UPDATE: May 5, 8:25 am
On a vote of 41-27, KUSP's board has been authorized to pursue a sale. Sunday, May 8, the station switches to automated programming at 1:30 am. As we say in the radio biz, stay tuned for developments!
After months of desperate fund-raising, KUSP in Santa Cruz could be about to throw in the towel. On its web site, the situation is described thusly:
KUSP just ended a critical Mayday! fundraising campaign. We needed $300,000 in bridge funds to carry us for the next 6 months or so we could afford to continue operations while building the new format we started in November. After a month of fundraising on air, in the community, and through social media, we raised a little over a third of this goal...We cannot afford our regular broadcast and still tend to the financial obligations that are now due.
The public radio station has struggled in recent years. In 2008, KUSP boosted its NPR content to compete with KAZU, based at Cal State Monterey Bay. That strategy proved costly, and as it happens, ill-timed, as the country was just plunging into the Great Recession.
Drowning in about $780,000 of debt, KUSP switched to "adult album alternative" music last fall with a new general manager. Lee Ferraro left after less than half a year, and was replaced by longtime host and volunteer Bonnie Jean Primbsch in March.
Our financial situation is dire," Primbsch says. "After our expenses for May, we'll have a month or two of funds before we have to go into receivership."
Wednesday night, KUSP managers were expected to ask the foundation that owns the station to give the board of directors authorization to pursue a sale. "So that we can have a public radio entity keeping public radio alive on this signal," Primbsch says.
The board has explored selling its license in the recent past to a variety of public radio outlets, most notably the Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN), based out of the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. That organization ceased broadcasting nationally in 2008, but USC Radio does own other classical music stations, including KDFC in San Francisco.
Primbsch says that's "off the table" now, though she declines to say what other bidders the board might be courting. "Anyone who is currently proposing something, we don't have enough detail to say who it is," she says, explaining that "we're concerned that negotiations have the leeway to come to fruition."
Critics of the way the station has been managed are expected to show up at the meeting to be heard, including Rachel Goodman, who was with KUSP for 13 years as a programmer and as a host of Talk of the Bay. She leads a group called KUSP Forward, formed in May 2015.
"It's sad and avoidable," Goodman says. "This board seems to have given up. They'd rather sell."
She'd rather the board members step down. "They went down the rabbit hole of trying to compete with KAZU."
Goodman wants KUSP to downsize temporarily while the station recovers. "Instead of doing that, they're throwing up their hands." Primbsch counters the station is already paring down to the bare minimum allowed by the FCC. "Our plan this week is to lay off the staff, including myself, and proceed with a station manager who understands the day to day operation. The money we raised will only pay for that."
Opinions differ on the quality of the new music format. Goodman calls it "schlocky" and automated, saying the last format switch was a "missed opportunity" to embrace the local arts community and grow the audience. Primbsch says the new format has yielded new listeners, "some of whom contribute, some of whom are new to public radio."
Regardless, the argument is moot at this point. Goodman and Primbsch do agree local ownership of KUSP is ideal -- and that there are wealthy potential donors in and around the greater Monterey Bay, especially in Carmel, who might be willing to turn the station's fortunes around.
"Contributions are absolutely welcome," Primbsch says. "We would love to talk to them."