Santa Cruz’s local public radio station KUSP-FM at 88.9 on the dial is heading down a short runway toward a big cliff.

That’s how treasurer John Morrison described the station’s plight Monday night at the Aptos Community Services Center to a heated audience of 75 people including volunteers, staff members, board members and the community.

With more than $700,000 in debt and a license and signal valued at about $1 million, Morrison advised the Board to vote to negotiate with a public radio classical music conglomerate to sell the signal to them, which they did after almost four hours of discussion.

But it came with a pinch of hope. If the public came up with money to cut the debt or another plan to keep the programming local, they could pull out of a deal with the University of Southern California-based Classical Public Radio Network, which now broadcasts classical music on San Francisco’s KDFC-FM at 104.9 FM and at other stations down the coast.

“I just don’t want to see the control go out of the community,” says Rachel Goodman, the former host on the show “Talk of the Bay,” who, like a large number of loyal volunteers was let go when the station focused more on buying programming from National Public Radio.

“I didn’t even know this was a local station,” says one man who was attending his first board meeting after hearing about the possible loss on one of Goodman’s appearances on commercial talk radio station KSCO-AM at 1080 on the dial. “I only heard NPR national programs.”

That was the rub for management, who found in surveys that listeners contributed as much as $500,000 a year to the station, most of it during telethon breaks during NPR shows, according to the board’s director Kelly O’Brien.  Local shows fizzled out, and the board claims they were too expensive to produce, even though hosts were mostly volunteers.

The station paid $500,000 annually in salaries, $100,000 of which went to consultants and engineers. It paid more than $200,000 annually to NPR, although it has been in arrears on those payments.

“You should tell them that KKUP in Cupertino has been running for 45 years without paying a programmer,” another former host, “Sleepy” John Sandidge, said outside the meeting.

He, Goodman and others would like to see the station return to community broadcasts.

KUSP is hemmed-in by Cal State Monterey’s KAZU-FM at 90.3, which also broadcasts NPR programs and offers almost no student programming. Deals to work with them have failed, managers say. That station also offers lower prices to its sponsors, competing heavily against the Santa Cruz signal.

Many in the audience were shocked by the fact that they didn’t know about the dire situation until they read it in newspapers. Good Times had reported on its talks with Los Angeles station KCRW, which fell through.

O’Brien told them the board thought their message was clear that they needed money during fundraisers and they “didn’t want to cry wolf” by broadcasting their problems. They hoped to erase the debt by merging with another station.

“We would have helped,” one woman told them. “We would have contributed more here and less to other places.”

Morrison suggested that if the sale goes through, the station will keep the KUSP call letters and record library and would have cash left over to possibly buy a smaller Santa Cruz signal based in Felton.

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