Quirky, loud and unpredictable, college radio has dwelt for a half-century at the left of the dial, a youthful counterpart to public radio. The genre seeded protest in the ’70s and launched the careers of U2 and R.E.M. in the ’80s, but now finds itself under siege. Over the past decade, the economics of radio have pushed more than a dozen major stations off the airwaves.
One by one, universities are selling off stations to raise cash. FM licenses in major markets are worth millions. Recent sales include KUSF at the University of San Francisco, KTRU at Rice University in Houston and WXEL at Barry University in Miami.
The January sale of KUSF to the Classical Public Radio Network, just one transaction in a multi-station radio shake-up of the Bay Area dial, set off strenuous protests by the station's staff and fans. Many of the DJs and programmers moved to the online-only KUSF in Exile (listen here), an effort to keep the music playing while KUSF's sale of its license awaits FCC approval. From the San Francisco Chronicle last month:
Eight months after the deal that moved KDFC from 102.1 to 90.3 FM, which long had been home to iconic college station KUSF, the sale is still awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval. The delay may be due, at least in part, to the protests that began soon after KUSF was unplugged.
KQED's Nina Thorsen spoke yesterday with KUSF Music Director Irwin Swirnoff, who online deejays the sa,e Friday morning show he did when the station was heard on the radio. Swirnoff talked about the current effort by KUSF supporters to get the FCC to hold public hearings on the sale and why he thinks it's so important to preserve college radio in a community.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview...
What's the current status of KUSF?
We launched KUSF in Exile while we wait for and continue to work on getting this proposed sale of KUSF stopped. It's still not been finalized by the FCC. We've been successful in delaying the finalization of the sale, and we've been happy to see that the FCC is paying close attention to it. They're investigating the sale, they sent letters of inquiry to USF and the buyer, and we're hopeful that we have a chance to get public hearings on this matter.
What would be the time frame of that?
When you're dealing with the FCC, the time frame is always anybody's guess. We're hoping that before year's end, the FCC would either grant public hearings or make a decision one way or the other. We know that they're taking their time with all of the inquiries they asked for and are going through the responses. It could be November or December or it could go into next year.
And while this is happening you've got KUSF in Exile broadcasting online…
Yes. That came out of this really amazing moment that's come out of the tragedy that happened to KUSF and other college radio stations, where the stations are forming close bonds and unifying. WFMU on the east coast, for instance, stepped forward to host our stream, and we've experienced this camaraderie with stations around the country. This culminated with WFMU coming to town in Feburary, and we webcast live out of Amoeba (the record store in the Mission) on 15 stations around the country. That was the launch of KUSF in Exile.
Talk about philosophically why you think a college should have a radio station.
I think a college with a licensed radio station has a unique opportunity to link the university into the city in which its participating and engaging with. At KUSF that's exactly what was happening. We had programming in 12 different languages, really unique and forward thinking music programming. This allowed student and faculty to engage with what's happening on campus but make those connections throughout the city.
What we're ultimately fighting is not so much USF deciding it wants to sell the station, but shutting out the community that ran the station and doing it behind our backs and not allowing the community and students and faculty to come together and raise the money to buy the transmitter.
We think the station is an asset that provides the ability to attract new students and to use it as a living laboratory, so that you're no longer just talking about ideas but you're actually putting them into action and producing shows that connect directly with what you're learning in the classroom.
Are there people who were listening to the broadcast who aren't able to do it online?
Yes. We're treating KUSF online as a reminder of why we want to get back on the terrestrial dial, because it absolutely isn't the same. I hear from many listeners throughout the city that it was a big part of their being in the car, driving to work, or provided a communal experience for their household. We're losing a lot of that now. We're losing people who work outdoors and listen to the radio.
The Internet isn't free and not everybody has access to it. A lot of the shows that were really popular on KUSF definitely had an audience that was listening on the radio. So we're having not the same kind of interaction from our listenership.
It speaks to the magic of radio that you can be somewhere in your day and a DJ, often a student, is orchestrating a set of music that then connects to you and speaks to you in that moment.
What about the effect of music services like Spotify and Pandora?
A human DJ with a lot of passion is able to connect dots that go through eras and go through socio-political movements. So you can connect how 50s blues speaks to 90s hip hop and how early folk music has a similar spirit to the origins of early disco in terms of disco being a folk music for the queer community.
I think that those are only things that a DJ behind the booth has the ability to do. It's the curatorial hand of a DJ that's so important, because it brings that very human level to it and makes connections that aren't just purely aesthetical but are also speaking to how music is an ongoing language.
So you can play early classical music alongside early electronic music, for instance. I think what often happens is that we all become very compartmentalized in the way we think not only about music but about everything. So things become "24 hour classical," we put things in ghettoes instead of realizing they actually have a larger life than we often give them credit for.
We're excited that the fight to save KUSF is still very much alive and about the support we've gotten from the city and the community at large, and we're not going to stop fighting because we think that maintaining this sort of community radio in San Francisco is essential.
For a different perspective, way back in January KQED's Cy Musiker interviewed KDFC Music Director Rik Malone. KDFC took over KUSF's 90.3 spot on the dial, and Malone talked about the boon the sale would be for classical music listeners in San Francisco. You can listen to that interview here.