In January 2011, local radio listeners were shocked when the University of San Francisco’s radio station, KUSF, abruptly went off the air, midday, in the middle of a show. It had just been sold to a Southern California radio network.
At the time, it was widely assumed that even though college radio lovers around the country howled, the Federal Communications Commission would approve the sale. The federal agency rarely blocks such transfers.
But 16 months after KUSF was sold, the FCC still has not signed off.
“It’s extremely unusual,” said Michael Couzens, an Oakland-based communications lawyer and former FCC staffer. “The mentality of the staff is shaped by the fact that commercial entities lose their financing if they dink and dunk around for months and years.”
The FCC declined to comment, besides acknowledging that the case was still under review. There is no deadline for issuing a ruling.
The radio network KUSC, based at the University of Southern California, bought KUSF for $3.75 million and replaced it with a San Francisco classical music station. Besides the sale itself, the FCC might be weighing some larger issues.
Last summer, in response to a petition filed by Friends of KUSF, a group that has raised money to fight the sale, the FCC wrote a letter to USC and University of San Francisco officials asking pointed questions about many details of the sale – particularly, the operating agreement that governed how the station works while waiting on FCC approval. University officials responded with hundreds of pages of e-mails and other correspondence related to the sale.
The FCC has not commented on the documents it received in response to its letter.
The FCC’s silence has bolstered Friends of KUSF, which hopes the commission calls for hearings to debate current regulation regarding noncommercial radio. The sale of KUSF is only one of many college radio station sales over the past few years, as cash-strapped colleges now see a revenue opportunity by selling their licenses.
To those working to halt the sale of KUSF, the sale of community radio stations to classical or religious networks (the primary buyers) presents a grave threat to the radio ecosystem.
“No news is still good news,” said Kenya Lewis, a volunteer for Save KUSF, another group working to keep the station alive. “It speaks to the complexity of the issues raised.”
For the San Francisco classical station KDFC – which was facing closure as a commercial property – the fact that USF wanted to sell its license was a positive thing. In almost every big commercial radio market, classical stations have either shifted to a nonprofit fundraising model or have died all together, leaving local classical fans, as well as institutions like the symphony and opera, without a powerful outlet.
But while the deal remains unconsummated, federal rules prohibit KDFC from conducting on-air pledge drives – a huge loss as it attempts to remake itself as a nonprofit.
“The KUSF delay has definitely impacted us, and we hope the FCC will come to a decision soon,” said Brenda Barnes, president of KUSC, which owns most of the San Francisco classical station. “The primary impact is that we have not been able to fundraise on the station.”
For now, fans of both KUSF and KDFC can only watch and wait. However, Couzens said the “train wreck” of bad publicity and legal arguments engendered by the shuttering of KUSF already represents a win for those seeking to stave off further college radio station sales.
“I’m optimistic that the KUSF brouhaha will make some other university licensees think long and hard before going down this path,” he said. “Even if the transfer is finally approved, they’ve done a great thing.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.