Thursday, March 15, 2018


One of the most anticipated job searches in public radio may be completed soon when if/when a new GM is hired at KALW, San Francisco [link]. i

The reason we say “if” is because the process has taken quite awhile despite the size of the candidate pool.

The opening became widely known when KALW purchased a “help wanted” ad [link] written by still-current GM Matt Martin.  The title of Martin’s essay was Take My Job - Please!
Martin’s personal pitch was notable because he was unusually candid in his description of his job and why he had chosen to leave a place where he likes to work:

KALW GM Matt Martin
“I will start with this: Being General Manager of KALW is a big job. It’s challenging. It takes guts. For more than a decade, I’ve had a great time doing it.”

“I do believe there is huge potential and important work to be done at KALW, and I am confident there is someone who can embrace the work and help the station take its next step forward in a way I simply can’t.”

“We are licensed to the San Francisco Unified School District. Understandably, the school board is limited in the attention it can give KALW. So job #1 for the next leader of KALW will be to launch a 501(c)(3) “Friends” group. Not having made it happen is my greatest regret.”

When asked by Spark News whether the job was still open, Martin replied with a very short email message:

Not yet, but we are getting close!

So, the situation now is as clear as mud.


Martin understates both the opportunity and reasons KALW lags far behind other stations in similar situations. KALW is a small station in a big market with total revenue in FY 2016 of $2.496 million. Members and underwriters provided 71% of the revenue, a sign of a very healthy station. CPB funds make up only 5% of the annual revenue.  The School District provides in-kind support.

By contrast, crosstown KQED FM & TV report of $70 million in revenue during the same year.

KALW’s ratings are unusually small compared to other stations in the market, particularly KQED. On the left is a chart the compares the Nielsen ratings performance of both KALW and KQED from IN Fall 2014, 2016 and 2017 in three key metrics. 

KQED often has the largest number of estimated weekly listeners of any NPR News/Talk station in the country.  KQED’s Cume Rating, a measure of market penetration, was an amazing 12.4% in Fall 2017. I call this metric “the community importance factor."  KQED is a very, very important factor in San Francisco.

KALW is a much less of an important factor. Their cume rating of 1.6 shows that KALW is “forgettable media” to most of the people in the Bay area. Both stations have huge coverage areas, so that is not the problem.

To me, KALW’s insignificance is due the fact that the people there now like it this way,

There are very talented folks working at KALW but the station – as a whole – seems to be locked in a sleepy status quo. Changing this corporate culture will be a big challenge for the new GM because it is deeply ingrained at KALW.

Yes, there are substantial opportunities for KALW. Hypothetically, KALW could compete with KQED the way WGBH has challenging WBUR. Dual formats are another possibility -- look at the success KCRW has in Los Angeles and KNKX has in Seattle.

Moving forward, will KALW continue the sleepy status quo or will it find the guts to be great.


  1. I don't think your core analysis of KALW's "sleepy" status is wrong per se, but be careful how you explain it.

    KQED is a full Class B FM. Their signal is mammoth; the protected service contour goes well past San Jose at the southern end of the Bay. KALW is a Class B1 - much smaller. Their contour barely reaches the San Mateo Bridge. That's a big difference when you're also trying to reach a lot of in-car commuters who are stuck in traffic jams that reach for dozens, if not hundreds, of miles.

    And the SF Bay Area is hell on FM because of all the mountains; even KQED has trouble in many places. KALW has a lot more trouble in that arena.

    It is also worth pointing out that much like New York City, San Francisco is just different. There are things you can do in either market that would never, ever work in other markets. For example, KQED runs ridiculously little audio processing. Most commuters find they are constantly adjusting the volume up/down on their radios while listening. Why does KQED do this? Because they got lots of complaints when they crank up the processing to keep it more even; mostly people claiming "listener fatigue". In most markets, such people would be (rightly) dismissed as cranks. In San Francisco, that's your core audience...and in some cases, your major donors.

    KALW is not immune to this dynamic, either. In some ways, they're even more hostage to it since they have to answer to two separate-but-overlapping "bosses": their audience, and the school district. Finally, KQED has a thriving PBS TV station to operate in conjunction with their thriving NPR radio station; an advantage most stations, including KALW, don't have. Heck something even a lot of joint TV/radio licensees don't have!

    To paraphrase the Oakland A's strategy in Moneyball: if KALW tries to play like KQED in the studio, they're going to lose to KQED out in the audience. They have to play a very different game and for them, success is going to look at lot different than it does for KQED.

    That all said, I agree that KALW could and should be doing something more. While their signal is markedly smaller than KQED's, that doesn't mean it isn't still a GOOD signal. And KALW would undoubtedly take great issue with being called "sleepy". I'm sure they view themselves as "feisty" the way most community radio stations do. The challenge is getting stakeholders to understand that feistiness is meaningless unless it inspires feistiness in the AUDIENCE too, and it does seem that KALW is not all that good at doing that.

  2. KALW provides more responsive local programming. KQED does not address local issues or feature locally focussed programming. KQED is local access to NPR with a strong signal. I have been a KALW listener for many years hampered by the weak signal that does not reach into much of Contra Costa Co and stepped on by Capital Public Radio in large areas of the County. KALW is difficult to access because of the lower power signal. There have times I have given up on KALW's intermittent signal and listened to KQED's consistent signal. It is hard to compete in a race when you are driving an underpowered go kart in a race with high tech sports sedans.