There’s an old saying in and around community radio stations: “We do meetings.” That’s definitely the situation over at KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, California, which has been holding a variety of public, Community Advisory Board, official Board, and who knows whatever other kind of gatherings over its uncertain future. Station management, declaring the signal over its head in debt, pretty much poised itself some weeks ago to sell the whole shebang to the Classical Public Radio Network, but appears to have backed off from that idea. Now they’ve has thrown out a host of alternative proposals with tree names: Pine, Maple, Plum, Fig, Walnut, Elm, Spruce, Cedar, Poplar, and Chestnut. These horticulturally tagged plans range from new/public affairs oriented schedules to all music operations. Some propose selling the 88.9 FM license. Others don’t. Lots of people have posted comments under the various trees. It looks like KUSP’s board will make a decision in early July, so get your input in sooner rather than later if you care to.
I thought I’d weigh in on this matter myself, not that I have much standing around the issue. After all, I’m just me, but I do live in Santa Cruz part time, and do listen to and write about radio a lot. So I vote for a modified version of Plum, aka K-PLUM, which posits KUSP as an all-music outlet. My version of Plum would set up KUSP as a hybrid classical radio station which would celebrate “classical” music in a very broadly construed sense. I call this format “Hybrid Highbrow.”
Before I go there, I’m going to go a little further out on a limb and confess to a tree scenario that I probably would not want to listen to. That would be “Spruce,” aka “Locally produced music, news and public affairs programming, as well as pre-produced national programs not duplicating those on other nearby stations.” I sympathize with where this is coming from, but reading through the laundry list of local non-profits, media groups, schools (“and more”) that would somehow serve up content through the day, I already see the checkerboard schedule of volunteer topical shows that I will probably tune into, say, “Gosh, I’m so glad they’re talking about that,” and tune out of in around five minutes.
But I would like to listen to a radio station that streams consistently excellent music and that exudes a clear musical identity. One problem with this is that the Santa Cruz area already has some fine public and semi-public music radio stations, most notably the University’s KZSC-FM, KPIG-FM, and community station KKUP-FM in Cupertino. The market is very competitive.
What Santa Cruz doesn’t have is a decent radio station for classical and related forms of music (I know, KAZU-FM has an HD classical stream, but you know what I mean). I would have liked the Classical Public Radio Network idea, except KDFC in San Francisco is a bore: nice deejays, but it’s basically a non-local easy listening medium/light classics station. To be fair, it’s difficult to program a really good classical music radio station any more. You’ve got to be operating in a great big place like New York, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis/St. Paul—some region that has enough listeners to support a sophisticated schedule. So when I think about the kind of classical radio station I’d like to listen to, it by necessity includes other genres as well. I call this imaginary format “Hybrid Highbrow.”
I have written about this before. Hybrid Highbrow borrows its philosophy from Matthew Arnold’s old definition of culture: “the best that has been thought and known in the world.” Arnold’s protocol emphasized “perfection.” I’m not that picky. But I like the basic Arnoldian concept, hence my Hybrid Highbrow station has five radio food groups:
• Classical music (Palestrina to Phillip Glass, plus opera)
• Jazz (real jazz, not the “smooth” version; Coltrane yes; Kenny G no)
• American song (Cole Porter, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Sinatra, etc)
• “World” classical music (I know, the “world” tag is problematic, but you know, classical national and regional traditions like Oud, Gamelan, Chinese Opera, Kyoto, and Sitar).
• Spoken word (fiction, poetry, and plays, plus cultural reviews).
This is what I want to hear on K-PLUM. I want to hear it all day long: “classical” music, broadly construed. I want to hear it with deejays and curation and lots of connectivity to the local Santa Cruz/Monterey cultural scene. Happily, a big piece of KUSP already delivers this sort of fare. The station already runs great classical, Jazz, and “global” music shows. So it’s a matter of expanding that segment and bolstering it with a coherent philosophy.
There are at least two challenges for this proposal, three actually. The first is that KDFC runs a repeater signal near Santa Cruz that would compete with my Hybrid Highbrow format (I’m less worried about overlap with KKUP). The second is that I suspect that K-PLUM would still need some news/headlines service to retain audience. The third is that, unlike the Plum modeled outlined by KUSP, my version would definitely have to hold onto 88.9 FM, so the question of how to finance this transition without a license sale looms large.
So in the end maybe KUSP won’t do this and will do Spruce or something like it instead, which is fine. But I’d really like somebody to do Hybrid Highbrow at some point. Maybe I’ll just have to do it myself in my non-existent free time.
But here’s my last bit of free advice. Which ever type of forest growth KUSP moves toward, it must do so with a clear leadership that is empowered to make decisions, to create new structures, rapidly respond to problems, and yes, make mistakes. As risky as the moment is, there is no effective alternative to this approach. All others will flounder at best, if not fail.