Dirty Business

The San Francisco Bay Guardian online posted this article by Kimberly Chun called “Radio radio,” and in it she shows some pretty good chops:

Throughout, KUSF’s old frequency, 90.3, comes through loud and clear — though now with the sound of KDFC’s light-classical and its penchant for swelling, feel-good woodwinds. The music is so innocuous that to rag on it feels as petty and mean as kicking a docile pup. But I get my share of instrumental wallpaper while fuming on corporate phone trees. It’s infuriating to realize that it supplanted KUSF, the last bastion of free-form radio in SF proper. Where is the free-form rock radio? This is the city that successfully birthed the format in the 1970s, with the freewheeling, bohemia-bred KSAN, and continued the upstart tradition with pirate stations such as SF Liberation Radio. Doesn’t San Francisco deserve its own WFMU or KCRW?…

Nevertheless, online access isn’t a substitute for free radio air waves. “We get the wrong impression that everyone is wired, and everyone’s online, and no one listens to terrestrial radio,” says radio activist and KFJC DJ Jennifer Waits. “Why then are these companies buying stations for millions of dollars?”

Why then? Because someday we will all be a subsidiary of Nabisco. Kimberly again channels Jennifer Waits, active on the Radio Survior and Spinning Indie sites:

Waits and KALX general manager Sandra Wasson both point to the consolidation that’s overtaken commercial radio since deregulation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — a trend that has now crept onto the noncommercial end of the dial.

As competition for limited bandwidth accelerates (in San Francisco, this situation is compounded by a hilly topography with limited low-power station coverage) and classical radio stations like KDFC are pushed off the commercial frequencies, universities are being approached by radio brokers. One such entity, Public Radio Capital, was part of the secretive $3.75 million deal to sell KUSF’s transmitter and frequency. Similar moves are occurring throughout the U.S., according to Waits. She cites the case of KTXT, the college radio station at Texas Tech, as akin to KUSF’s situation, while noting Rice and Vanderbilt universities are also exploring station sales.

“The noncommercial band is following in the footsteps of the commercial band in the way of consolidation,” Wasson says, from her paper-crammed but spartan office at KALX, after a tour of the station’s 90,000-strong record library…. “Buying and selling noncommercial radio seems to me very much like what used to happen and still does in commercial radio: one company owns a lot stations in a lot of different markets and does different kinds of programming in different markets. Deregulation changed it so that 10-watt stations weren’t protected anymore. There were impacts on commercial and noncommercial sides.”

Lack of foresight leads cash-strapped schools to leap for the quick payout. “Once a school sells a station, it’s unlikely it will be able to buy one back,” says Waits. “Licenses don’t come up for sale and there are limited frequencies. They have an amazing resource and they’re making a decision that isn’t thought-through.”…

“I’ve told them what I’m telling you,” [author and journalist Ben Fong-Torres] says. “It’s really difficult to acquire a stick in these parts, to grab whatever best signals there are.” This is especially true with USC/KDFC rumored to be on a quest for frequencies south of SF.

The same tired old rationale is parroted by another administration:

The University of San Francisco has touted the sale of KUSF’s frequency and the station’s proposed shift to online radio as a teaching opportunity. But the real lesson may be a reminder of the value of the city’s assets — and how easily they can be taken away.

At Rice University in Houston, the suits also said it was to fancy up a new food court.

Kimberly brings in former music director Irwin Swirnoff to add this:

“DJs get to tell a story through music,” he explains. “They’re able to reach a range of emotions and [speak to] the factors that are in the city at that moment, its nature and politics. Through music, they can create a moving dialogue and story.”

Swirnoff also points to the DJ’s personally selective role during a time of corporate media saturation and tremendous musical production. “In the digital age, the amount of music out in the world can be totally overwhelming,” he says. “A good station can take in all those releases and give you the best garage rock, the best Persian dance music, everything. One DJ can be a curator of 100 years of music and can find a way to bring the listener to a unique place.”

Local music and voices aren’t getting heard on computer-programmed, voice-tracked commercial stations despite inroads of satellite radio into local news. In a world where marketing seems to reign supreme, is there a stronger SF radio brand than the almost 50-year-old KUSF when it comes to sponsoring shows and breaking new bands for the discriminating SF music fan? “People in the San Francisco music community who are in bands and are club owners know college radio is still a vital piece in promoting bands and clubs,” says Waits. “There are small shows that are only getting promotion over college radio.”

Altogether, a very nice piece supporting the movement in San Francisco.

Irwin Swirnoff himself followed up here with an impassioned piece called “The Fight for KUSF,” wherein he first detailed the different types of music, following it with this:

On Jan. 18, at 10 a.m., all those voices, all those communities, and all those services were silenced and squashed. In a secret deal behind the back of the community, the University of San Francisco sold KUSF’s transmitter to the University of Southern California in a deal that also involves the large media conglomerate Entercom.

It went down like a hostile corporate takeover. The DJ on air wasn’t allowed to sign off. Armed security entered the station as every lock in the studio was being changed. As stewards of a scarce public resource, USF has an obligation to the community. It’s time for the university to take a step back from this deal and allow for a mutually beneficial solution that will keep community radio alive in San Francisco.

It’s become clear that USF had no idea what an irreplaceable public resource it was killing when it entered this sneaky deal that would afford USC with its sixth territorial radio station as it aims to create a monopoly on the left side of the dial and extend its fundraising capacities deep into the Bay Area.

As one person commented: “USF paid nothing for their license to use our public resource, yet managed to flip it for a $3.8 windfall by selling it to USC, which is essentially broadcasting Entercom’s KDFC unchanged…. Shame on Father Privett. Shame on USC’s Brenda Barnes. Shame on Entercom.”


One Response

  1. “DJs get to tell a story through music,” he explains. “They’re able to reach a range of emotions and [speak to] the factors that are in the city at that moment, its nature and politics. Through music, they can create a moving dialogue and story.”
    This is the point that the bean counters always miss. Radio at its best isn’t just some robot playing popular tunes of the day. Witness the reception that former KUT jock Larry Monroe received for his return to the airwaves this week. It’s not just the songs that are played it’s how they are woven together to reach their intended audience. College radio is a teaching tool as surely as books and lab equipment. For it to be sold out from under the students for profit is so short sighted as to be blind.

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