Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Radio Station Field Trip 30 - KCNL, KSJO, and KLOK in San Jose

Outside KLOK, KCNL, KSJO headquarters in San Jose
(All photos by Jennifer Waits)

Back in February I received an email with an intriguing offer of internships for college students interested in working in radio. The attached flyer stated,  

"Hey radio junkies! Want to host your own radio show? Buzz Radio FM is looking for new DJ’s in San Jose! No experience needed. Pick and choose your own style of music, program, and/or show. Reserve your preferred time slot NOW! For as little as $30 per hour!" 

It turned out that the station, Buzz FM, was affiliated with commercial radio station KCNL 104.9 FM in San Jose. With my curiosity piqued by this offer, I scheduled a visit to KCNL to learn more about their radio operations and to find out how college radio DJs could get on the air at their station. 

On the afternoon of February 21, 2012, I trekked down to the San Jose headquarters for commercial radio station KCNL and its sister stations KLOK and KSJO. The non-nondescript mid-20th century building housing the stations is located in the historic KLOK building in southeast San Jose. Adjacent to the building is a large field containing radio equipment, satellite dishes, and towers, with a view of the nearby foothills. 

A 25th anniversary plaque from 1971 at the entrance to the building reads, "On October 13, 1946 E.L. Barker, founder of KLOK radio began his 'birth of a station.' The first broadcast on 1170 KCS was with a 5kw signal for daytime only." According to the plaque, Barker sold KLOK to Davis Broadcasting in 1967 and in 1969, "KLOK radio became the most powerful standard broadcasting station in the entire Santa Clara County with a signal increase to 50kw daytime."

Today, KCNL, KLOK (still at 1170 AM), and KSJO (92.3 FM) are owned by Principle Broadcasting Network, a "portfolio holding company" for Mercury Capital Partners. Principle bought these three stations between 2009 and 2011 and according to the Mercury Capital Partners website, the stations are run using a "ethnic brokered time business model." Through this model, they lease out airtime to "various ethnic groups who have traditionally been disenfranchised from gaining access to the kinds of mainstream media broadcast properties which Principle owns." Currently they lease airtime on KCNL to the Hispanic community, rent airtime on KSJO to the Chinese community, and sell airtime on KLOK to the Asian Indian community.

Buzz FM Studio at KCNL
(Photo: J. Waits)

In addition to leasing airtime over traditional FM and AM airwaves, Principle has also been establishing separate radio brands on various HD channels. As it turns out, Buzz FM, which initially had led me to visit KCNL, is a new project over KCNL 104.9 FM's HD3 channel. While Buzz FM awaits programmers, its HD channel and website currently airs a mix of automated music ranging from the Beatles to the Cure to Johnny Cash. 

When I visited in February, I was told that it was a brand new project that had only really started two weeks before I stopped by. At that point it hadn't been promoted or marketed and its sole program was hosted by a member of their station staff. That show, "The Weekend Show" aired on Sunday nights beginning back in December, 2011 and by mid-February there had been 8 episodes of the male-oriented talk show. When I checked this week, the Weekend Show website was no longer available. 

In addition to Buzz FM, KCNL also utilizes a second HD channel, HD2, for S*ALT (aka Save Alternative). This alternative rock format also airs over KCNL's regular 104.9 FM signal on Saturday and Sunday nights and is available online 24/7. Prior to the launch of Chinese programming on KSJO, Save Alternative briefly aired over 92.3 FM. 

Messages from KCNL Guests and Hosts in Hallway at Station
(Photo: J. Waits)

The remainder of the KCNL schedule, under the brand iFM, is made up of Spanish language talk shows and music programming, including bilingual alternative rock. According to Principle's Local Sales Manager Manuel Rojas, "the community" is on the air at KCNL, including "the guy next door and his business." Brokered shows on KCNL include a range of programs including specific shows focused on health, religion, and music.

In terms of the current programming on KSJO 92.3 FM goes, it's comprised of brokered Chinese language programming over the regular FM channel under the brand China 92.3 FM. The format change to Chinese-language programming began in 2011 after Principle purchased KSJO from Clear Channel. The schedule today is made up of talk (including one show hosted by a man who one DJ at KSJO characterized as the "Larry King of the Chinese community"), music, news, and entertainment shows in Cantonese and Mandarin. During periods when the airwaves are not leased out, they play a mix of automated Chinese music programming. 


On KSJO's HD2 channel they broadcast technology-themed talk shows and techno music under the brand 24/7 Tech Radio. A message on the KSJO website also invites interested parties to get involved with the new channel, stating, "Universal Media Access is in the process of developing a 24/7 Tech Channel. If you are interested in being part of this project, send us an e-mail..." Not much content is available on the 24/7 Tech Channel website, but 4 episodes of September broadcasts of the program "Tracking the Tech Revolution," are available to listeners. It's unclear from the schedule if there are regular talk shows airing right now.

Principle's purchase of KLOK from Univision was completed in 2009. Today the 50,000 watt AM station broadcasts Asian Indian brokered programming under the brand Desi 1170 after launching with an all-music format. Shows range from talk shows hosted by members of the community (including shows dealing with law, mortgages, wellness, and money management), a Christian show, and a range of programs from the entertainment network Radio De' Hotties. When there isn't a live or brokered show, KLOK plays contemporary Indian music across a variety of genres. Desi 1170 is also simulcast into New York City.

As I toured around the offices for each station, I also noticed some of the things that were missing. There is no physical music library at any of the stations, although I was told that Principle did acquire some vinyl records from Clear Channel as part of their purchase. That material is in storage. DJs at various stations do bring in physical music from time to time, but Rojas said that it is mostly used as background music since the traditional AM and FM stations are mostly talk. I did see CD players and even a turntable (at Buzz FM), so DJs and hosts certainly do have the ability to play physical music if they desire.

Less than 6 weeks after my visit, word came out that Principle would be selling KCNL to University of Southern California (USC) for use in their network of classical radio stations as another outlet for broadcasting KDFC (which currently airs over the former college radio station KUSF as well as over 2 additional signals in the North and South Bay Area). In light of this pending station ownership transfer, the future KCNL's HD programs (Buzz FM and Save Alternative) is a bit unclear at the moment.

According to Brad Behnke, COO of Principle, Save Alternative (S*ALT) "will continue as an Internet operation." He told me that they are "still studying Buzz" to see if it will continue online or over another HD channel. In any event, the brokered Spanish language programming on KCNL will end by the time that the FCC approves the license transfer, if not sooner. 

Although a local marketing agreement (which would allow USC to rent the KCNL airwaves in advance of FCC approval of the license transfer) was included with the FCC paperwork regarding the sale, Behnke says that the timing of the beginning of classical programming over KCNL "depends on when the FCC grants the license transfer." When I asked Brenda Barnes, President of USC Radio, about the timing of the start of classical music programming over KCNL she said, "We haven't determined that yet." As far as whether or not this sale might have implications for Principle's other properties of KLOK and KSJO, Behnke said, "remains to be seen."

In the weeks to come we will probably learn more about what the future holds for KCNL and its related brands in light of its pending sale to USC. I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to visit this commercial radio station group in advance of these upcoming changes. Thanks to Rojas and everyone else at Principle for giving me a glimpse into their intriguing group of commercial radio stations.

See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.