The end finally arrived at KUSP in Santa Cruz, California. On July 31, 2016 KUSP signed off the air, ending months of angst-filled speculation and years of mismanagement.
According to a press release posted on KUSP’s website, KUSP Board President Matt Farrell, summed it up this way:
“This decision reflects the reality of the station's financial situation; we simply cannot afford to broadcast any longer…"
[You can see the entire press release at link.]
The shutdown came despite a last-minute effort to convert KUSP to a Triple A “music discovery” format. There simply was not enough time for the new format to establish itself.
According to a recent report by the Public Media Company (PMC), KUSP’s debts are over $860,000 and continue to grow every day. KUSP has run out of money [quoting from the PMC report]:
KUSP is financially broke. As of September 28, 2015, the unrestricted cash was zero. This is despite two substantial donations in the last fiscal year that totaled over $250,000.
To pay off the station’s debts, KUSP needs to raise $1.1 million over the next three years, including $350,000 as soon as possible.
That didn’t happen and now KUSP sits silent, waiting for a new owner.
In the 23 months I have been publishing this blog I have written about KUSP over 40 times. I saw the end coming a long time ago but I will not gloat about KUSP’s demise. When I heard the news, my first reaction was sadness because I really, really hoped KUSP would find a way to exist as an independent voice.
Now it is timely to look at lessons learned with hope other stations don’t follow the same path to oblivion.
WHAT WENT WRONG AT KUSP?
1. KUSP USED THE “PACIFICA METHOD” OF GOVERNANCE
KUSP was started by the Pataphysical Broadcasting Foundation, a 501c3 charity set up to create the station. KUSP signed on in 1972. Pataphysical Broadcasting Foundation and KUSP were products of Lorenzo Milam and engineer Jeremy Landsman. The founders of KUSP made certain that “the people ran the station.”
Pataphysical’s bylaws stipulated that in addition to Board members and management key volunteers and employees could nix any changes at the station. Operating the station became a nightmare because even “honorary members” had the right approve or deny changes. Instead of moving forward, KUSP was divided into factions playing out personal agendas. It was death by committee.
It was never clear when a vote required. Under California law, corporate bylaws determine the rules of the road, so KUSP was stuck in the mud. To the best of my knowledge, these bylaws are still in effect today.
2. THE LEADERSHIP OF KUSP DITHERED AWAY CHANCES TO TURN THE STATION AROUND
|KUSP IN HAPPIER DAYS (KION-TV)|
For most of its life, KUSP aired the major NPR News magazines, Pacifica shows such as Democracy Now!, plus a variety of local music and opinion programs. In 2000, a competing station – KAZU, Pacific Grove – emerged and soon began airing NPR News 24/7. From that point on, KUSP played second fiddle to KAZU.
After the rise of KAZU, KUSP became increasingly unsustainable. The red ink slowly increased and the station existed because of cash flow. Debts began to go unpaid. Management at KUSP got worried and decided to act.
In early 2015, Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN), the owners of KUSC, Los Angeles, and KDFC, San Francisco offered to buy KUSP for $1,000,000. Because of the governance system, CPRN turned down CPRN’s offer.
Board members came up with a new scheme to save KUSP. To get the concurrence of the many people who could vote, ideas were solicited for future programming based on tree names. The Board set up scenarios named Pine, Maple, Plum, Fig, Walnut and Elm. The choice would make an Arbor Day speaker proud. But no solution was found. The “tree game” was a waste of precious time and money.
In summer 2015 KUSP seemed to get a lifeline. The Board announced it had received a gift of $100,000 from an anonymous donor. Soon the $100k was gone and KUSP still faced bankruptcy.
On September 3rd, 2015 the Board hired Public Media Company (PMC) to assess the dire situation at the station and make recommendations for the future. PMC’s conclusion was “Get real or go out of business.”
In October 2015 KUSP switched to a fulltime Triple A “music discovery” format. It didn’t work. KUSP ended on July 31, 2016.
3. KUSP WAS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT “POLITICAL AND CULTURAL PURITY” THAN SERVING LISTENERS
|LORENZO MILAM IN 1972|
Credit or blame KUSP’s co-founder Lorenzo Milam for the death of KUSP. Milam has been called the Johnny Appleseed of Community Radio because he inspired dozens, maybe hundreds, of independent community stations. In 1972, Milam published Sex and Broadcasting, a primer about how to file with the FCC for a new noncommercial FM license. At the time there were many unclaimed frequencies. Milam was at the right place at the right time.
[I wrote in March 2015 about the day I purchased my copy of Sex and Broadcasting. I got it at a headshop on a shelf next to High Times. near the bongs.]
Milam walked the walk. He worked at Pacifica’s KPFA and founded KRAB-FM in Seattle in 1962. He also played a role in the founding of KBOO in Portland, KDNA in St. Louis, WYEP in Pittsburgh and many more.
|My copy of Sex and Broadcasting|
Sex and Broadcasting became a bible of sorts for community stations. Many still have a copy on the manager’s desk next to the FCC Rules. Milam was one the creators of what I call The Pacifica Method of governance and programming.
Milam was a visionary who exceled in concepts and theories. But, he was NOT good at running things. Folks say he has poor people skills.
Milam is now in his mid 80s. He is still a prolific writer and blogger where he talks about the many things on his mind. His stuff reads like a combination of Hunter S. Thompson and Grumpy Old Men.
Here is a sample of Milam’s programming advice for KUSP:
KUSP is the sound of this life around us, in and around Santa Cruz, whatever is joyous, creative, dramatic -- that we want to find with our microphone, and by means of RadioMagick, send back to you, amplified and intense. The sound of dulcimers, flutes, bagpipes, guitars -- electric and acoustic, horns, violins, tom-toms... the sound of our musicians.
Milam’s advice was sort of profound but in the end it was totally useless. The ultimate problem at KUSP is that most of the people who ran it never grew up.