People are often suprised to hear from me that The Sound of Young America was on college radio just two years or so ago. The station that brought the show in from the cold was KUSP in Santa Cruz. KUSP is a vibrant local station with a commitment to the Monterey Bay Area, with great national and local programming -- and exciting new stuff like The Sound of Young America. Basically, it's the kind of station you'd love to have where you live (and maybe you do) -- high-quality, with lots of great programming that reflects both high quality standards and local tastes.
Until a few years ago, KUSP was the sole NPR news outlet in the Monterey Bay Area. Its main competition on the left hand side of the dial (besides my old college station, KZSC) was a community station called KAZU. KAZU was exactly the kind of fun, crazy community radio station you'd expect to find in Santa Cruz, but its craziness got the best of it and it ended up in a tough financial spot. In order to keep the station local, the license was sold to California State University Monterey Bay, a brand new CSU school which promised to maintain the station's commitment to localism.
They didn't. The new GM swept through the station and switched the format to what amounted to an NPR satellite repeater, broadcasting almost exclusively network content with only the barest of local staffs to keep the lights on. There was much protest in Santa Cruz, not least from KUSP, who correctly pointed out that there was no public benefit to KAZU running the same NPR news shows as KUSP had been running for 20 years, at exactly the same times. Suddenly KUSP and KAZU were splitting the NPR listeners of the Monterey Bay down the middle, which slammed revenues for both stations.
Over the past three or four years, KUSP (and increasingly station folks at KAZU) have worked tirelessly to fix the situation, with the goal of having stations that complimented each other, rather than competing. KUSP has also worked hard at improving their commitment to being distinctively Santa Cruz -- picking up The Sound of Young America from college radio a couple years ago was an example of their efforts in that regard.
Over the past year, KUSP and General Manager Terry Green put together two offers for KAZU, which has lost money consistently through the years CSUMB has owned it. KUSP offered either to buy KAZU from the university, or enter into a joint operation agreement with the school. Both of these solutions would make it possible for the stations to program cooperatively and
not competitively. For listeners, it would have meant that they would have more choices in programming, rather than the same network choices at the same time on different stations.
Yesterday, CSUMB rejected both plans. I see this as a huge setback for public radio on the Central Coast, and since that's still the spiritual home of The Sound of Young America, it feels like a kick in the gut to me.
It means increased costs for both stations, increased competition for donors and volunteers, and reduced program choice for listeners. It is a lose-lose. Public comment at the hearing was universally in favor of the merger, including supporters of both KUSP and KAZU.
This situation, not just in the Central Coast, but across the country, is completely untenable. There is no public service value in running the same program on two stations at the same time. It's long been the case in San Francisco, where I grew up, and it's often the case here in Los Angeles, where I now live.
For a public radio insider, I'm about as much of a public radio outsider as I could possibly be. I still think of myself first and foremost as a listener. And this situation, around the country, is bullshit.
Luckily, there is some hope. Both PRI and NPR have launched new morning news programs ("The Bryant Park Project" and "The Takeaway") which have bright futures. Podcasting and HD channels mean that there is new programming and talent on the way. But only if local stations are willing to accept the burden of a little bit of risk. If they follow the model they've followed for the last 20 years -- rely blindly on Morning Edition and All Things Considered -- they're not going to be long for this media landscape.