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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

R.I.P. KUSF 90.3 FM, 1977 - 2011

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2011 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge These just became historical artifacts.
  • These just became historical artifacts.

At least two things are clear regarding the surprise sell-off and shutdown of KUSF yesterday by the University of San Francisco: 

First, university officials would apparently rather have $3.75 million than a radio station that served the local community (especially the local indie music community) as much as it did the educational activities of the school.

Second, no matter what goes down at tonight's meeting/protest, it's all but certain the sale will go through and KUSF will not come back on the air. (Not that aggrieved DJs and listeners shouldn't try: the FCC still has to approve the sale. Update: KUSF volunteers have developed a plan to halt the sale of the station.)

In all likelihood, 2011 will go down as the year San Francisco freeform radio station KUSF 90.3 FM ceased to be.

Although the university says the station will survive online, it also says it wants programming changes. And whatever form those take, part of what made KUSF special was the fact that it transmitted through the airwaves. It was, you know, a real radio station.

Even if you didn't listen to KUSF -- and doubtless, many more are complaining than actually tuned in regularly -- its closure is a major blow to the city's music culture. There's one less outpost of funkiness, weirdness, and unpredictability among the corporate-enforced desolation of your local radio dial. There's no place to hear so many underground S.F. bands on FM radio anymore (and we're only talking about one sterling part of the KUSF programming lineup).

Amplifying the sadness of this news is the fact that the death of KUSF 90.3 FM is only a small part of a major reshuffling of Bay Area radio. Its frequency will become one home of the soon-to-be nonprofit classical station KDFC, while FM 102.1, KDFC's previous home, will become a classic rock station. The change over at KDFC may be good for classical fans, but  it's a tragedy that such a precious, unlikely resource as KUSF had to go to enable them.

We don't know for certain what motivated the sale, but there have long been signs that KUSF was in trouble. According to a source affiliated with the station, major changes, including possible eviction, were discussed at meetings since at least last summer. At one such meeting earlier this year, the station's full-time managers warned that a move, closure, or the selling of the station's FCC license were all possible. Apparently, two full-time station employees knew of yesterday's sale, but were prohibited from saying anything due to nondisclosure agreements.

The meetings and warnings should have made any major change at KUSF more open and foreseeable. But instead, the sale and shutdown -- changes months in the making -- were implemented like some top-secret gang of spooks was behind them. Nothing was uttered publicly until university officials simply cut the station's transmitter at 10 a.m. No warning was given to the station's volunteers, who were working on their normal programs at the time. "The hallways filled with people in suits, and others started to change the locks," one DJ told the Bay Citizen. "The university had been keeping this from us, hadn't involved us at all."

The university then issued a cryptic, Orwellian press release stating that, "effective immediately," KUSF would "move to online only format." The statement neither acknowledged nor shed a single tear for the station's nearly 34-year history of broadcasting at 90.3 FM. It didn't even allude to the fact that KUSF had become an important source of local programming (music and otherwise) for as many as 50,000 listeners every week. The press release read like worse than just the expected positive spin on an awful decision. It read like cruel propaganda.

Through these moves, the university precluded any attempt by the public to save the station's FM broadcasting license. The secrecy, it says, was a component of the deal to sell the license to the University of Southern California.

It's a long shot that anyone -- KUSF volunteers, USF students, or the general public -- could change university officials' minds. It's perhaps an even longer shot that any of them could raise $3.75 million to buy the FCC license. But it makes this story even more depressing that no one even got a chance. Judging from the outpouring of frustration and anger at yesterday's sale, there's no telling what could have happened had listeners and DJs been given ample warning.

Instead, the closest thing we'll get to a public hearing about the future of KUSF is tonight, when the aggrieved will gather on the USF campus to protest the sale of the station's FCC license. It's unlikely their actions will change anything, but with San Francisco having lost its last, best freeform radio station -- the only place on the FM dial where many of the city's most vital musicians can be heard -- who can blame them for trying?

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Ian S. Port @iPORT, and like us at

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