Amid all of the changes taking place after the January 18 announcement that University of San Francisco’s college radio station KUSF would be sold to Classical Public Radio Network, was commercial classical radio station KDFC‘s move (on January 24) to KUSF’s frequency of 90.3 FM. KDFC’s owner, Entercom, opted to hand its station’s brand and intellectual property over to Classical Public Radio Network, while retaining its license and frequency for its old home of 102.1 FM.
In the days following the switch, fans of KUSF have expressed their strong opposition to the loss of their terrestrial signal; while fans of KDFC have complained that they can no longer receive the station in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area (namely the South Bay). As soon as the sale was announced, representatives from Classical Public Radio Network emphasized that expansion of the signal to the South Bay was a top priority. In addition to that, a letter sent to KDFC listeners stated that, “We are also looking for stations we could potentially acquire in the East Bay to round out our coverage in the region.” Three days after KUSF was taken off the air, a KDFC DJ could be heard on their old 90.3 frequency saying, “We are going to conquer as much territory as we can in the months to come.”
It wasn’t long before fans of non-commercial radio in the South Bay started to express concern that KUSF and KNDL might not be the only stations targeted for purchase by Classical Public Radio Network. On his blog, radio watcher Doc Searls even speculated on the stations that KDFC may be looking at for their South Bay expansion in his post, “What station(s) does KDFC pave in the South Bay?”
I talked to the General Managers of two South Bay college radio stations (KSJS and KZSU) to find out their reactions. Nick Martinez, General Manager of KSJS at San Jose State University (see my tour of KSJS on Spinning Indie) said that, “It’s always sad to see something so local and so much a part of the community get taken away and sold.”
David Ayrton Lopez, General Manager of KZSU at Stanford University (see my tour of KZSU on Spinning Indie) said,
“It is of course very unfortunate when a fellow college radio station loses its license. In an age when radio is so threatened by other forms of media, it is a great loss when a university administration fails to see the immense value of student-run enterprises. I feel that college radio in particular is a resource up there with lectures and seminars—I know I’ve personally found it to be one of the greatest learning experiences of my academic career. But it is a shame when a fellow station is lost, especially one of such close proximity. Gone are the days of competition amongst college radio stations. We’re all in this together now.”
When asked if he felt KZSU was threatened, David said,
“We have heard of the South Bay expansion, but are not particularly concerned about KZSU being sold off. Some of my priorities as general manager this year have been increasing the amount of student involvement, and prioritizing efforts to make the station more relevant to campus life. I think that is one of the most important things we can do: (in both the eyes of administration, and to further our mission as a college radio station) to be a resource that is an integral part of campus life. During our progression this year, we have doubled the amount of student DJs and increased our coverage of campus guest lectures. The benefits are twofold: we are more popular among students, and the administration seems very happy.”
Similarly, Nick said,
“I am confident that KSJS will be a part of SJSU for many years to come. KSJS is a huge part of the SJSU community. We are 100% student run and operated. We currently have over 200 students enrolled in the classes that run KSJS and the station is part of the degree program in Radio, Tv, Film, and Theater. Also, we are the broadcast home for almost all of SJSU’s sports and we are the emergency broadcast station for SJSU. The only steps I can take to prevent KSJS from being sold is to continue to be an active part of the SJSU landscape and remind the university how huge of an asset KSJS is to them. The only advice I would give is to make your station as valuable as possible to your school. Truly buy in to being apart of your college and let the administration see you as an asset. Other then that, make sure you have tons of student involvement. College is a business and if there are not numbers to support a program things get cut.”
Last week I was finally able to catch up with Brenda Barnes, Managing Director of Classical Public Radio Network (and President of KUSC) to clarify both the current deal(s) with KUSF, KNDL, and KDFC and to get her insight into the network’s expansion plans.
Brenda shared with me that she had been flooded with emails (more than 4,000) in response to the changes and that the bulk of those were from KDFC listeners. A smaller number of calls and emails came from fans of KNDL and KUSF, with Brenda admitting that those listeners were probably more likely to reach out to their respective stations if they had concerns.
In our conversation Brenda explained to me the specifics of Classical Public Radio Network’s deal with Entercom and also explained the ins and outs of the station purchases. She also expressed her sympathy for the staff and volunteers of KUSF, explaining that it’s challenging when a station wants to expand its presence in a crowded radio market. She also revealed that she’s worked as an adviser to two different college radio stations, including KXSC (formerly KSCR, which I profiled as part of my Spinning Indie 50 State Tour) at University of Southern California, so has some insight into the inner-workings of college radio.
Jennifer Waits: What has reaction been to KDFC’s move from 102.1 FM? What types of calls/emails have you been getting?
Brenda Barnes: We’ve been getting a lot of reactions. The messages have really run the gamut. Many of them have been congratulations. Others [have been] how can I support you [and] a lot of people who are having trouble getting the signal because the two signals that we have are much inferior to 102.1…So we’re trying to do our best to help people hang in there.
Jennifer Waits: Have you heard from KUSF and KNDL listeners?
Brenda: I’ve heard from two KNDL listeners, both of whom were glad…because they like [classical]. I’ve heard from maybe…around 10….[KUSF listeners]. A couple of those people were also classical listeners and they were feeling very torn…[and they] hate that it negatively impacts KUSF…others were…volunteers…or listeners who were very upset and wanted to express that…We’re more likely to hear from the classical music listeners.
Jennifer: Reports say that Classical Public Radio Network is a “new venture,” but there is an existing organization that was incorporated as an LLC in 1998 and was on the air from 2003 to 2008. Are you simply resurrecting this original group?
Brenda: We formed…10 years plus ago… to produce programming for KUSC and Colorado Public Radio and then we also offered that programming nationwide…It ended…[but we kept the company in case there was a future use for it]. [It’s a] separate company for the Bay Area. It employs the staff from KDFC and it’s separate from KUSC and USC.
Jennifer: What exactly is the deal with Entercom regarding KDFC? On the KDFC website it says that you have “entered into an agreement with Entercom” and that Entercom “has released KDFC to operate as an independent station.” Can you explain what that means? Was something bought, sold or donated?
Brenda: We started looking about 5 years ago at the Bay Area because it’s been clear for a number of years that classical music has been shifting from commercial radio to non-commercial radio…Seeing all these changes…we started seeing this trend a number of years ago and at that point we said the Bay Area is vulnerable because it’s only served by a commercial classical station and it’s only ever had a commercial classical station.
So, we started looking for what are options there for being able to acquire stations and to rebuild a commercial classical service as a non-profit. One of the issues in the Bay Area is that stations don’t come up for sale very often up there. It’s a crowded market so there’s no room for any new frequencies…and the people who own stations like to hang onto them…we literally looked for a lot of years….without finding an opportunity.
About the Spring of last year, we started making inquiries again about what was available and we found 2 stations that were available…We went ahead and signed letters of intent to buy both stations…agreed on price….as long as we can work out contract terms….A lot of deals fall apart at that point.
I contacted Entercom and I said we have an opportunity to transition classical music to a non-profit with these two stations. It’s not ideal. All we can say it’s a practical starting place…and we’ve been looking for a practical starting place for 5 years and this is the first time we’ve found one that we could even say could potentially be workable. If you want to maintain a long-term commitment to classical music, we’ll go away…If you feel you can’t, then we’ll move forward and we’ll work out a deal with you….They actually had to think long and hard about it.
It wasn’t an easy decision for them, but ultimately when they looked at the trends…ultimately decided this was probably a good thing all the way around…
We did strike an agreement with Entercom. Actually three agreements. One was an asset purchase agreement where we bought some intellectual property from them related to KDFC. Another is we’re renting space from them, leasing studio and office space so we have a lease agreement with them. And the third is we’re contracting with them for engineering support for the studios.
Jennifer: Did Entercom help to fund the purchase of KUSF and KNDL?
Brenda: No. USC funded it. University of Southern California. Entercom really came into the picture after we had already signed letters of intent with the 2 sellers. So, they knew nothing about anything that we were doing up until that point.
Jennifer: If Entercom wasn’t interested, then what would you have done?
Brenda: We were going to go away….We didn’t want to destabilize classical radio if there was no need to destabilize it….We figured that it would be very difficult…for Entercom to make a long-term commitment…But, it’s not impossible… Our goal was not to be a threat at all, but to be a potential solution to a problem…We really came to them with a question…We see the trend, and it’s a clear trend….We didn’t assume anything. We didn’t want to harm classical radio in the Bay Area.
Jennifer: Did you explore the option of purchasing KDFC’s 102.1FM license?
Brenda: It wasn’t for sale. Entercom owns 102.1…KDFC never owned 102.1. Entercom owns 102.1 and they don’t want to sell any of their stations in San Francisco, so that was never an option. And if they had wanted to sell it, I don’t honesty know what the going rate is for a commercial station in San Francisco, but you know, 50 million-ish? That’s beyond our range…buying a commercial station with a signal like 102.1 would have been beyond our means.
Jennifer: You’ve said that expanding into the South Bay is one of your top priorities.
Brenda: It is.
Jennifer: How do you propose to do that?
Brenda: The good news is USC has agreed to buy a station in the South Bay when we can find one. The biggest barrier most of the time in acquiring a station is money and we do have funding committed. So that’s huge. But, again, the Bay Area is a crowded marketplace. Stations don’t come up for sale that much. So, we’re going to have to call around and work to find a station that we can acquire, that’s going to help us get there. So that’s why we’re not promising people a specific timeline. What I’m saying is, we’re ready to buy, but we have to find someone willing to sell and that’s not under our control. We can certainly influence it by having brokers…we do have brokers looking at opportunities for us and making phone calls, but we have to wait for someone to be willing to sell and that’s not under our control..
But what we’re also trying to do is help people as much as we can with technology options. Comcast carries KDFC on one of its music channels 981, so that’s an option for people. Internet radio. Streaming our signal. We know the best option is a radio station and we’re working on that, but here are some options that may allow you to hang in there with us while we’re trying to find a station that can serve the South Bay and the Peninsula.
Jennifer: Will you be seeking out the frequency of an existing non-commercial radio station in the South Bay or East Bay?
Brenda: We’ll look at commercial stations too. We’ll look at whatever we can find that’s available.
Jennifer: Three days after KUSF was shut down, I heard a KDFC DJ say, “We are going to conquer as much territory as we can in the months to come.” Do you believe that the non-commercial airwaves are something to be conquered?
Brenda: No. I really don’t. The non-commercial frequencies are limited and it’s almost a miracle that we have them…Telecommunications deregulation has really effected not only the commercial band, but the non-commercial band. If you look before deregulation, you’re not going to find non-commercial stations being bought and sold because it just didn’t happen. But after deregulation all of a sudden they had value because there was a real demand for spectrum as people were trying to buy up frequencies. And all of a sudden non-commercial stations for the first time had a value in the market, so that’s one of the factors.
Another factor is that the non-commercial band is used by a very wide spectrum of non-profit organizations, from what we think of as public radio CPB qualified stations to student radio stations to religious broadcasters to school systems that own stations, there’s a wide variety of different kinds of non-profits that are using that non-commercial band. And when you’re in a major market situation, you’ve got a lot more competition for those frequencies than you do in a smaller town in the rural midwest for example. But even there, you’re going to find that in most areas that have any kind of population…most of the frequencies are used up. Most of the frequencies have been allocated. So you can’t apply to the FCC…for a frequency that nobody else is using. What you are having to do is go buy one that is already in use somewhere. So that’s a disadvantage.
I am a fan of student stations and I’ve actually been a faculty adviser to 2 student stations in my career [at WXJM and at USC’s student station KXSC]. I really love college radio and I love that kind of service. I wish there was more opportunity for more different kinds of non-commercial services without us having to compete with one another.
…I think what the announcer was saying was ‘we know our signal is inferior and we’re working really hard to see what we can do to improve it and to extend in the areas that aren’t getting as strong of a signal for us like the South Bay and parts of the East Bay.’ It’s not that we are dying to go out there and snatch frequencies away from other people. We’re trying to do the best we can to find frequencies that are available and acquire those. We figure, if they’re available and someone else has decided that they want to make a shift in their organization, we have a good use for it. And so I don’t feel badly at all about going out and looking for opportunities with stations that are available. But we’re not trying to rip something out of somebody else’s hands. That’s not our goal.
Jennifer: I figured that that’s where his comment was coming from, it just seemed insensitive 3 days after the shutdown of KUSF.
Brenda: I totally understand that. And I went to the meeting that KUSF volunteers had with the President of USF. I’m not trying to shield myself from any of that…I know that that is a very difficult situation and very heart-breaking for people who have been involved with the station for a long time and I feel like I need to listen to those voices. So, I attended the meeting and I’m very glad that I did.
Jennifer: How do you feel about the situation, having sat through that meeting. Obviously USF makes the decision about what happens to the station, but the station is run by an entirely different group of people who feel like their community resource has been taken away. How do you respond to that?
Brenda: It’s really hard. And, it’s heart-breaking. I literally teared up a number of times at that meeting listening to people talk about the station and what it means to them and how important it’s been to them. One of the people that just really broke my heart was the USF student who spoke and he was in the station at the time and talked about how he is a student ambassador and does tours… and I was just heart-broken for him because I thought what a difficult situation.
I understand why the university’s making the decision that they’re making and I think looking at their mission and looking at their goals and looking at their need to serve students. You know I find we offer internships at KUSC to students, but we find that students aren’t as interested in radio these days as they are in doing something online or with film and television, so we don’t get huge numbers of students who want to do an internship at the station. We get some. We have one or two every semester, but there’s not a big demand for internships at KUSC.
So I understand the university’s point…and how the change aligns with their mission. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to the volunteers and to the people involved in KUSF…I totally understand their commitment to the station, how much they love it, how much they’ll miss having that outlet. I can’t help but feel badly about that and…it’s a difficult situation all the way around. It’s difficult for the classical audience because we have to re-build…We’re in a weakened position and KUSF, there’s a loss there. So, it’s difficult at best and it’s challenging all the way around.
Jennifer: Since you were at the big meeting, you heard this discrepancy between Father Privett saying that the station was not for sale. Do you want to answer to that, as to whether or not KUSF was for sale?
Brenda: I can’t tell you exactly what happened on their end, because I don’t know. But what I can say is the way radio brokers work…Radio brokers are a lot like real estate brokers in a lot of ways. What they want to do is to try to represent you because they make money when they sell something…They get a commission. What they typically do is they’ll send a letter, usually, to a university. They’re doing this a lot with universities these days and they’ll say, ‘we think we have someone who wants to buy your station.’ Now do they really? No. Not necessarily. But, they’re just trying to get their foot in the door to see if the university or the entity is interested in working with them. And then if they show an interest, then they go call around to other people to say ‘do you want to buy this station?’
So that’s how Father Privett could say…it’s not like we hired a broker and we put a for sale sign in the front yard. And that’s true. Because that’s not how these things work. And when he said ‘a letter ended up on my desk,’ I’m sure that’s true. A broker wrote a letter and said ‘I think I can sell your station and I think I know people who are interested in buying it.’ So to him, that wasn’t putting the station up for sale, but then what happens on my end, is we get a call from the broker saying ‘this station’s for sale.’ Now, has the university really decided to sell at that point? No. Not necessarily. It’s just the broker is the one who kind of makes these marriages and who puts the deals together. And that’s just the way they operate….
And I’m sure that letter didn’t land on his desk first. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. It went to somebody and eventually landed on his desk and he would have said, ‘hey, if we’re going to sell the station University of Southern California is a good organization to sell it to…They can pay the money for it. They’re trustworthy. They have a good mission. He was getting a lot of grief for ‘you’ve only got one offer and you accepted that offer…’ They got a fair price for the station based on the appraisal of it. Would they have gotten more from someone else? I doubt it. We paid a fair price. We weren’t trying to get a bargain basement deal.
Jennifer: How do you feel about this trend of this happening at other college stations?
Brenda: I became the adviser to the radio station at USC before any of this stuff was even an idea in my head, before I even thought about the Bay Area at all. When they came to me, they said we really need to get a radio station because they just were basically sort of a carrier current station. And I said to them…you don’t need a radio station [because] 1) it’s going to be really hard to find one in L.A. and 2) you’re not going to be able to pay for it if you do find one and 3) with webcasting you have the opportunity to appeal to a global audience, not just a southern California audience. So I really think you should focus on webcasting…and that’s what they’ve done….They’re very happy and contented to be webcasters…My advice to them way back when was do webcasting because that’s the “wave of the future and also they’re appealing to young people.
Younger people have grown up with iPods and cell phones and smart phones and digital technologies…I know KUSF has also done webcasting also has listeners all over the world, but…their stream has had limited capabilities…Only 100 people or something could listen at a time. So I know when the university resumes webcasting at KUSF.com, they hope to expand the ceapacity of the webcast so more people can listen.
Jennifer: From what I’ve heard, though, it would be exorbitantly expensive to reach as many people as they’re able to reach terrestrially.
Brenda: That’s possible. But…one of the nice things about San Francisco is that they do have sort of a government commitment to broadband access, so they may be able to hook into some city resources to be able to help them reach more people, more affordably.
Jennifer: Also, since they have been functioning more like a community station, there are a lot of constituents who they feel won’t be reached by the webcast.
Brenda: And that I don’t know too much about. I can’t really speak to that.
Jennifer: Can you explain your future plans for the format of KDFC. Will you be retaining those call letters?
Brenda: We’ve applied to the FCC to get those call letters and we hope that we will.
Jennifer: What will the relationship with KUSC be? How has the transition from commercial to non-commercial been for the staff and DJs there?
Brenda: KUSC is helping right now because there’s only5 full time staff of KDFC… We’re helping them build administration for a new company. We’ve had to build a new technical infrastructure for KDFC because they’ve been using Entercom’s…We’re also helping them…getting membership up and running and helping to run a membership program because that’s obviously something they’ve never had to do. So KUSC will continue to support KDFC on the membership end, but that’s really the main place we see the two stations being able to work together effectively. Ultimately, KDFC’s going to need its own technical support and we’re going to get that from Entercom and from contractors. And, we want the programming to be separate, so each station has its own programming, its own programming strategy and its own programming staff.
Jennifer: So then you’re running two separate businesses?
Brenda: Right. I’m involved in both…definite ongoing role for both organizations and then facilitating the membership collaboration between the two.
Complete Radio Survivor coverage about the proposed sale of KUSF can be found here. I also wrote about my reaction to the KUSF shut down on Spinning Indie. My article chronicling my KUSF field trip 2 years ago is housed there too. For more on the future of classical music radio, see Matthew Lasar’s interview with Brenda Barnes from December 2010.