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K-PLUM: the case for KUSP as a hybrid classical radio station

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.”

KUSPBefore 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.


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12 Responses to K-PLUM: the case for KUSP as a hybrid classical radio station

  1. klewis June 11, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    This seems like a sound approach. Is it true that debt “looms large?” I thought the total was around $700k, which was largely owed to NPR and board members–with NPR having shownsome willingness to negotiate?

  2. Matthew Lasar June 11, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks. I used the term “loom large” in relation to financing the transition, not specifically the debt. But I guess I should give NPR a call about the debt thing though and see if they’ll talk to me.

  3. jonthebru June 11, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    The first thing to do is not lose the license and signal to corporate non-profit organizations. If there is community support to find your way out of the weeds make that happen. Budgeting and cost needs to be the prime focus at this time. In this era of community radio, block programming works. Mainly due to the large amount of under served music styles. A true community radio station won’t be locked into one style but will tastefully express the whole community. In other words I don’t like the idea of a one format “highbred highbrow” idea. Diversity. And create what the group wants, don’t worry about what anyone else is doing Who cares about overlapping signals. When your station is on the air that is all that matters, other stations don’t exist.

  4. Gerry Mandel June 11, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    I like your Hybrid Highbrow idea. I’m sitting here listening to and loving an obscure Scarlatti piece on Nicholas Mitchell’s “Musica della sera,” my favorite classical program on KUSP. I’m really going to miss Nicholas, Meera Collier, and our other classical programmers, not to mention Dr. Dawn, Robert Pollie, and others, if KUSP goes away. Such a sad situation. I hope you will submit your K-PLUM idea to the board, for what it’s worth.

  5. Rachel Goodman June 12, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

    A few board members and current staff have picked three options, and none of them came out of the lengthy series of community meetings but are from staff. You misinterpreted Spruce (which was actually edited/morphed by staff from a proposal KUSP Forward submitted in much more detail that would have been a strong local news and public affairs concept. )

    The board has narrowed its choices down to: Plum, Maple and a hybrid of Poplar and Chestnut. They will discuss their reasoning (and hopefully show financial logic behind these) at their meeting Monday. Chesnut, which came in June 8, so has not been read by many, doubles down on the NPR format, removing all programs with “editorial bias” including Democracy Now, and the short features like First Person Singular and the Land Use Report. Plum sells the station. Maple is paid dj’s doing some sort of music format. Mathew, it’s all very well you are dreaming up your ideal radio station, but it now appears the board is not interested in real input, but was doing all this to appear open to ideas while working in isolation. The CLPG group is also working to come up with options, but again, the board may ignore its recommendations, thus wasting a lot of people’s time and goodwill that could have been turned into donations and volunteer hours. I wish this didn’t look to me like a giant stalling tactic to waste time until the sale becomes inevitable due to bad management, but at this point it just does.

  6. Matthew Lasar June 12, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    Hey Rachel: I am unable to comment on the insinuation that KUSP management is secretly and dishonestly taking its community through a fraudulent process until it can sell the signal. I also don’t think that I’ve misinterpreted Spruce. In any event, I don’t see why your group can propose formats for KUSP, but others can’t. Radio Survivor is open to a variety of perspectives on this question: yours, that of management, and even mine.

    • Rachel Goodman June 13, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

      A small group of board and staff members narrowed down the field of options five days before the end of their open proposal period, all were staff generated. These were the same folks who stewarded the station into its current dire financial predicament. An email from a board member dated June 11 states: that they narrowed down all but the most competitive options. “This has given us three candidates for further evaluation: Plum, Maple and a hybrid of Poplar and Chestnut.” Note Chestnut preserves the status quo, while removing Democracy Now, and “Plum” involves a license sale. We were glad so many people were engaged with thinking of ways KUSP could survive, you included. I’m sorry we were all ignored, that’s all

      • Duncan Lively June 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

        “A small group of board and staff members narrowed down the field of options five days before the end of their open proposal period, all were staff generated. These were the same folks who stewarded the station into its current dire financial predicament.”

        There is a reasonable and overdue discussion to be had about how the Board and senior management have led the station to where it is, and how the organization’s nutty Lorenzo Milam-inspired bylaws fostered a direct democracy in the Foundation, a diffuse governance that undermined management’s ability to respond to changing externalities.

        But why in the above statement do you try and convict staff members Jennifer Switzer, Geo Warner, JD Hillard, Alex Burke, Debbie Kelly and Steve Laufer in the station’s death spiral? That is, at best, ill-informed.

  7. Bob Mason June 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    Boy would I love a station such as you describe, one that plays excellent music, with generous definitions of ‘excellent’ Pessimist that I am, I fear we will have to wait for when, by some miracle, your non-existent free time becomes existent. Bummer. Are there any stations out there anywhere that come close to the K-PLUM vision you describe here?

  8. James Duncan June 18, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Actually there is a regional F/T FM classical music station – KMZT (K-Mozart). It serves Monterey/Carmel (95.1), and Big Sur(95.9). I’m at elevation above Santa Cruz so it works for me but generally not very well in the north Monterey Bay Area. KMZT does Romantic Era into Modern, mostly avoiding the Baroque period and not too heavy on the Classical Period. It’s been on since Q3 2013. I mostly stream university classical stations for more depth but turn on KMZT mornings and in the car since an FM radio is so convenient. CPRN and a classical KUSP would be programming against this competition, at least in part of the coverage area.

  9. Rachel Goodman June 22, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

    Here is what has been issued by KUSP as the three options it is now considering. The good news is that none of these involves selling the station. The message from the public has been very loud and clear on this point. A recent $100,000 donation has bought some time to plan for a revived KUSP.

    http://blogs.kusp.org/participate/2015/06/17/what-options-are-we-considerin/

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