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USC And Entercom’s Gambit: The Dark Side Of ‘Preserving Classical Music’ In San Francisco

Russell Newman, Andrew Schrock, and Kevin Driscoll |
January 26, 2011 | 1:29 p.m. PST


In today’s highly consolidated media environment, independent content and community involvement are rare on radio. (Photo by Alex Yorke, Creative Commons)
In today’s highly consolidated media environment, independent content and community involvement are rare on radio. (Photo by Alex Yorke, Creative Commons)
The University of Southern California has announced that it will ‘preserve classical music in San Francisco’ via the purchase of the rights to broadcast there at 90.3 FM and 89.9 FM. The deal, however, is a travesty.

For decades, 90.3 has been the home of the award-winning, University of San Francisco-operated community station KUSF-FM. In an arrangement negotiated behind closed doors between USC, the University of San Francisco, and Entercom - one of the five largest radio station owners in the country - the station was torn from the airwaves last week. Volunteers arrived to find the station behind lock and key; others reported being treated like criminals as they were ushered out in a state of surprise. Preserving classical music from afar should not come at the expense of the cultural and musical communities that are now losing a key hub.

The details are even shadier. In 2008, Entercom purchased San Francisco’s 102.1 FM KDFC-FM, one of the last commercial classical stations in the US. Having recently acquired San Jose’s classic-rock KUFX (relaunched as KFOX this month), they likely sought a way to change from classical to a more profitable format with minimal public relations damage. Via an apparent ‘content swap,’ USC Radio provided a way to do so.

USC would take control of KDFC, change the commercial station into a nonprofit entity, and retain its name and staff. Entercom does not budge: it now uses its valuable slot at 102.1 FM to rebroadcast its San Jose-based classic rock programming to San Francisco, becoming, in their words, a “nine county rock dominator.” Rebroadcasting one’s own content is a great way to cut costs, here coupled with the higher ad revenues the new format would bring. USC Radio would need to find a different home on the dial for its new enterprise, hence the purchase of 90.3. (USC also purchased 89.9 FM from Christian broadcaster Howell Mountain Broadcasting.) USC is reported to have spent $3.75 million to complete the transaction.

Why do this? USC Radio president Brenda Barnes told the Daily Trojan, “USC wanted to have a more tangible presence in an area that is so important for alumni and perspective students.” This effort carries heavy collateral damage. The first opportunity for KUSF’s audience to respond – which they did in droves, emphatically opposing the sale of their station – was at a public meeting January 19, 2011, after the station’s closing.

In today’s highly consolidated media environment, independent content and community involvement are rare on radio. KUSF-FM provided both. Educational stations licensed by the FCC decades ago, now increasingly and shortsightedly sold by their home institutions for a quick windfall, are one of the few ways marginalized voices and content can reach the broadest audience. They are not mere “teaching laboratories” for students considering broadcast careers: they have become vitally important institutions in themselves, taking chances on perspectives and content not otherwise carried by commercial media and NPR.

While the University of San Francisco plans to move KUSF to an online-only format, it’s difficult to imagine that a web-only presence will offer the same experience or the same positive benefit. It will be incapable of reaching less affluent residents. Broadcast radio is still the most powerful medium going today: the high price tag paid by USC makes this very clear.

Surely it is possible for USC Radio to achieve its goals without assisting one of the largest broadcasters in the country to fatten its bottom line, all at the expense of a valuable, cherished and genuinely local San Francisco voice. With such voices coming under threat across the country, our role should be to support them, not bury them. The Federal Communications Commission must still approve this transaction. There is still time to change course.



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