Thursday, May 25, 2000
It seems like a match made in heaven. A local progressive university welcomes a fiscally flailing public radio station into its fold. In doing so, the university, backed by a financially healthy foundation, ensures the station''s future existence and secures it a permanent place in the community. Moreover, it saves the beloved station from being gobbled up by an out-of-town media conglomerate or--heaven forbid--a Christian broadcasting group.
Why, then, are some long-time volunteer programmers uncomfortable with the impending sale of public radio station KAZU 90.3FM to CSU Monterey Bay? Fear of the unknown.
Despite the KAZU board of director''s spin that the station and CSUMB are "partnering," once the university buys the station''s license, it can do whatever it pleases, including revamping the programming.
That''s a scary thought for some devoted KAZU programmers and listeners. For 22 years, KAZU has survived as an independent public radio station, with programming produced almost exclusively by a corps of 72 local volunteers. Operating with the vision of offering unique, community-based programming, 90.3 is the area''s most diverse frequency on the dial, airing a mix of folk, jazz, blues, world and experimental music, as well as locally produced, issue-oriented talk.
In January, the KAZU board decided to sell the station''s license to the CSUMB foundation. The sale is ultimately the result of a painful, one-two punch the station suffered in 1997. In that year, KAZU endured a devastating fire in its tiny space in downtown Pacific Grove. At the same time, the station lost $70,000--nearly 20 percent of the station''s annual budget--when its Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding was cut.
CSUMB is promising to continue running the station as a "community resource"--that is, KAZU will continue to be a professionally managed organization with community input, as opposed to a student-run station. "It''s not going to become, as some people fear, the university''s internal station," assures CSUMB spokesperson Holly White.
White says there are no specific plans to change programming at this point, nor will there be until after the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) approves the sale. And, she says, the university will retain some of the current boardmembers as station advisors.
Nevertheless, despite CSUMB''s verbal assurances, there are no guarantees programming won''t change. "It''s like when you sell a house, you hope you are selling to someone who''ll love it and keep it up," says JT Mason, programmer and member of the KAZU board. "I believe they''ll be true to their word."
Some station long-timers, who have put many years worth of heart and soul into KAZU, aren''t so sure. Programmers are waiting in limbo to see whether or not the university will wipe out their shows.
"We''d love to cooperate with CSUMB, but they''re taking over this community resource, and we''d like to know what they are doing with it," says 17-year programmer Leslie Shill. "I''d like to see CSUMB make a commitment."
As for whether or not the university will retain the current programmers and five paid staff members, "That''s the decision of the people taking over the station," Mason says.
Some programmers fault the board for not doing their job, a big part of which is to raise funds for the nonprofit station. Selling to CSUMB, they say, is the easy way out for a weary board. "I''m very saddened by [the sale]" says Barbara Smythe, who has aired an opera program on KAZU for 12 years. "I don''t believe it should have happened."
Some former station employess, including former station manager Peter Williams, told the Weekly last year that some of KAZU''s financial problems came in the aftermath of the blaze. The station remodeled and moved into its larger office on Lighthouse Avenue, where it pays twice as much rent as before. Encouraged by the outpouring of public support after the fire, the board overspent and lived off insurance money in hopes that funds would continue to flow from the community, the insiders say. But the additional support never materialized, and pledge drives remained static.
This year, however, the station has enjoyed its most successful pledge drive ever, bringing in $87,000. That, along with a recent unexpected $73,000 grant from the CPB, has some programmers wondering why the sale to CSUMB is even necessary.
While the additional money is helpful, it''s not enough to sustain the station in the long run as it''s currently operated. The sale will go forward as planned, and is expected to be finalized sometime this summer.
Smythe was a key player in an organized effort by the programmers to take over the station and run it on an all-volunteer basis. The proposal was presented to the board last December, along with CSUMB''s offer and offers from public radio stations KQED in San Francisco and KUSP out of Santa Cruz. The programmers hoped to cut costs to keep the station afloat.
However, at the time, the station faced a $120,000 year-end deficit. The board chose CSUMB because it would keep the station local and because the university has the money to make it work. "Our hope is we''ll have more resources to build a strong public radio station and maintain it," says Ken Peterson, KAZU board president.
Boardmembers point out that independent community radio stations are a dying breed, particularly those with eclectic programming. Since national funding for public radio has been slashed, stations across the country have merged with other organizations. Likewise, other nonprofits have chosen to partner to reduce costs. For example, earlier this month, the Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula United Way agencies agreed to pool resources.
"Public stations not associated with NPR [National Public Radio] or a university, they are going under at a record number. Many are selling out to Christian broadcasting. We''re lucky we''ve had offers from other public stations and a university," Mason says. "It''s pretty clear this [trend] is bigger than KAZU."