After 16 Months, FCC Approves Sale of KUSF
Statement from the University of San Francisco:
The Federal Communications Commission today approved the sale of radio station KUSF to Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN). The sale will be finalized immediately.
A consent decree between the FCC, the University of San Francisco and CPRN allowed the sale to move forward. The FCC did not object to CPRN broadcasting on 90.3 while the sale was pending, but found that CPRN’s payments to USF (similar to rent) under the Public Service Operating Agreement violated a Commission rule.
“The sale provides the University of San Francisco with funds that will directly benefit our students, and support our mission of offering an outstanding education in the Jesuit Catholic tradition,” said Gary McDonald, associate vice president of communications. “We are pleased that the FCC has completed its review in a manner that allows the sale to close and for USF to focus on its core mission of education and service.”
Here’s the FCC statement, which says that “USF and CPRN will collectively make a $50,000 voluntary contribution to the United States Treasury” because of its violation of the agency’s rules.
Just last week, the Bay Citizen reported that FCC approval of the $3.75 million sale was taking unusually long. KUSF and CPRN inked the deal in January, 2011.
“It’s extremely unusual,” Michael Couzens, an Oakland-based communications lawyer and former FCC staffer told the Citizen. “The mentality of the staff is shaped by the fact that commercial entities lose their financing if they dink and dunk around for months and years.”
The sale was part of a complicated series of transactions that shook up the radio dial in the Bay Area last year. The KUSF deal set off vociferous 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 awaited FCC approval. In February, 2011, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging USF to back out of the deal.
KUSF had been part of the Bay Area radio landscape since 1963 and an important student-run college radio station since 1977, when it began broadcasting on 90.3 FM. The station’s free-form, esoteric programming attracted many loyal listeners.
The KUSF sale is part of a trend in which universities have sold off their radio stations. At the time of the sale, KQED’s Nina Thorsen talked to former KUSF Music Director Irwin Swirnoff about why he thought college radio was important. Here’s what he said:
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.
USF, for its part, has pointed to KUSF’s continuing as an online radio station. And classical music fans have been able to listen to their genre of choice on KDFC 90.3.
Update 2:23 p.m. I talked to Irwin Swirnoff, who was a music director at KUSF before the sale and who’s been active in KUSF-in-Exile, where he continues to host his old Friday show.
“It’s very disheartening,” Swirnoff said about today’s announcement. “I think that the slap on the wrist [the FCC] gave the parties in the deal – fining them $50,000 – was not what should have happened. What the FCC approved is something that’s really scary and really bad for the future of true local community radio.”
Nevertheless, Swirnoff said, the protest to save KUSF was worth it. “The parties involved really thought this was going to be a slam dunk and we showed them otherwise. I think also in other cities where this might be happening, the parties involved in these kind of deals will have to think twice now because these actions aren’t going unnoticed. There’s a community that’s been formed throughout the country that’s banded together to really fight for and protect local college and community radio.”
Swirnoff says listenership to the online version of the old KUSF — which he says still has about 70 percent of the former staff involved — is much smaller than it was over-the-air. “People still listen to terrestrial radio in much larger numbers than they do to online radio. Having true community radio on the terrestrial dial in San Francisco is really important and right now, in the way the dials are in the city, there’s not a lot of options for true community radio to get back on.”
Swirnoff also accused the university of being disingenuous when it said the following in a press release, titled “KUSF Moves to Online Only Format,” after the sale:
The move to online-only distribution gives KUSF a powerful opportunity to grow its worldwide audience. Previously, the station was limited to 100 online listeners at a time, but capacity will be increased to accommodate thousands of listeners.
“They never launched their promised online manifestation,” Swirnoff said. “It’s essentially an iPod that’s on shuffle right now – literally an iPod playing pre-programmed songs. They tore down the studio so there was actually no physical space on campus for there to be a station. I know that has been really frustrating for a lot of faculty and a lot of students at USF.”
Anne-Marie Devine, Director of Media Relations for USF, responded to that accusation in an email:
“Despite the University’s efforts to support KUSF.org, there has been little interest on the part of the student body, and we will continue to assess that in the aftermath of the sale.”