Wednesday, January 19, 2011

KUSF Taken off the Air Without Warning and Replaced with Classical Station

 Irwin Swirnoff, a KUSF Music Director, in the KUSF Library Back in 2009

Around 12:00 noon yesterday I got an email titled "Upsetting News about KUSF" from one of my fellow DJs at KFJC. It's the kind of email that you dread seeing in your inbox and after diving into its contents, I was shocked to see what I was reading. I am a KUSF listener, have profiled the station on this blog for my radio station field trip series, and have rhapsodized about one of their shows ("Radiodrome"), calling it one of my favorite radio shows ever. In a weird twist of fate, it turns out that KUSF went off the air during my favorite radio show yesterday and the DJs had no idea what was coming.

Throughout the day more and more details came to light, making me feel even more troubled about the loss of a great college radio station from the San Francisco airwaves.

So, here's what happened:

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011:

9:00 am: The General Manager and Program Director of KUSF were called into the Dean's office and told that KUSF was sold effective 10am

10:00 am: KUSF signal goes to static, as the transmitter is turned off. The on-air KUSF DJ's show is cut short and he has to cancel a scheduled live performance by the band The Pickpocket Ensemble

11:52 am: KUSF tweets: "ATTENTION: USF just sold KUSF! #WTF we're off the air. we need your help. Impromptu demonstration on the USF campus tomorrow at 7"

11:58 am: tweets: "Just showed up @ to my show and the doors are locked. USF has sold the station. Management was in on it. They're keeping all our records."

Around the same time, University of San Francisco released a statement that they planned to sell the station to Classical Public Radio Network, a public radio group owned by University of Southern California (apparently replacing the old, now defunct online-only Classical Public Radio Network).  The press release stated that KUSF will transition to an online-only station effective immediately and will be able to retain its call letters.

It wasn't until later in the day that the entire picture was revealed. A press release from around 3:30pm announced that commercial classical radio station KDFC was going to be moving to KUSF's 90.3 FM frequency as part of a complicated deal involved both commercial and non-commercial radio stations. According to the release:

"...The University of Southern California (USC) today announced it has entered into an agreement with Entercom Communications to convert KDFC into a non-commercial classical music station based in San Francisco. In keeping with Entercom Communications' commitment to classical radio, the company has entrusted the stewardship of the new, noncommercial KDFC Radio to a new nonprofit company based in San Francisco, commencing on January 18...

The new station will use the call letters KDFC, the area's former commercial classical outlet since 1947, the result of a series of transactions involving several radio owners in the region. The new KDFC will broadcast over the two non-commercial signals, 90.3 and 89.9...USC has purchased the rights to 90.3 KUSF, from the University of San Francisco and 89.9 KNDL from Howell Mountain Broadcasting Company. KUSF will continue online as a webcast station."

When I tuned in to 90.3 FM at 5:15pm yesterday it was already airing programming from KDFC. The DJ announced that the station was excited about their new "commercial-free" status and that they would officially be moving to 90.3 and 89.9 FM on Monday, January 24 at 12 noon. The KDFC website also eagerly announced this move (the station was formerly on the commercial band at 102.1 FM) and encouraged supporters to donate to the new "listener-supported" station.

Since KUSF staffers and DJs were taken by surprise, they are still trying to make sense of the situation. Several of them attempted to get answers from University of San Francisco's Director of Business and Finance Charlie Cross. A video recounts their encounter at his office, as he rebuffs them and asks for security to be called:

KUSF listeners and staff are peeved about this and have already started sending letters to the administration expressing their displeasure. In her tongue-in-cheek letter to USF President Stephen A. Privett, Julia Mazawa writes, 

"The University's dedication to service to the community, promotion of critical inquiry, and promotion of cultural diversity is no better exemplified than in its recent sale of KUSF's FM frequency. And it has been the acme of deft public relations to boot!

USF clearly demonstrates the need to prioritize service to its amazingly diverse local community, San Francisco, by pulling the plug on the terrestrial signal of the highly-regarded station KUSF. Now, thankfully, there will be no more Chinese Star Radio clogging the airwaves with its foreign chatter, no more Radio Goethe bumming out the lower end of the dial with that bizarre German music, no more In the Soul Kitchen filling the airwaves with the soul classics that were actually interesting, and THANK JESUS there will finally be an end to that intolerable New Music programming that wasted valuable airtime with its nonsensical notions about what exactly constitutes music.

Thank you, USF, for ridding the airwaves of those crazy deejays who challenged the San Francisco community to invest a couple brain cells into actually thinking about the media fed to them. Thank you, you sons of bitches who now find yourselves $3.75 million richer, for replacing this needlessly challenging and frighteningly novel programming with tepid classical swill. Your selfless service to the community awes me...."

Amazingly, USF President Privett responded to Julia's email:

"Dear Ms. Mazzawa(sic),

Thank you for your letter of support. Your understanding that our students’(sic) do not pay their rather high tuition to subsidize providing alternate music for the outside community is not widely shared by ...those who disagree with my decision. I further appreciate your understanding that a university's first responsibility is to its faculty and students, not to the community-at-large. Yours is a conviction that is not shared by those who believe that USF should first and foremost serve those whose contributions have never covered the cost of delivering the service they enjoy at the expense of USF students and their families. Finally, I applaud your support for USF’s primary mission: the education of its students and not serving as an entertainment resource for the outside community, no matter how valuable or important that service may be. Would that more people had your wisdom, insight and appreciation for the role of a university.

Warmest regards,

Stephen A. Privett, SJ

KUSF supporters will be rallying on the University of San Francisco campus on Wednesday night around 7pm at Fromm Hall. Unfortunately Stephen Privett is not expected to show up at the meeting to discuss the future of KUSF. No doubt his inbox will still be flooded.

Although Twitter and Facebook have been buzzing with this news all day and local media outlets (especially indie media) have been doing a great job of covering the situation at KUSF, supporters are just getting a Save KUSF page set up on Facebook and a Save KUSF blog set up online.

Another opportunity to join in the discussion will happen on the San Francisco public radio airwaves on Wednesday morning. One of KUSF's Music Directors, Irwin Swirnoff, will be appearing on the KQED radio call in talk-show Forum to discuss the situation at 9am on Wednesday the 19th.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Radio Station Field Trip 25 - WZBC at Boston College

When we were gearing up for a family vacation out to Boston last summer I knew that a visit to the Boston College radio station WZBC had to be on the top of my to-do list. It had been 2 years since I'd been to the area and on my last visit I became enamored with WZBC while flipping through the dial in our rental car. I vividly remember sitting in the car late at night on a freezing cold winter evening because I was enjoying the music so much that I wanted to hear the end of a track and catch the DJ's back announce. That's dedication to a station!

Part of what lured me to WZBC was that their air sound reminded me a lot of KFJC, the station where I've been DJing for over a decade. And, the more I dived into WZBC's programming philosophy, the more I realized that the two stations really are kindred spirits. Located at 90.3 FM in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, WZBC prides itself on its devotion to experimental music with "no commercial potential" (aka NCP).

 View of WZBC from its lobby

Radio began at Boston College 50 years ago, with the launch of AM carrier current station WVBC in 1960. In 1973 they became the licensed FM radio station WZBC and operated at a mere 9 watts for their first year, moving up to 1000 watts (where the station remains today) the following year. In addition to the FM signal, WZBC also continues to operate the former WVBC as an online-only station (which also airs on a Boston College cable channel) that serves as a training ground for new DJs.

 WZBC DJs from Days Gone By

I visited WZBC on the afternoon of Monday, August 30th, 2010 as summer break was drawing to a close at Boston College. Program Director Gavin Frome and Operations Director Megan Pietruszka were my guides and made me feel incredibly welcome at their college radio station

WZBC has inhabited its current location on the Boston College campus for 30 years and the station has the cozy feel of a place that's been well-loved for decades. It's housed in a building with a dining hall, bookstore, and extracurricular offices; so the station is near a hub of activity on campus. Within the station, walls are covered with stickers and posters and every nook and cranny seems to be filled with music. The spacious lobby is covered with pop culture gems (and, of course, a couch) and there's even a skeleton that looks down on new visitors as they enter the station. If you keep an eye out, you might also see a collection of tiny Care Bears perched on ledges in various parts of the station.

The 1980s marked a major shift for WZBC, as the station moved towards a format of "modern rock" and experimental music. Today the station airs rock music on weekdays from 7am to 5pm and is focused on music with "no commercial potential" on weeknights from 7pm until 1am or later. Specialty programming inhabits weekend slots and early evening slots (5-7pm) on weekdays and includes a range of shows including "Sunday Morning Country," "Oscillator Drift" (early electronic, '60s moog, tape experiments, etc.), "Raggamuffin International" (reggae, ska, dance hall), "Industrial Factory" (industrial electronic music), and "Mass Ave and Beyond" (local music).

Cassettes at WZBC

In addition to music, WZBC airs news, public affairs, and sports programming (including broadcasts of live games). Shows include the WZBC-produced "Truth and Justice Radio" and the syndicated "Democracy Now."

I was happy to hear that WZBC only utilizes live DJs and doesn't currently play any automated programming. Unfortunately that also means that when there is no live DJ (typically starting between 1am to 3am and ending between 6am and 7am), they shut down the station's transmitter. Gavin told me that there are "ambitious DJs" who will take on graveyard shifts and that quite often the station is on the air all night on weekends.

The station is run entirely by students, but has a mix of community and student DJs, with a 50/50 split between the two during the school year. I was told that most of the "non-commercial potential" shows are hosted by non-students, which is a nice indication of the experimental-leaning tendencies of their community DJs. According to Gavin, it's many of the community DJs who "push us musically."

And, in fact, I was told that the non-commercial potential format is actually a bit challenging for some students with its range of sounds (Gavin described some of the sounds as "drone, ambient, pigeon calls, etc."), so WZBC works with them to help pass along the station tradition of more experimental music. To that end, all students joining the station begin with an internship in order to get oriented to station rules and the music philosophy.

Community DJs are expected to come in with prior music knowledge and are able to submit proposals for air shifts in the Fall and Spring semesters. One long-time community DJ at WZBC is Victor Robert Venckus, host of "Expanding Awareness" for 35 years. I remember catching his Saturday morning show on a drive in Boston a few years ago and being mesmerized by the mix of music, spiritualism, and spoken word.

DJs at WZBC have a lot of freedom on their shows and don't have any requirements in terms of percentage of new music that they have to play. There is a "new music" bin in the studio containing material added in the past 3 months, but it's just there to encourage DJs to play some recent material. Additionally, genre rules aren't hard and fast, so DJs often play music outside of the stated genre of their program. For example, "rock" DJs are free to play music from the "non-commercial potential" library.

 Some of the "No Commercial Potential" (NCP) Vinyl at WZBC

WZBC continues to add vinyl to their large music library. DJs are able to play vinyl, tapes, and CDs over the air. Apparently it wasn't until recently that WZBC got rid of their 8-track player. Despite the vast library, I was told that most younger DJs at WZBC prefer to play music off of CDs, iPods or a computer and are less likely to explore the vinyl stacks.

Although WZBC is focused on physical music and don't really add anything digitally (they will occasionally burn a digital release to a CD to add it to the station), Gavin and Megan admitted that space is a big issue at WZBC. They are running out of space for music and are researching ways to start digitizing their library. Music does get removed from the library when artists get too big, but I was told that those decisions about what should be removed are often controversial amongst DJs

WZBC Program Director Gavin Frome

Thanks so much to everyone at WZBC (especially Gavin and Megan) for showing me around their incredible college radio station. I had a hard time leaving the place because it felt and sounded like home.

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco
Radio Station Field Trip 18 - Flirt FM in Galway, Ireland
Radio Station Field Trip 19 - RXP 101.9 FM in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 20- WGBK at Glenbrook South High School
Radio Station Field Trip 21 - KPDO in Pescadero, California 
Radio Station Field Trip 22 - KZYX in Philo, California 
Radio Station Field Trip 23 - San Francisco's Pirate Cat Radio
Radio Station Field Trip 10.5 - KSCU's New Digs at Santa Clara University (2010)
Radio Station Field Trip 24 - Radio Valencia in San Francisco