Monday, January 8, 2018


We have something new today: A case study of KBCS FM 91.3 [link] serving the Seattle area from suburban Bellevue. 

The purpose of the Case Study is to evaluate and explore what newer community stations can learn from stations that have been around for a while.

KBCS began in the 1970s as a free-form experiment reflecting the idealism and sensibility of the times. 

It has evolved over the years but stays true to its roots: progressive politics and specialty music.


We have talked about KBCS when presenting the Seattle-Tacoma noncommercial Nielsen Audio PPM ratings. (Scroll down for the latest data.) I have never known how to describe KBCS in a couple of words when making the market chart. I don’t like to use terms like “eclectic” or “variety” when talking about a format – these terms are much too general and don’t convey much useful information.

In the past I have described KBCS’s programming as “Political Talk” which is partly correct.  I did this because one of the few things I knew about the station is its affiliation with commercial radio progressive talker Thom Hartmann. Hartmann is a well-known local figure in the Pacific Northwest.  I believe KBCS was the first noncommercial station to carry the show.
I have three caveats before examining KBCS:

(1.) KBCS is a university licensee, which has given it financial stability most community stations don’t have.

(2.) Seattle-Tacoma is a very competitive radio market and has some of the most successful noncommercial stations in the nation.

(3.) This assessment is being done at 30,000 feet in the sky. Some programming and attributes might be perceived differently on the ground.


KBCS is probably has the smallest financial footprint of the public radio stations in the Seattle-Tacoma market. KUOW, KNKX, KING and KEXP have annual budgets well into the millions. Still $1.4 million is a meaningful chunk of change in noncom radio.

An unusual fact I saw in the chart on the left is how little underwriting revenue, relatively speaking, KBCS has compared to their member contributions. This is surprising because KBCS covers a lot of potential listeners and likely many, many businesses.

The fact, 71% of KBCS’s revenue in FY 2016 came from members, an impressive total.

However, I was surprised to see that the licensee, Bellevue College, still provides $258,000 (23%) of the station’s operating revenue. This could be a source of trouble in the future because University licensees nationally are providing less support for public media. According to KBCS’s financial report, the station received no CPB support in FY 2016, after receiving CPB money for many years.


When examining a station’s programming I concentrate on the “Key Hours,” the times when most people actually listen to the radio. On the left is what is on KBCS Monday through Friday from 6am until 7pm.

As you can see, Thom Hartmann is their featured program. I listen to Hartmann occasionally on KTNF AM 950 here in the Twin Cities. He is a good progressive communicator but he also almost always sounds the same. Still he does have bankable guests (like Sen. Bernie Sanders) and the issues he covers are hot right now.

But, how many people want to hear Democracy Now for two hours in the morning? I can’t think of another left-ish community station that does this. The new community stations seem to avoid Democracy Now because it portrays such a stereotype.

From Noon to 7pm on weekdays KBCS features two DJ shows. I was tempted to call the music on these shows as “eclectic” because it sort of is. I am calling it “Progressive Rock” because the tune selection is largely made up of artists from the 1970s mixed with newer artist with a similar sensibility.

On Saturday, 7am to 4pm, an extremely important daypart when listening often soars, KBCS gets really, really narrow in its appeal. There must be intense listener loyalty for music from Hawaii, Portugal and Brazil. I hope these listeners provide ample support because, from a radio strategy point of view, this programming likely reaches a small group of listeners at a time when people tend to hear radio.

One thing I really, really like is Our Saturday Tradition – three hours of Bluegrass and Americana music. If the hosts are good, and I am sure they are at KBCS, this is likely the top pledging program on the station. For several years I pitch during Saturday morning Bluegrass program when I was at KCSN in LA. It was fun and the phones never stopped ringing.

To summarize, the term I will now use to describe KBCS is “Old School Community” because it reflects the longtime mindset of the station’s hosts and listeners. Some people might say “old hippies.”

One big surprise is that KBCS makes no mention of social media anywhere on their website.


KBCS reliably reaches several tens of thousands of listeners. Most of the noncom stations were up in the December 2017 estimates. It is nice to see Classical KING on the rebound.

1 comment:

  1. One reason most stations don't air Democracy Now twice in the morning is because they CAN'T. DN! feeds live at 8am ET, which is 5am Pacific Time. So west coast stations do have the option of airing it once in the early morning, and then again in the later morning.

    I don't entirely disagree that it's a less-than-ideal way to do things, but on the other hand, how many of their listeners from 6-7am are the same listeners at 8-9am? I wouldn't at all be surprised if they're two largely separate audiences of people working different shifts at their jobs, and thus commuting through Seattle's heinous traffic at different times.

    FWIW, I know WRFI in Ithaca NY airs DN! twice, but it's once in the morning and once in the afternoon.