KUSF is sold out from under its volunteers, and local communities are left reeling
NEWS/MUSIC/CULTURE Anyone who entered University of San Francisco's Presentation Hall the night of Jan.19 was confronted by the signs — literal and figurative — of a participatory approach to media. A sizable number of the almost 500 people packed into the site for a public meeting to discuss the abrupt sale of KUSF were carrying cameras. Other brandished signs, with slogans running the gamut from pointedly angry ("KUSF is Our Radio"; "Shame on USF") to comic ("Suck It").
The scene was a public meeting to discuss KUSF. In a matter of hours the previous morning, the station had gone from a left-of-the-dial college station of 34 years with deep and numerous local community connections, to an online-only operation, its frequency now owned by the USC-affiliated Classical Public Radio Network.
The atmosphere itself was contemporary political — and perhaps religious — theater brought to life, a loud embodiment of scripted and spontaneous dissent regarding education, the changing face and nature of radio and media, and cultural shifts in San Francisco. Before the event got underway, chants of "Community" broke out, and KUSF music director Irwin Swirnoff addressed the crowd in an attempt to ensure the venue's balcony was opened up to people still left outside. As USF faculty arranged a pair of podiums on stage, a call-of-response of "What do we want? Noise rock! When do we want it? Now!" briefly went up from the back of the hall.
Father Stephen A. Privett, the president of the Jesuit university,soon stepped into view, taking a place behind a stage-right podium at some distance from the audience. "Thank you for being here with me this evening," Privett began, before leading those assembled (or some of them) in prayer. "It's very clear to me that there is justifiable anger with the decision I made. I don't anticipate or expect you to agree with me."
The decision Privett referred to and sometimes took full responsibility for was the choice to sell KUSF to CPRN, a move that, brokered by Greg Guy of Patrick Communications, came cloaked in a nondisclosure agreement. He was correct to not expect approval. Privett's initial statement contextualized the $3.8 million sale of the station within his responsibility to provide a "quality education" for USF's students, only a small percentage of which he felt were engaged with the station. "We teach broadcasting, we aren't fundamentally a radio station," Privett said of USF, in one of many assertions that drew jeers from some of the crowd.
The floor was then opened to questions from those assembled, as a school representative kept hold of the microphone. Linda Champagne, a KUSF DJ, was first to speak, holding back emotion as she told Privett that the sale of the station "should have been handled better." Dorothy Kidd, a media studies professor, wanted to know why the decision took place while USF was on break, and the school's faculty and students weren't notified. "If the station is to be a teaching facility, why is the first time I learned about this decision last night?," she asked Privett to roaring applause. "I am a teacher, [and] there are a lot of faculty members who are angry you made that agreement."
KUSF's sudden disappearance from the airwaves has left a void in its wake, and a wide variety of questions and contradictions swirl within it. It's clear that Classical Public Radio Network is "flipping" KUSF's former frequency, 90.3, to the classical music station KDFC (formerly on 102.1 FM), shifting KDFC to noncommercial status. But while USF's Privett claimed that he accepted "the first offer that came across [his] desk" and had not actively put KUSF on the market, on the Jan. 19 installment of KQED's Forum, CPRN Managing Director Brenda Barnes asserted that the company only solicited radio stations that were for sale.
One avenue for those protesting the sale of KUSF is to take their case to the FCC, while another is to increase scrutiny of USC's role. Nikk Fell, a DJ on KUSF's "Liquid Konspiracy," sees hope in the fact that the FCC has not yet approved KUSF's sale. "The FCC has not received the contract yet," he says. "We think we have a chance to change the decision, and that's one of our plans right now."
"I was on a street law program the other day and there was talk about pursuing an injunction," says attorney and former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. "Jello Biafra also had an interesting idea — he thought the pressure should be put on USC."
USC's involvement in the purchase of KUSF is one of a number of recent acquisition moves by USC within the radio marketplace. It left KUSF a casualty of a growing related trend, in which commercial classical musical stations are being shifted to nonprofit public radio status — thanks in part to USC, a college station that broadcast many languages and musical genres (including classical) and foregrounded local music was booted off the dial and replaced by KDFC's uniformly classical programming. "Every major city has at least one college station," observes Krystal Chambers, who co-DJed "Liquid Konspiracy" with Fell. "Cleveland has four college stations and L.A. has three. For San Francisco to have no station is a travesty. We felt the voice of San Francisco was sold to a Southern California conglomerate. They have four other stations — why do they need us?"
The sudden erasure of KUSF — which had strong ties to the local music scene and related venues and businesses, as well as sponsored events such as Rock 'n' Swap — has cultural repercussions on a local and broader scale. "It's going to have a huge impact," Carolyn Keddy, who DJed at KUSF and volunteered for the station for 20 years, says. "So many voices were silenced. It isn't just about the change of format and the loss of programming." According to Keddy, who managed KUSF's website until she was suddenly denied access to it on the morning of Jan. 18, the university's abrupt sale and closure of the on-campus station was akin to saying, "Thanks for making us look good and doing all that work for us. Now get the hell out of here."
Of course, KUSF's former staff and volunteers are not going away quietly. Initially, Privett had not planned on attending the Jan. 19 meeting regarding KUSF's sale, but the immediate media response and subsequent public outcry changed at least that decision on his part. The sale of KUSF cuts to the heart of disputes about outside corporate influences on the local media landscape, and more directly about San Francisco itself: what the city represents, and its changing — more generic and corporate? — public identity. Three of its call letters may have been shared with the university, but KUSF didn't have that name for nothing. It was a musical nexus for the city, and in the musician community, a bridge to and from San Francisco and the rest of the world.
"Takeovers like this seem all too common in our greedy little country, but I can't accept the fact that they're trying to do this in San Francisco," says Howard Ryan, a.k.a. DJ Schmeejay, who was kicked off the air without an opportunity to sign off when the station was locked down by campus police on Jan. 18. "This city sets the example. This city doesn't take shit lying down. I'm trusting that the citizens, the Board of Supervisors, and support from the international community will stop the sale from going through and we can return [the station] to the airwaves where it belongs."
Ryan, Keddy, Hardwick, Edna Barron, and others who had volunteered at KUSF agree that the online-only version of KUSF will bear little resemblance to the station that had been on the radio. "I want to clear up the myth about the online fate of the station," says Barron, a.k.a dj nobody. "It will not include any aspect of the community. Father Privett made it abundantly clear during the [Jan. 19] meeting that the online station will only be open to training students."
A week after KUSF went off the airwaves, it's fair to say that the covert way in which the change went down has resulted in an overt and spreading reaction. Besides local and national media coverage in mainstream and independent outlets, as of Jan. 24, close to 6,000 people had joined a "Save KUSF" page on Facebook. Other sites, including www.savekusf.org , have also been started in response to the sale.
One of the more interesting and in-depth responses is an open letter to Privett published by the veteran East Coast-based music magazine and website The Big Takeover. The author of the letter, local musician Chris Stroffolino, begins by praising Privett's and USF's rescue efforts during the Salvadorean war, before delving into questions regarding USF possible redistribution of funds from the sale. "Even in 2010," Stroffolino writes, "the medium of radio has a power that cannot be denied, a power in bringing people together even when apart."
It's one irony of recent times that the actual sale of KUSF made this power physically tangible, in events such as the Jan. 19 meeting. Stroffolino's letter looks to a 1932 essay by Bertolt Brecht to illustrate what distinguished KUSF's public, participatory nature from that of ordinary radio stations, and the dilemma those involved in the station face today. "Radio is one-sided when it should be two," Brecht wrote. "It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. [Radio should] step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction."
In talking with some of KUSF's DJs for this piece, it seemed worthwhile to ask what song they would have signed off with to comment on the sale, had they been given the opportunity. Barron chose "The Boiler" by the Specials, while Hardwick and Fell mentioned "Generika," a song by their space rock band Galaxy Chamber. "I would play Bad Brains' "Pay to Cum"," Keddy said, going on to recite a lyric: "And all of this time, with just our minds, we soon will find, what's left behind."
Ryan, who was in the studio when KUSF was taken off the air, had another perspective. "My last two songs were Bobby Goldsboro's "Danny is a Mirror to Me" — he turned 70 that day — and Vangelis Papathanissiou's "Apocalypse des Animaux," he said. "Maybe two of the saddest songs I've ever played on [the program] Radiodrome. I've thought a lot about what I would have played had I known what was happening. I don't think I'd want to change a thing."
Addititional writing and reporting by Carly Nairn.