As the battle to save KUSF continues, why doesn't SF have an awesome radio station?
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?"
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. Wire, Ringo Death Starr, and Mountain emanate from the on-air DJ booth, as students prep the day's newscast and a volunteer readies a public-affairs show. "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."
DREAMING IN STEREO
There are still people willing to put imagination — and money — behind their radio dreams. But free-form has come to sound risky after the rise of KSAN and FM radio and the subsequent streamlining and mainstreaming of the format.
Author and journalist Ben Fong-Torres, who once oversaw a KUSF show devoted to KSAN jocks, cites the LGBT-friendly, dance-music-focused KNGY 92.7 as a recent example of investors willing to try out a "restricted" format. "They were a good solid city station that sounded quite loose," he explains. "But even there they weren't able to sell much advertising because they were limited to the demographic in San Francisco and they couldn't make enough to pay their debts."
Nonetheless, Fong-Torres continues to be approached by radio lovers eager to start a great music station. "I've told them what I'm telling you," he 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.
"There are some dreamers out there who think about it," muses Fong-Torres. "A single person who's willing to bankroll a station just out of the goodness of his or her heart and let people spread good music — someone like Paul Allen, who did KEXP in Seattle."