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Another Day, Another $… by

January 25th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

…another college radio station sold out from under its staff. This time it was KUSF 90.3 FM, out of the University of San Francisco, which had its signal cut and staff escorted out security personnel on January 18th. The University sold the frequency to the University of Southern California, which also recently purchased classical station KDFC, which, in turn, will be broadcast at 90.3. The deal is complicated and is thoroughly detailed here, but the upshot is that KUSF no longer has a place on the dial and is switching to an online-only format. The University pocketed a cool $3.75 million from the sale, which still needs FCC approval. In the meantime, KUSF is putting up a fight.

I detailed the many reasons why webcasting alone is not suitable for the kind of radio station that KUSF, KTRU and WRVU embody in a previous post, and USF's administration is reusing many of the excuses put forth by VU and Rice: radio listenership is declining, the station wasn't serving the needs of the students, running a station is expensive, etc, etc. And, once again, a university administration ignores the fact that none of those excuses hold up under scrutiny (especially the first one) and demonstrates handily that it is willing to turn its back on the community it inhabits. I went to a Jesuit high school and I am well familiar with the principles of a Jesuit institution, so I find it incredibly disheartening that USF – which promotes "a common good that transcends the interests of particular individuals or groups" as a core value – could make such a decision. I can near guarantee that the San Francisco community, as well as the many artists and endeavors that KUSF supported, view the station as a "common good" (look no further than the extensive and well attended protests against KUSF's sale).

In any case, I'd like to take a fresh perspective on this matter, one that (hopefully) demonstrates a serious misconception about broadcast radio, and how this misconception can result in the situation described above. First, though, let's go back 77 years to the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, which established the Federal Communications Committee. I have no love for the FCC's position on "obscenity" and the nonsense regulation that follows from it, but I do believe that one of its core purposes – to regulate the licensing of broadcast frequencies – was/is a sound idea, at least in theory. The key word here is "license," and the aforementioned Communications Act defines one of the FCC's roles as "to provide for the use of such [radio] channels, but not the ownership thereof, by persons for limited periods of time" (emphasis mine). There is a real distinction between licensing and ownership, such that no entity in the United States really owns any part of the broadcast spectrum, but the FCC licenses it to them. The spectrum is a public resource, and it is intended to be used and experienced by all.

Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which overrode the 1934 Act, eroded at this idea. It was written and passed "to promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers," but effectively treated the airwaves as a commodity instead of a public utility. The airwaves became mostly consolidated under six corporate entities, who (I would venture a guess) had profit margins in mind, rather than the greater public good. Note that I am not claiming that a commercial radio station can't also serve the public good, but it just doesn't seem to have worked out that way.

USF and other universities that opt to sell their frequencies also appear to see them as a commodity. Their actions reveal the attitude that they own the frequency they have been licensed, that it is an investment, and that when they're strapped for cash, it makes sense to sell off this investment. They are fundamentally mistaken. At almost 3,000 watts, I am sure that KUSF's signal extends well beyond the limits of USF's campus. Apparently the USF administration's concerns do not, but they should; they are the steward of 90.3 in San Francisco, their decisions regarding this frequency affect everyone in the area it covers, and they should be held responsible as such. That they have shirked this responsibility is unacceptable, and leaves San Francisco without a unique, valuable resource (sorry, guys, I don't hear anyone crying out with joy over your efforts to "help ensure the long-term presence of high-quality classical music programming in the Bay Area").

So, as this pandemic continues, what's to be done? In the case of KUSF, you can sign this petition voicing your support of their cause, among other things (if you're famous, I'm sure they'd like you to get in touch). As for broadcast radio in general, there is no easy answer. I do believe that it is a valuable – if sometimes abused – resource, and that it fills a role that no internet radio station ever can or will. The passage of the Local Community Radio Act will hopefully herald better times, but for the time being, listen to and support your local independent, community radio station. I've said it before and I hope I don't have to say it again: whenever this happens – and it can happen anywhere – we all lose.


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