A proposal would have the local public station joining forces with Los Angeles powerhouse KCRW
Despite talk of locally operated, nonprofit radio station KUSP (88.9 FM) merging with Santa Monica public station KCRW, KUSP’s general manager says nothing about the station’s future has been decided.
“That is absolutely not happening to the best of my knowledge,” says Terry Green, KUSP’s GM since 2003. “And I should know.”
Green is adamant that there is no deal on the table, but rather the rumor is just part of KUSP’s search for a sustainable path.
“Since I got here, the station’s been looking for a way to evolve its programming and operating model so that it’s sustainable for the long term,” he says. “Off and on—mostly on—we’ve been in exploratory conversations with somebody since 2007 and none of these deals have actually panned out.”
But minutes from KUSP’s last community advisory board meeting on March 9, suggest this could be different. According to the document, the “consummation of a Public Service Operating Agreement with KCRW is hoped to take place late in 2015.” Earlier in the minutes it states, “Terry reported that the Spring Drive is under way. Only those programs that are assured of being on the air after the upcoming format change are being pitched live.”
What would that format change look like? According to the minutes:
- The “tent pole” NPR programs—Morning and Weekend Editions and “All Things Considered.”
- The 10 a.m.-1 p.m. slot on weekdays will air KCRW’s morning, music program, “Morning Becomes Eclectic” (MBE).
- At 1 p.m. MBE 24—KCRW’s 24-hour, online music stream with a KUSP host interspersed throughout with local news and updates.
- Signature KUSP-produced news/information shows will continue on weekend mornings.
- KUSP-produced music shows will air on weekends from noon to 3 p.m.
On the plus side of the proposal, the merger could give a bigger presence to Santa Cruz musicians, who would be featured on KCRW programming. However, there would be less local programming as a whole, most of it on weekends.
KCRW has already expanded its reach by rebroadcasting its Santa Monica-based shows to stations in Indio/Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Oxnard/Ventura and Mojave/Antelope Valley, creating a mega-station down south.
When asked about the possible merger here, KCRW station manager Jennifer Ferro was curt.
“I don’t think there’s anything to say about that,” she declared before referring the Good Times back to Green.
“The Community Advisory Board meets every three months, and because the next meeting wouldn’t be until June, I wanted them to have an idea of what one scenario would look like, to seek their input,” says Green. “There is no deal.”
KUSP: A History
“Most of this is conjecture and opinion,” begins Charlie Lange, co-host of KUSP’s Soul Shack. “So if you use anything, I’d like that to be the clear.”
He sounds frustrated. Lange has spent the last 38 years helping to build the station’s audience and maintain its independent status with a local focus.
“Because I’ve had this unique historical perspective, I’m pissed about it,” Lange says of the KCRW proposal. “Many of my cohorts, other people who have been involved in the station for decades, have given up and said, ‘Ah, we’re just old. This is just the way it is. Nobody listens to it.’ But I heard a talk from the guy who started KUSP and it really fired my brain, again, that this is a viable format.”
That man is David Freedman.
In 1972, Freedman was a Stanford graduate with revolutionary ideas working for KTAO, out of Los Gatos. The owner was a man named Lorenzo Milam (known as the Johnny Appleseed of community radio, with more than 14 startups under his belt), who had written a book called Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting Community Radio Stations.
“It had nothing to do with sex,” remembers Freedman. “But he said he’d get 1,000 more listeners and 100 more buyers [with the name].”
Armed with the idea that radio should be organic, commercial-free and represent the audience it’s broadcasting to, they assembled any volunteers they could to build the dream on no money.
“I put the station on the air for $600,” Freedman says. “It was only 10 watts and the signal only traveled six blocks or so.”
Throughout the 1970s, KUSP would struggle financially but steadily continued, and even grew, through creative programming that many modern day podcasters would approve of, like putting the soundboard in the back of Lange’s VW Bus and broadcasting live from local concerts.
Over the years, however, the station’s format began to change. First, in the 1980s, when the board (on which Lange was an active member for this decision) voted to broadcast NPR to finance locally produced programs, and later as the NPR format expanded throughout the schedule, cutting many of those same programs.
“Then, by the mid-2000s,” explains Green, “media consumption was changing and the rate of growth of our NPR audience was slowing down.”
“The real issue was when KAZU (90.3 FM, public radio from the CSU Monterey Bay campus) decided to go head-to-head with KUSP with the NPR format,” says ex-programmer KUSP Rachel Goodman. The Peabody Award-winning journalist was with the station for almost 13 years, as a host of the news show Talk of the Bay and the live music show Coast Ridge Ramble.
“As [KUSP] became more and more worried about its bottom line, it kept adding NPR programming to help fund its underwriting,” she says. “And NPR is not cheap.”
The station spent $135,000 for the NPR content, according to its 2014 annual report. It raised $551,000 from listeners in 2014, up from $435,000 the previous year, for a $1 million income with underwriting and grants. But it operates at about a $200,000 loss—nowhere near sustainable.
It spent $634,225 on programming and production, up $54,000 from the previous year. It cut $17,000 for a broadcast budget of $77,136 and added $15,000 to management and general expenses, for $208,419 for the year.
It spends $68,000 a year to lease its offices and another $13,000 a year to lease transmitters at Mount Toro and the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. And it paid $405,000 in salaries last year; up almost $40,000 from the year before.
“KUSP is a precious community resource,” Goodman says. “With KUSP and KAZU competing by airing identical programs from NPR, local news and public affairs coverage has suffered. To make good decisions about land use or water or fire emergencies, we need local media that is responsive to its listeners … I would be very skeptical of any deal that doesn’t increase local programming and retain some sort of local control and accountability.”
Yet, not everyone sees KUSP’s current identity crisis as entirely its own doing.
“I don’t know what ‘community radio’ means anymore,” ruminates Johnny Simmons. Simmons was with KUSP from October 1980 until last month, and most recently was heard as KUSP host of Morning Edition. “Everything is everywhere. People don’t want a record show anymore. They want what they want and can download it onto their iPad. It’s a changed world.”
Still, Freedman mourns the proposed merger.
“When you implant a piece of Los Angeles [Santa Monica] into Santa Cruz, you’re losing a place for Santa Cruz. However, people have to care. If you don’t care, you lose it. It’s just like freedom, which is why we started KUSP in the first place: to give people the freedom of choice.”
PHOTO: Will Santa Cruz’s KUSP be a new home for ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ host Jason Bentley?