KUSP-FM board recommends sale as station cuts entire staff

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The board of directors of KUSP in Santa Cruz, Calif., is recommending a sale of the station’s license after a fundraising campaign for its survival fell short.

KUSP’s entire staff of about five full-time employees will be laid off Friday, according to General Manager Bonnie Primbsch, who will be among those dismissed. The station’s regular programming will end at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, when it will switch to airing an automated playlist of Triple A music.

The station’s license is held by the nonprofit Pataphysical Broadcasting Foundation. Foundation members — consisting of about 90 active station volunteers and “lifetime members” — will vote at their annual meeting at 6 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday on whether the station’s license should be sold.

KUSP has been looking for ways to shore up its finances as it labors under debt amounting to around $700,000. Last year, it was considering a sale to the San Francisco–based Classical Public Radio Network. But KUSP received “miracle money” that provided a temporary reprieve, Primbsch said.

The station switched to a Triple A music format Nov. 1 in an effort to differentiate its programming from that of KAZU in nearby Pacific Grove, Calif. (The station had explored a possible merger with KAZU in 2008.) But the format switch wasn’t enough to help KUSP reach a goal of $300,000 in its most recent fundraiser. It was able to raise only about one-third of that goal, the station announced Sunday.

KUSP’s board is now recommending selling “the Foundation’s license and all substantial assets to a CPB-qualified buyer,” according to a letter to foundation members,

“The Board’s primary goal in this effort is to acknowledge that we cannot operate the station successfully in the current radio environment,” the letter said. “A sale would allow the station to pay down or off the Foundation’s debt and other obligations. The Board unanimously supports this course of action.”

“Should the Foundation reject this recommendation, we are not certain how the Board can pursue any other path than receivership or bankruptcy,” the letter said.

KUSP’s board is required to get approval from foundation members to sell.

However members vote, a paid station manager will be hired to keep the station running to meet FCC requirements with the help of board members, Primbsch said.

Too little, too late

KUSP was moving in a positive direction with the format change, Primbsch said, but its debt burden didn’t afford the station enough time to stay afloat.

Switching to music programming caused KUSP to lose some listeners who tuned in for news, she said, but the station was starting to draw a younger, more diverse audience. “People are hungry” for Triple A music, said Primbsch, who added that she would advise other struggling public radio stations to experiment with the format if they are competing with NPR stations in their markets.

But the new format didn’t generate income quickly enough to prolong KUSP’s life. “We started something really, really promising, and the timing’s just all messed up,” Primbsch said.

Primbsch said KUSP board members hope that “larger investors” might still intervene to save the station but that such a rescue is unlikely.

A new nonprofit, the Monterey Bay Regional Radio Trust, has presented an offer to KUSP’s board, according to founder Ed Porter. “I expect more reaction and comments soon,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that the KUSP board does not require approval from foundation members to move forward with a sale. It does require approval. This post has also been updated to reflect that a paid station manager will be hired to work at KUSP after the current staff is laid off.

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  • photoglyph

    The legacy of Terry Green… didn’t they have a development or foundation director?

    • AC Smith

      While it may seem appealing to make Terry Green “the bad guy”, I suggest the bulk of the responsibility lies with a feckless Board of Directors who failed to make the hard choices and careful decisions needed to keep the operation viable. And save a bit of your scorn for NPR, and its decision to undercut KUSP by licensing a second affiliate in a market barely large enough to sustain support for a single network affiliate.

      • NPR will sell programming to whomever wants to buy it, so I don’t see that they’re at all to blame here. It’s up to stations, not NPR, to choose programming that makes them viable.

        • AC Smith

          Most of my experience has been in commercial broadcasting, where networks (and their affiliates) jealousy protect “territories”. It just makes economic sense, for national broadcasters and local stations, to maintain exclusive market rights rather than creating a situation in which small players find themselves in head to head competition for pieces of a finite audience “pie”.
          I defer to your apparent deeper understanding of best practices in the public radio sector, my direct experience on the “left side of the dial” is limited to my employment at KUSP over the past few years.
          But if you are correct, I am frankly stunned and would respectfully suggest that’s a strategy that executives at corporate should seriously rethink.

          • MarkJeffries

            But that’s how things are done at public media. As far as I know, the only public radio programming that’s sold on an exclusive-per-market basis is “Prairie Home Companion” and Garrison Kellior’s daily insert “Writer’s Almanac”–and I suspect that APM will be taking “PHC” off of the exclusive basis if the station lineup is going to drop after Kellior’s retirement.

          • Brad Deltan

            NPR does not limit who can license its programming in any given market. PRI does, and to some extent APM does, too. But NPR does not. It’s not in their mission to do so; in most markets where there are two competing NPR stations, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They actually get more overall listeners as a result. And it’s not in their financial interest to do it, either, the more stations airing NPR content, the more revenue NPR gets.

            Non-Commercial/Educational (NCE) radio stations are “hampered” by FCC rules about NCE licenses; they cannot sell airtime for more than the cost of operations. That means they can’t legally acquire programming for “free” in exchange for a guarantee that they will broadcast the national commercials embedded in the content. That’s the usual way most national commercial radio content works, and that’s why there’s market exclusivity clauses in most commercial radio contracts. The stations want listeners coming to them and them alone, and they have the legal freedom to demand that. Public radio stations, which by NPR Member Station Agreements MUST operate as NCE licenses (even if they broadcast on a commercial frequency, they must re-license with the FCC as a NCE), don’t have that leverage. That’s why they must pay NPR for their content.

            FWIW, I agree that it’s a bad system. NPR should allow market exclusivity at least to some degree. But at this point you’ve got too many major players where enforcing exclusivity would cause huge problems, like WBUR and WGBH, KPCC and KCRW, etc, and quite a lot of medium-sized markets where it’d be a problem, too (Rochester and Syracuse come to mind, as do Vermont/New Hampshire/Maine, Providence/Boston, Seattle/Tacoma, California’s Central Coast, etc).

            From what I’ve heard Terry Green isn’t really the locus of responsibility here, either. I suppose as the GM the buck does have to stop with him to some degree, but really the problem is the culture of the California Central Coast, where there’s a lot of people who just believe so passionately in things that aren’t true, and haven’t been true since the 1960’s, that it really stymies efforts to make long-overdue changes until it’s too late to fix them. Witness Pacifica Radio, as just one example. And yes, I’d have to wonder an awful lot about Pataphysical’s (KUSP) board. That’s a huge number of stakeholders for an awfully small operation. I can’t imagine what the political infighting must’ve been like.

      • photoglyph

        KPCC and KCRW manage to both serve
        their communities well enough; it cannot just be due to fact that they serve a
        larger metropolitan area. Green holds some responsibility in the matter. He did
        not recognize that KUSP needed to make some changes until it was too late.

        • Brad Deltan

          Yeeeeeeah, that’s not really the best example to make your case with. Los Angeles is the second largest metro in the United States. There’s over 18 *million* people living there. The entire Monterey/Salinas/Santa Cruz market is just shy of 600,000. LA is *thirty times* bigger.

          I can’t and won’t comment about how much responsibility Green has in this situation, not beyond “he’s the GM and therefore, to some degree, the buck had to stop there”.

          But to say that market size wasn’t a factor in two similar pubradio outlets competing for too small an audience is utterly ludicrous. Of course it was a factor.

          • MarkJeffries

            Not to mention a station stuck in a 70s volunteer-driven vibe and unable to climb out and relying on the NPR drive time news shows as their primary means of listener support, despite a number of employees that would’ve wished that they didn’t have to.

          • photoglyph

            Actually, I said (KPCC & KCRW) “it cannot just be due to fact that they serve a
            larger metropolitan area.”

            Read more critically.

  • #KUSPforever!!!

  • Ann Alquist

    It is tempting to point the finger at someone when a station dies, especially a community licensee that isn’t subject to the whims of a university administration. The truth is the structure of non profit organizations make it impossible to pinpoint the cause. Was it a dysfunctional board that stood in the way of a visionary director? Was it an incompetent and/or cautious director who was uncertain about which path to take? Was it a single bad hire, or a series of bad hires, or a good hire that wasn’t harnessed effectively? One thing is for certain: there are only so many missteps a station can absorb before sinking irretrievably into quicksand.

    • Duncan Lively

      @Ann Alquist & @MarkJeffries:disqus — Your astute comments align with my experience at both stations — four years in multiple roles at KUSP, and three years as GM at KAZU between 2005 and 2008 when the stations’ fortunes shifted.

      The unifying thread in the Monterey Bay public radio saga over the past 15 years is not hard to understand. At every critical juncture, decisions were made in both organizations that put parochial interests ahead of public service and sound business practice. An attempt at merger that had the support of local philanthropic interests crashed and burned in early 2008, foiled by a would-be empire-builder VP at Cal State Monterey Bay who exited the scene a couple of years later. At the same time — and with some good reason — CSUMB was leery of Terry Green’s assurances that he could rein in those elements of the KUSP governance and Foundation membership that were trying — and are still trying! — to pull the station back to a media world that no longer exists.

      It’s a study in failed leadership at every level — and the region’s public radio listeners are worse off as a result.

  • Brad Deltan

    IIRC, the famous KRML finally ended its long run as a jazz station not all that long ago. Jazz on the radio is not exactly a highly profitable format but is there sufficient demand for it that KUSP could have (or perhaps still could) have gone all-jazz and survived somehow?

    (note: ordinarily one would think a station abandoning a format makes the format nigh-automatically a bad idea for someone else to pick up…but in KRML’s case at the time it was on a small daytimer AM signal; not a great transmission medium for jazz music these days.) (yes, they have an FM translator now, but I don’t think they did at the time the jazz was dropped)