, wonder if they might be next to get the plug pulled on them. The move by USF was not an isolated one but rather part of an increasing trend by budget challenged colleges across the country. While tomorrow's panel will focus on the events that went down at KUSF and KTRU (another radio station that got kicked off the air) its message of what to do when your station faces the chopping block is as much, if not more so, directed at those college/student stations that are still on air but could soon face a similar fate.
The callous trend of college stations getting liquidated is becoming increasingly common. For example a couple of weeks ago it was reported that the administrators at WXLV in Schencksville, PA (coincidentally also on 90.3FM) which is part of the financially desperate Lehigh Carbon Community College, which faces a $1.3 million cut in state funding, are seriously considering partnering with PRC to sell the station outright. One of tomorrow's Saving College Stations panelists will be Ken Freedman, the General Manager of 100% independent, non-commercial radio WFMU, NJ: a former college station that gained independence from the doomed Upsala College (it went bankrupt) back in the 90's thanks to the shrewd bargaining of Freedman who saved the legendary freeform radio station from its demise. Since KUSF got taken off the air Freedman has been vigilant in offering advice and help to the ousted KUSF DJs and as of March WFMU has donated bandwidth for KUSF In Exile to stream its broadcast online.
This week I asked Freedman how come this unsavory trend of universities selling off their stations has become so common of late? "A few factors have come together to create a sort of a perfect storm. First, the economy is terrible and colleges and universities are unfortunately so strapped for cash that they are looking for any source of money, including the sale of irreplaceable assets like radio stations. Second, the popularity of online audio and radio has led to the myth that FM station licenses can be sold without any significant harm to the radio station itself," said Freedman.
"But third and most importantly, a group known as Public Radio Capital has been very active in non-commercial FM station sales for several years now, trying to prevent public / community radio licenses from falling into the hands of religious broadcasters, many of whom have very deep pockets and already own dozens of stations. This may or may not be a worthy goal, but PRC's efforts are inadvertently leading to the extinction of student / community radio in many cities around the US."
Kenya Lewis, one of the many members of the Save KUSF organization who, since January 18th, has been working (technically volunteering) round the clock to save KUSF believes the fight is far from futile, noting that, "It continues to gain rather than lose momentum. People are now tuning into the stream to show their support of locally made San Francisco radio. The Save KUSF Facebook page receives around 1.5 million post views a month. Local businesses are keeping ticket giveaways going. Meanwhile supporters from the Meat Puppets to members of the French Consulate have united together in an unprecedented and unwaivering show of support, matched by that of the SF Board of Supervisors, individual donors, USF students and faculty. And the tireless volunteers are doing more than giving it way more than the old college try. The FCC is being called to support our local station by organizations and individuals nationwide, several other stations in peril, and both the UC Board of Regents and Stanford University."
Since KUSF got kicked off the air in January the local music and cultural scene has really felt the impact. Vocal Save KUSF supporter Anthony Bedard from San Francisco music club/bar the Hemlock Tavern on Polk Street told me that the San Francisco music scene, especially the small clubs like his, have lost an invaluable direct communication with their audience. One of the problems facing KUSF In Exile's internet only stream is that between Jan 18th and mid March when it first launched it lost a lot of regular listeners who figured it was gone for good in any format.. Many former KUSF fans I talked to weren't aware that KUSF was back online. More importantly, while the former KUSF FM also streamed 24/7 online, a large ratio of its listeners - be they fans of new music DJs like DJ Schmeejay or Irwin or followers of the Chinese Star Radio or the French music & cultural shows, only listened in its terrestrial form. For many KUSF was strictly 90.3FM on the dial (in the car, at work, at home); the daily soundtrack powered by their radio.
However, as Lewis points out, many people are increasingly tuning into KUSF In Exile's stream. In fact just two weeks ago, in their Best of San Francisco 2011 issue, the SF Weekly named KUSF In Exile, which currently broadcasts out of Lightrail Studios in SF's Bayview/Hunters Point district, the best local radio station. Ironically that same week across town on the USF campus' Phelan Hall the remains of the legendary FM station were been packed away in boxes. "I walked in there and they were taking everything down," reported exiled KUSF DJ David Ford who was saddened to witness the empty rooms that once hosted so much music and culture.
"Everything was packed up into white boxes and supposedly taken down to a safe location. I'm told that safe location has no air control either which is supposed to be great for vinyl," said Ford sarcastically. So what is happening with the space that once housed KUSF 90.3FM? "They're turning it into dorms which is what they wanted to do all along," said KUSF In Exile DJ Stereo Steve who spent the past two years rebuilding and reorganizing the entire music library - hard work that turned out to be in vain.
Since January the Save KUSF folks have been ever vigilant in putting on benefits or co-presenting shows and events in their effort to either raise awareness of their plight, or raise funds for the increasing legal costs in the battle to save KUSF coupled with the expenses of running the KUSF In Exile operation. It seems like every night there is some Save KUSF event happening in San Francisco. Last night for example there was a KUSF In Exile DJ night at Lucky 13 bar on Market in the Castro district. A month ago longtime KUSF DJ Harry Duncan did a special Save KUSF awareness DJ set at Amoeba San Francisco. Next Friday, June 10th at Slims, Save KUSF will co-present the Buzzcocks only US club concert this summer. And in two weeks, June 17th at the Independent on Divisidaro, the Meat Puppets show will be another Save KUSF co-present. On June 12th at the Make Out Room in the Mission district The San Francisco Mix Tape Society will present a Save KUSF fundraiser for its sixth music mix exchange and contest (“Lemonade Stand”) which is dedicated to the art of making and exchanging music mixes. At this fun fundraiser all attendees who bring a music mix will leave the event with a mix made by someone else. More info here.
Four and a half months since they had the plug pulled on them the KUSF In Exile DJs/Save KUSF volunteers have proven to be a remarkably resilient hard-working bunch, never missing an opportunity to fight for what they love and believe in. Not surprisingly then they will be highly visible at Saturday morning's NFCB panel Saving College Stations. On Save KUSF's heavily trafficked Facebook page a post yesterday encouraged supporters of KUSF, who will be attending the big NFCB conference, to ask "Public Radio Capital to STOP IT? Buying KUSF is a bad deal for San Francisco. USC/CPRN already have 7 other stations "educating" all of california with their very important robo-programmed classical music. SF has much better things to do with an FM license dedicated to providing local public value to OUR community"
WFMU's Ken Freedman says he is looking forward to the panel, which will be video streamed live, but that he doesn't expect it alone or this week's NFCB radio conference to present any fix-all solutions for the exiled KUSF. "Other than a good discussion about the issues raised by the recent wave of college radio sales, I dont expect any concrete action to take place," he said. And as for KUSF; what does Freedman think is the best case scenario that can come out of all this? "The best case scenario is that KUSF remains on the air and online, preserving the unique programming they've provided to the Bay Area for three decades."