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What’s going to happen to KUSF’s 90.3 now? Ask Brenda Barnes

Brenda Barnes of KUSF

Brenda Barnes of KUSC

By now all Radio Survivor readers know the news—treasured college radio station KUSF-FM in San Francisco has been sold. Its frequency will broadcast Entercom owned classical radio station KDFC-FM, soon to go public in a partnership with the University of Southern California, parent of classical station KUSC. It appears that KUSF’s 90.3 signal is already streaming KDFC now, but I can’t pick up the signal from my basement office in Bernal Heights.

Not surprisingly, everyone is wondering what this new entity will sound like in the months ahead. As Radio Survivor’s Jennifer Waits noted earlier today, KUSC President Brenda Barnes has been doing the rounds in San Francisco, explaining the move on discussion shows like KQED-FM’s forum. The plan is to expand KDFC’s playlist, Barnes noted, “stretching out” musically—which won’t be difficult, given KDFC’s famously bland fare—then expand the station’s footprint into the south bay.

But while everybody is hanging on Barnes’ words now, we published an interview with her just last month. And in it Barnes made it very plain that she sees public radio picking up the slack left by the wave of commercial classical radio stations that abandoned the format in the late 1990s.

“The biggest thing that has affected classical music radio was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated ownership of radio,” she told me in our discussion:

“What happened in that transition was that once ownership was deregulated, then there was a feeding frenzy among the Clear Channels and the CBSes and others. That raised the prices of radio frequencies astronomically.

So what happened in all that frenzy is that people who had been operating classical commercial stations through all that long time saw an opportunity that they knew would never come again to see their station at way above market value. So they sold, and once you buy a big station in a big market for $100 million or $60 million or whatever, you can’t afford to run it as a classical station, because you can’t make enough money back to pay the debt load.

That sort of triggered the end of commercial classical radio. And what’s been happening is a trend toward public radio kind of trying to fill that void. At first what had happened in the public radio world was that as public radio developed in the 1960s and the number of stations increased, the mandate was to offer something that was not available commercially. So in a market like San Francisco or Chicago or New York City where there was a commercial classical station, public stations kind of shifted away from classical music.

But when all this transition happened in the commercial radio world, that left a void, and in some cases, like in Miami, American Public Media, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, went in and bought a station and is operating it as a classical station. The Seattle commercial classical station just announced that it’s going to become a public radio station in 2011.

So what we’re seeing is another shift that was caused by that market factor of deregulation.”

Obviously, Barnes sees KUSF and her Classical Public Radio Network as part of that shift, far more than she let on in our discussion. As for Internet based radio, she made it clear that she thinks it’s going to take a while for that to pay off for classical stations:

“I don’t think that the economics of online is working for very many people. Pandora has been in existence for eight years, maybe a little more than that. And it has just started to turn a profit.

There’s a huge amount of venture capital going into new media, because people see that obviously it is not something that is going to go away. It’s a major shift in how we access information. But at the same time making money has proven elusive for most everyone in this space.

Do the economics work out now? No. Do I have confidence that in time that will be sorted out? Yes I do. So we’re all trying to figure out how to be in that space in a way that doesn’t detract at all from our radio business, which is our core business and will be for a number of years. We thinking towards the future, we’re recognizing the trends, but we’re not crippling our core business to do it. And that’s a tough balancing act.

I think that’s where most people are right now in the public radio world. We’re saying this is the future, we do have to head in this direction, but we have to do it in a prudent and financially responsible way.”

As for me, I’m of two minds about this KUSF move. I would love to see a classical music public radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area, but erasing KUSF’s unique and eclectic format is a hell of a way to do it. This deal still has to be approved by this Federal Communications Commission. If it goes through, I’ll give the new operation a try, but with a very bitter memory in my heart.

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