It was less than a year ago that fans of KUSP 88.9 FM worried that the radio station would get sold to a group in Southern California.
Since then, the long-established radio station has undergone a massive—if not entirely seamless—reorganization. After 12 years, KUSP General Manager Terry Green was laid off in September, replaced by interim GM Lee Ferraro, who stayed with the station for five months. After restructuring KUSP’s programming to a music-based format, Ferraro stepped down as interim general manager in January. Bonnie Jean Primbsch, a longtime host and volunteer, was announced as the new interim GM on March 1.
Over the past half-decade, community concern has been the only constant for a station that has cut local programming, twice changed formatting and undergone leadership changes. It’s been palpable in board meetings, in which the direction of the station has come under criticism from several former KUSP hosts, journalists and volunteers.
Rachel Goodman, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, was with KUSP for 13 years as a programmer and as a host of Talk of the Bay and Coastal Ridge Ramble. Although the station appears to be improving its standing, she says that many ardent supporters of the station often feel out of the loop and that KUSP going $700,000 into debt last September could have been avoided.
“It’s a massive hole to get out of,” says Goodman. “But I know the board is trying.”
Homogeny Killed the Radio Star
Since 1971, KUSP stood as a beacon for Santa Cruz, providing music, reporting and specialized shows, all with a community spin. But in recent years, the nonprofit station became mired in financial stress.
Most sources agree that the bulk of the trouble began in 2008 when the publicly funded station increased its NPR content, in an effort to compete with rival station KAZU, which is based at Cal State Monterey Bay. The original hope was for KAZU to eventually buy out or merge with KUSP, but no deal was ever struck.
“In 2008, when they doubled-down on NPR, many of us said ‘don’t do this,’” Goodman remembers. “That’s when it lost any local identity.”
The station continued to buy up expensive programming as longtime fans expressed disappointment. Still, KUSP’s Board of Directors stayed the course, keeping their faith in the then-GM Green.
“Terry is a good guy and a dedicated man, but the board allowed his view to prevail for too long,” says KUSP Board President Kelly O’Brien.
O’Brien, an environmental journalist—and another ex-host of Talk of the Bay—has spent the last decade on the station’s board, serving as president for the last four. She admits that the board bears responsibility for creating a situation with “two stations—not more than 25 miles apart as the crow flies—broadcasting the same information only a second apart and a few clicks of the dial from each other.”
With a dwindling listener base and growing debt, the board continued to explore offers to sell, most notably to Santa-Monica-based KCRW or the Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN) based out of the University of Southern California.
Not surprisingly, fans of Santa Cruz radio were opposed to selling the station. It was then that Goodman and others formed KUSP Forward, a group of past and present KUSP staff members, volunteers, board members, and listeners concerned with losing the station’s license to outside sources.
“Without such vocal community outcry, the station would have been sold,” Goodman says. “So that was a huge victory.”
Their suggestions for alternative plans seemed to fall on deaf ears—that is, until the board hired Public Media Company (PMC), a nonprofit consulting group based out of Colorado, last year. PMC’s chief executive officer and co-founder, Marc Hand, is an ex-KUSP volunteer. (O’Brien is adamant that this did not create a conflict of interest. She concedes PMC could have made money helping with a buy-out or merge, but this didn’t turn out to be the case.)
That’s when the changes began.
After laying off Green, KUSP immediately announced Lee Ferraro, who came from Pittsburgh-based WYEP, as interim general manager.
Under Ferraro’s direction, the station revamped its programming, adopting what the industry calls a “Triple-A” format (AAA, for “Adult Album Alternative”), based on PMC’s recommendation. Triple-A’s emphasis is on “music discovery,” bringing new sounds to new ears.
Just when everything seemed to be getting back on track, Ferraro signed-off from KUSP in mid-January of this year, after only five months in the position and with no successor. His sudden departure confused many outsiders, but Ferraro insists that there is no bad blood and that he left to return home to his family in Wisconsin.
“The original ‘gig’ at KUSP was thought to be for three months,” he tells GT via email. “But I stayed on nearly five months due to the dedication of the board and the tremendous goodwill I found for KUSP in the community.”
Last week, the station announced that another ex-KUSP host and staff member, Bonnie Jean Primbsch, will succeed Ferraro and continue down the same AAA path.
It’s still too early to say what the future of KUSP is and how viable it will be. Its last listenership report took place during the programming transition, forcing the station to rely on pledge drives and listener feedback to determine if they tuned in with the community’s needs.
“Today, the product is much more listener-oriented than it was,” says O’Brien. “Stopping competition with KAZU was probably the smartest thing we’ve ever done, and we could’ve done it sooner.”
Last year’s three-day end-of-the-year pledge drive brought in more than $15,000 in donations, much more than the station had projected. Primbsch believes that listeners are responding positively to the music format, because music is an artistic medium that helps people make sense of their world.
“Music can be an escape or a balm,” she explains. “But a lyric can catch you and make you think, ‘Gosh that’s like my life right now’ and help you understand things in a transformative way.”
Local radio historian Matthew Lasar has been paying attention and is appreciating the new focus. “I listen to it all the time and I really love it,” says Lasar, a UCSC lecturer and teacher of History and Radio Media. “I love the format change, and personally I get a lot out of it.”
Primbsch says KUSP has lowered its debt to roughly $500,000 and that the station is currently working with NPR to have those bills at least partially forgiven. Still, she admits, “We’re not out of the woods, yet.”
Lasar says that in order to survive, KUSP will have to carve out a niche and continue creating an identity.
“What KUSP really wants at this point is to be listened to,” he says. “They have to build an audience for a certain kind of music.”