The Story Behind the KUSF Shut Down

Listeners to lauded college radio station KUSF were in for a shock on January 18, 2011, when the station’s FM broadcast abruptly turned to static during the Greek composer Vangelis’ piece “L ‘Apocalypse des Animaux”.

At 10am, University of San Francisco (USF) shut down the transmitter for 34-year-old college radio station KUSF without warning during the middle of a volunteer DJ’s show. A band waiting to appear on the show (Pickpocket Ensemble) was sent home, the locks on the station doors were changed, and KUSF volunteers were escorted out. By 5pm, music from San Francisco’s classical station KDFC was heard emanating from KUSF’s airwaves at 90.3 FM. In their official statement, USF noted that they would be moving KUSF to an online-only format.

In the days and weeks following the sudden shutdown details have emerged about the complex deal that has resulted in Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN) taking control of KUSF’s broadcast. Owned by University of Southern California (USC) and Public Radio Capital, CPRN has filed paperwork with the FCC in order to purchase KUSF’s license and transmitter, as well as the license and transmitter for religious radio station KNDL (located north of San Francisco). With these two purchases they are starting up a classical public radio group in the San Francisco Bay Area and are airing programming from KDFC. Up until these programming changes happened, KDFC was a commercial classical station owned by radio broadcasting conglomerate Entercom. After being approached by CPRN, Entercom agreed to relinquish its KDFC brand in order to use its frequency for more lucrative commercial programming. Currently they are airing a simulcast of recently purchased rock station KUFX on KDFC’s old frequency of 102.1 FM.

While radio business types slapped backs over the creativity of the deal and USC proclaimed that it was “preserving” classical radio in the San Francisco Bay Area; KUSF volunteers, listeners, and supporters expressed immediate outrage over the loss of the station. A quickly organized meeting with the President of USF on the day after the shutdown drew over 500 attendees. A ‘SAVE KUSF’ page was created on Facebook and within a month it had more than 7400 fans.

Although similar college radio station shutdowns have happened in the past decade at Johns Hopkins University (WJHU), Kilgore College (KTPB), St. Olaf College (WCAL), Texas Tech University (KTXT), and Augustana College (KAUR), most of these sales (or transfers of control) have gone unnoticed outside of their respective communities.

In the past year, however, that’s changed as the well-publicized pending sale of Rice University station KTRU and the rumored sell-off of Vanderbilt University station WRVU have garnered national press. As a New York Times piece in December 2010 pointed out, in each of these instances universities cite funding crises and declining student interest in radio as rationale for eliminating college radio stations.

At University of San Francisco it’s a similar story, with President Father Privett arguing that the school no longer wants to be in the business of running a radio station that primarily serves the outside community of San Francisco, rather than students at USF. At the January 19, 2011, meeting with KUSF supporters, Father Privett stated, “So, from my perspective, this was a radio station that was housed at the University. It wasn’t integral to the educational mission of the University. It was important to the community. I don’t know how realistic it is to expect the University to continue to fund an institution or an operation whose primary benefit is to the community.” But, what Father Privett probably didn’t anticipate was the formidable set of opponents to the sale. During KUSF’s 34-year history, DJs and volunteers at the station forged deep connections within the San Francisco arts, music, and cultural communities. As word spread of the station’s sudden shutdown, offers of help came in from politicians, musicians, other radio stations, and from community organizations that realized the loss of KUSF would be devastating.

San Francisco is a city that embraces independent media and the arts, so a wide range of constituents immediately spoke out against the sale. The San Francisco Democratic Party, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, California State Senator Leland Yee, California State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and the USF Faculty Association all released statements opposing the sale.

Many argued that KUSF was a station that represented the city of San Francisco in a much broader way than any other radio station on the airwaves. In addition to their new music programs, KUSF also aired specialty music shows (including classical music and live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera), a substantial amount of cultural programming in up to 12 different languages, as well as public affairs programs like Disability and Senior News Report.

Yet, what was perhaps KUSF’s Achilles heel was its perceived disconnection from its own university. Although KUSF volunteers said that in recent years more students have gotten involved with the station, Father Privett has argued that the station only served a small number of students. At the both the January 19 meeting and a “Teach-in for KUSF 90.3 FM” on February 28, students, faculty and alumni refuted that claim, speaking to the numerous opportunities for students at KUSF and to the strong educational role played by the station. One former USF student and KUSF volunteer Bobby Lee said, “I started at USF as a finance major and I left with a finance degree, but KUSF helped ignite my passion in media and broadcasting. So to say that students don’t take advantage of it is simply untrue.” Another USF Media Studies graduate said that the “real world experience” at KUSF helped her after graduation and added, “It’s a real tragedy that future students won’t have this opportunity.” Other students spoke about the ways in which community DJs taught and mentored students at KUSF. Current USF student and KUSF volunteer (in charge of student recruitment) Chad Heimann pointed out, “Since I’ve been with KUSF for three and a half years… I know for a fact as just a student and just a collective of students, we can’t do this without the community.”

In 2006 there were rumors that University of San Francisco was looking to sell off KUSF. Although this didn’t come to fruition at the time, a group of volunteers who had already been concerned about the future of the station formally came together as the group ‘Friends of KUSF.’ According to former KUSF volunteer Josh Wilson, they “tried to engage with USF to enter a discussion in which they could ask for first right of refusal in case of a sale attempt. This included official, formal outreach to then-Dean of Arts and Sciences Jennifer Turpin” as recently as February 2010. Despite their expressed concern about the future of KUSF, Friends of KUSF did not hear back from Dean Turpin and by the spring of 2010 Classical Public Radio Network has indicated that they began talks with USF regarding a purchase of the station. Although they weren’t initially approached by USF, a big goal of the current Save KUSF initiative is to halt the proposed station sale to CPRN in order to give the community of San Francisco an opportunity to buy the station and preserve it as a community radio station.

At this stage of the fight to Save KUSF, lawyers have been hired and an official “Petition to Deny” USC’s application to purchase KUSF has been sent to the FCC. Fundraising has begun and a grassroots national publicity campaign is heating up. On Friday, February 18, an ambitious live multi-station broadcast featuring six KUSF DJs took place at Amoeba Music in San Francisco. Hosted by freeform community radio station WFMU, the simulcast quickly drew in 15 like-minded college and community radio stations from all over the United States, including San Francisco Bay area stations KZSU (Stanford University), KFJC (Foothill College), KALX (University of California, Berkeley) and KSCU (Santa Clara University), all of which could be potential purchase targets, as Classical Public Radio Network has stated that they are actively looking for additional radio stations to buy in order to increase its coverage south and east of San Francisco.

Beyond the Bay Area stations participating in the simulcast, Los Angeles stations KXLU (Loyola Marymount University) and KXSC (University of Southern California) joined in, as well as KXYC (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), WREK (Georgia Tech University), KDVS (University of California, Davis), WITC (Cazenovia College, NY), KVRX (University of Texas, Austin), WCBN (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), KRFP (Radio Free Moscow in Moscow, Idaho), and (the post-KUSF shutdown, online-only station that’s just being conceptualized at University of San Francisco). The event ended up being a historic show of solidarity among college and community radio stations as it brought more attention to not only the situation at KUSF, but also to the larger trend of radio conglomerates actively shopping for non-commercial radio licenses.

As a college radio DJ, fan, and San Francisco resident, it’s been amazing for me to watch how both the local and national independent radio community have come together to help spread the word about the current threat to college radio.

And what is that threat? It’s easy to demonize University of San Francisco for making a greedy decision and for not providing KUSF’s volunteer DJs with an opportunity to buy the station. It’s also easy to cast aspersions at University of Southern California for funding the deal that may kill KUSF. As paperwork is scrutinized and dots are connected, many are also pointing fingers at Public Radio Capital and the radio brokers who go out and arrange these deals. And there’s frustration that the FCC will most likely approve this sale, as their post — Telecommunications Act of 1996 policies have facilitated rampant consolidation in the radio industry (which until recently wasn’t as prevalent on the non-commercial side of the dial).

So, the situation at KUSF is not just a story about fighting the loss of an independent media outlet; it’s also a cautionary tale for every college radio station. To that end, WFMU General Manager Ken Freedman came out to San Francisco to meet with Save KUSF volunteers in order to offer advice about fighting a station sale and also to share how he was able to successfully transition WFMU from a college radio station to an independent community radio station. To help raise awareness about recent station sales, he’s also moderating the panel How to Save College Radio” at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 19.

Representatives from both KUSF and KTRU will take part in the panel discussion in the hopes that they can spread the word about the accelerating pace of college radio station sales and help prevent the sell-off of even more stations. In the meantime, KUSF volunteers are tirelessly fighting their own station sale and are looking forward to a future when they can be back on the air again.