KCSM deal heralds broadcast’s downfall

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Death awaits the San Mateo public television station that broadcasts programming you can’t find anywhere else — such as travelogues set on the Skunk Train and “fun films” about a charismatic old person. And according to the station’s operators at the San Mateo County Community College District, few will mourn its demise.

“For the last three years it was taking $1 million a year out of our general fund,” said district spokeswoman Barbara Christensen, who characterizes the station as more of an albatross than a community asset.

Roughly four years ago, the district began a study of the station and found that it was creating huge deficits at a time when the community college was already hobbled by budget cuts. At one point, 14 students were enrolled in the broadcast program, she recalled. It’s been at a relative stalemate.

In 2011, the San Mateo County Community College District put out its first request for proposals in the hope of selling KCSM, which ultimately didn’t pan out. It revised the solicitation a year later after hearing that the Federal Communications Commission wanted to auction the station’s spectrum rights.

Of the four bidders who responded, a wireless communications company called LocusPoint Networks offered the best deal, according to station manager Marilyn Lawrence. LocusPoint would enter a partnership with KCSM and pay $900,000 a year to keep the station running until the auction happens. It also would act as a consultant to help maximize the sale and ultimately reap about a one-third of the profits. The rest would go to the community college system.

That rankled Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of the media advocacy group Media Alliance, who objected both to the station’s imminent death and to LocusPoint’s ties to a hedge fund called Black Stone, which, she says, has “malignant effects” on local economies. But Lawrence says romantic ideas of keeping public television alive just aren’t viable. The station received bids from a few nonprofit entities that wanted to keep its broadcast waves running, but none of them could sustain the cost of operations. One bidder, The Oriental Culture and Media Center of Southern California, offered just $1, she said.

In fact, KCSM is part of a much larger battle over who controls the limited amount of bandwidth available to broadcast media. Right now the FCC wants to transfer big swaths of it over to wireless companies to meet the demand from smartphones and iPads. It’s a classic tale of new technology cannibalizing older forms, and even commercial stations are facing obsolescence, Lawrence says.

“They’re gonna go from 30-something stations in the Bay Area to about 20,” she explained, “so lack of diversity may [become] apparent.”

KCSM is probably the saddest symbol of this trend. It’s a last bastion of unbiased public broadcasting, with a small delegation of letter-writers and emailers making most of the programming decisions.

The shows that get the best ratings — among them a program called “Sit and Be Fit,” and another dedicated to quilting — are likely indicative of the viewership demographic.

Lawrence says the station has struggled to justify its costs for the entire 17 years that she’s worked there, and the conversations got more heated after it stopped broadcasting college course material in 2001. Still, she’s not thrilled to see it go.
 

rswan@sfexaminer.com

Sf.correx.0531

EDITOR'S NOTE

An earlier version of this story was accompanied by a photograph of KCSM radio station, which had nothing to with this story. The radio station is unaffected by KCSM’s sale of broadcast spectrum.

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