A confused, saddened crowd of about 200 San Franciscans emerged from the darkness of the Richmond district Jan. 20 to gather in an auditorium on the campus of the University of San Francisco. Silently filling the hall, they clutched signs reading “Mozart, my ass!” and “We want our rock and roll back!”
As soon as USF President Father Stephen Privett entered the packed auditorium, the crowd erupted. “Shame on USF! Shame on USF!”
The school had just finished the secret, $3.75 million sale of its 38-year-old KUSF radio station’s 90.3 FM frequency. Earlier that week, lawyers and police had forced staff from the studio and locked them out, stunning thousands of students who were away on break as well as faculty, fans and community volunteers.
As former station employees wept, Privett said he could only stay for two hours due to a funeral appointment the following morning. “This is a funeral right now!” someone shouted.
Actually, it was more like a wake. In a complicated three-way transaction, San Francisco’s only college radio station had died the day before to make way for a new home for the classical station KDFC. Meanwhile, KDFC’s move made room for a simulcast of classic rock from KUFX (98.5 FM) San Jose. The loss of the local station is generating ongoing protest, as well as another round of hand-wringing over the death of diversity on the dial.
Father Privett noted that colleges across the country are selling their stations. “I think people are angry because of the larger context of what’s going on,” he said.
And that larger context is that, as education budgets come under scrutiny across the country, an increasing number of college radio stations are likely to seek refuge on the web. While other Bay Area college radio stations still exist, it’s the end of an era nationwide, as venerable music outlets such as Vanderbilt University’s WRVU are currently threatened with sale.
College radio first became commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s. Staffed by students and community volunteers, the commercial-free stations became known for their eclectic mix of intercollegiate sports, educational programming, local news and music. College radio nurtured “college rock,” a genre of programming that became known as alternative rock as it took over the mainstream music market in the 1990s.
The license for KUSF (90.3 FM) was donated to the school in 1973. The station went on to win more than a dozen local and national awards for its unique community programming, live coverage of USF sports, and the underground punk sounds of the San Francisco music scene. KUSF shows came in 14 languages, with a show in Cantonese following the new music hour each week.
“We’ve lost this big source of cultural information and entertainment,” said Josh Prentiss, a Richmond resident and KUSF donor. “It expanded my musical tastes and my cultural knowledge because it played all these different types of music you normally don’t hear on regular radio stations. We treasured it. I listened every morning for 20 years, and the exciting thing about it was you never knew what you were going to hear.”
KUSF counted among its fans members of Metallica, who enjoyed the iconic KUSF show “Rampage Radio.” In 2008, KUSF debuted never-before-heard Metallica demos featuring ex-member Dave Mustaine circa 1983.
“There’s a huge number of musicians that are not aware [the sale] has even happened,” Prentiss said. “To some of them, $3.75 million would have been nothing.”
An estimated 50 students interned each semester at KUSF amid hundreds of local volunteers. It didn’t draw a large number of kids, said Dorothy Kidd, USF media professor and community radio expert, but “a lot of the best students worked there.” On-the-job training often led to internships with record labels and careers.
But Kidd said there are few real-world broadcasting jobs for KUSF radio students to train for any more.
“I tell my kids, teaching commercial broadcasting in today’s world not only violates the principles of a Jesuit university, but any university,” she said.
Although KUSF will continue online, Kidd said the fractured Web cannot replace the unity a local FM signal provides.
“We will lose the face-to-face interaction, the solidarity that allows people to reach across conflict,” she said.
Still, KUSF has had an online presence for several years, and Kidd said it will now bolster its online resources to support thousands of listeners at once, up from the hundreds who can currently listen.
Perhaps the most successful online stations are hybrids like the free-form WFMU (91.1 FM), based in New Jersey and broadcasting to New York City. Station staff bought the license from Upsala College in 1995 and began streaming live to the Web in 2006. With a listener-funded annual budget of $1.2 million, it’s become a cultural powerhouse often referred to in the New York press as “the best radio station in the country.”
“The homeless guy in the ’Loin, he’s not streaming us on his Mac laptop,” said former KUSF DJ Alex Stack. “He’s got a $5 radio. It’s that connection to the community that is lost.”
KUSF’s hybrid FM-online model — stoked by its many community partners — was the future of radio, and that’s now gone.
“KUSF was doing something way ahead of its time,” Kidd said.
KUSF joins a crowded ecosystem this year as it transitions from a hybrid AM-FM and online station to an Internet-only format. Web radio expands by the day, and there’s no shortage of weird community content to contend with.
While Internet stations number in the thousands, Emeryville’s Pandora has become dominant. Edison Research reported in September that Pandora is so good at DJing the computers and smart phones of 12- to 24-year-olds that it makes up 20 percent of all its music streaming. Reuters reports that the company will seek a $100 million initial public stock offering this year. Pandora had no comment.
Rusty Hodge, longtime Internet DJ and founder of SomaFM, says he’s seen steady growth in both listenership and revenue, especially since Net radio appears on more noncomputer devices like the Roku for TVs.
“The long-anticipated boom in net radio is here,” Hodge said. “I was having a discussion with a big KUSF fan who said, ‘Their loss is your win.’ And I kind of felt guilty, but yeah, it is. People who are looking for that kind of content have been forced to look other places.”
Youth still like terrestrial radio, but they’re being pulled toward TV and the Internet. Edison Research has warned broadcasters to “claim Internet radio or lose it. … Send more stations after these demos or watch them fade away.”
More than two-thirds of radio listeners do so in their car. With Pandora and other Web radio services rolling out across vehicle fleets this year, the Pew Project for Excellence states, “Not only would wider choice impact what people listen to, but it also could greatly affect advertising.”
Terrestrial radio isn’t taking such changes laying down, though, said Edison vice president Jason Hollins.
About 750 major broadcasters have signed up to be a part of Clear Channel’s new streaming radio app IHeartRadio, which has been downloaded more than 10 million times. And San Francisco’s Live 105 KITS (105.3 FM), owned by CBS, has gone to No. 1 in its key demographic by using Jelli — a Web service that turns a radio station’s on-air playlist into a live, social network game.
— David Downs
College radio still has a foothold, but signals in The City can be weak.
KZSC (88.1 FM)
UC Santa Cruz Noncommercial public interest radio featuring a variety of genres, public affairs and sports
KFJC (89.7 FM)
News, music and information unavailable elsewhere
KZSU (90.1 FM)
News and public affairs, events and live music, and sports from eight Stanford teams
KALX (90.7 FM)
Free-form radio 24 hours a day featuring underground music, news, sports and information
KCSM (91.1 FM)
College of San Mateo
Nonstudent-managed 24-hour jazz station with an audience of more than 200,000
KSCU (103.3 FM)
Santa Clara University
Eclectic, student-run station that bills itself as “the Underground Sound”
Web radio has a growing hold on young listeners.
Personalized Internet radio from Emeryville.
24/7 new indie with a Friday live show from award-winning DJ Ted Leibowitz.
18 channels of electronic music from Rusty Hodge and crew, who’ve been around since the last tech bubble.
The Bay Bridged
Local indie blog with weekly podcasts and live audio.
Pirate Cat Radio
Fined $10,000 and kicked off the air last year, this pirate community radio station got a legal signal at KPDO (89.3 FM) in Pescadero.
The online stream of a new pirate radio station in the Mission illegally broadcasting on 87.9 FM — for now.