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The case for KUSP-FM of Santa Cruz as a community rock station

kusplogoWhen last we left the KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz drama, the struggling public radio station had not succeeded in meeting its fund raising goal: $300k in around a month. And so the signal has laid off most of its staff save its Operations Director, now the General Manager. It has replaced its daily live deejay broadcast with a single stream. “Essentially, the whole library is on random,” notes Joshua Huver over at the Bay Bridged indie music news blog.

Then the foundation met on May 4th and authorized its board to “pursue a sale of KUSP’s license if the station could not otherwise be saved.” I attended that meeting. It was tense, but informative and helpful towards my writing something along the line of what various Radio Survivor readers have asked me to assemble, an analysis of why it has been such an uphill struggle for KUSP’s new Adult Album Alternative format. But before I get to that, I want to reiterate what I’ve repeatedly said on these pages: in its brief existence as a live broadcast, KUSP’s “Triple A” stream was a wonderful thing, with tremendous potential to revitalize community based rock radio in the Santa Cruz / Monterey area. It is worth the investment of the greater Santa Cruz community.

In a nutshell, KUSP-FM embraced a deejay oriented contemporary rock/pop format.  It drew from an online database of new and older tunes (a sort of millennial/boomer mix), then gradually integrated music from the station’s record library. When the new approach launched some months ago, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. But eventually I realized that I had stumbled upon what I’ve missed for decades, a rock/pop radio station that played recent and new music, curated by live people. As I wrote back in December: “Listening to the new KUSP I feel like somebody invited me back into the club, into the party, or back into some scene from which I’d been secretly disinvited.”

To be blunt, KUSP’s Triple A format made me feel young again. And it obviously reached a critical mass of individuals, who donated over $100k to the station over the course of its emergency fundraising marathon month. This approach has been embraced by at least 100 radio stations across the United States. My brother Raphael listens to and loves a AAA style public signal in New Jersey, 90.5, WBJB-FM, Brookdale Public Radio. The station, he notes, plays contemporary and classic rock, pop, and folk music:

    “Pete Fornatale, one of the great DJs from the heydays of ’70s rock radio broadcasting at WNEW in NYC, was a mentor to the founders of 90.5 in 1975. The station promotes and supports local musicians hosting concerts and on air live performances and interviews.”

    “The DJs at Brookdale are locals, many having attended Brookdale CC and other local schools. They know the area and report news relevant to the community. Their banter is the banter of neighbors. And they are terrific people who know and love music. In the past few days we’ve been treated to Paul Butterfield, a Prince instrumental cover of Whole Lotta Love, Howlin’ Wolf, new music from Graham Parker, and if I’m not mistaken, a Zappa tune. And a bunch of new artists I’ve never heard of but deserve my attention.

    If you love radio and you haven’t given them a listen, you should. If you are local, you should consider supporting them. They are Radio Done Right. Brookdale is truly a community treasure for the Jersey Shore.”

Mayday for KUSPKUSP has the potential to become that. But it faces some very difficult hurdles.

First, when the station abandoned its NPR format, it lost a bunch of listeners. To be fair, it appears that there was no avoiding this. KUSP had to drop NPR. The station simply could not compete with neighboring NPR station KAZU-FM in Monterrey and had accrued a large debt to the public radio news service. But unloading NPR came with a price: a suddenly diminished audience.

Second, KUSP owes money in addition to NPR. According to the figures I received in a handout at the meeting, approximately $780,000. Here’s the breakdown:

   $170,000 in secured loans
   $90,000 in unsecured loans by individuals or guaranteed by individuals
   $450,000 in unpaid programming fees to NPR, American Public Radio, and Pacifica radio
   $70,000 in unpaid accounts payable

Third, my impression is that KUSP’s Santa Cruz/Monterey demographic base is somewhat smaller than the regional reach of comparable Triple A stations elsewhere. The Monterey/Santa Cruz/Salinas area comes in at 84 on the Fall 2015 Nielsen market survey.

Fourth, some people in and around the KUSP community never really supported the Triple A plan. At the meeting I came away with the distinct impression that some of them want it to fail (or think it already has). One man behind me angrily called the new format “crap,” and all but accused its advocates of dishonesty in their original representation of the new programme. What they want, as far as I could tell from the discussion, is a volunteer run and staffed, music and public affairs oriented community radio station. I even heard suggestions that the station generate income by charging people for deejay time.

Obviously there’s a hugely subjective element to this discussion. On that level I can’t argue with what other people want, especially individuals who I strongly respect for having given years of their lives to KUSP.  If that is ultimately what the KUSP board embraces, so be it. But I doubt that I will listen to that station. I also fear that, given the resources at hand and the conflicting expectations of so many people, even if relatively well planned it will drift into something resembling a time sharing operation. I agree with my colleague Paul Riismandel that volunteer oriented community radio stations not infrequently suffer from a “culture of time ownership.”

“While a sense of shared ownership over the station can be a good thing, the sense that one owns her own slot of time on the schedule tends to be detrimental,” Paul writes. “That’s because it encourages DJs to be conservative, as in conserving their space on the air, ready to defend it. This results in resistance or even downright hostility in shifts to the program schedule that are intended to adapt to changes in the listening habits or other factors.”

The big challenge for community oriented public radio stations is to make the leap from community level support to audience level support. Community level support often comes from groups of people who support various shows on the station, in part because they interact with the programmers in other cultural, social, or political contexts.  Audience level support comes from people who listen to the station as a whole. My sense is that the Triple A plan has the potential to take that audience level leap and to make a real difference for the Santa Cruz cultural scene. It has a chance to bring different generations together, and in particular to bring the Spotify generation back to traditional radio listening. KUSP could become a significant advocate for local musicians and musical spaces. By centering its discourse around live deejays, it could become a strong promoter of local cultural and social organizations.

But to do this, KUSP will have to overcome significant financial and structural obstacles, and to some degree transcend its own institutional history. If I was a philanthropist, I would give money to KUSP. I think the project that it has undertaken is well worth it, enough so that I continue to hope against hope that it prevails.

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