Amidst Cuts, Staff and Listeners Wonder: Will KCSM Keep Jazz Alive?

KCSM full time DJ Jesse (Chuy) Varela (center) with musicians Dmitri Matheny (left) and Troy Davis (Photo: Courtesy of KCSM)

If you saw the Academy Award-winning La La Land, you watched as the character played by Ryan Gosling battled to start a jazz club at a time when the music is struggling to build audiences.

Now, San Mateo's KCSM Jazz 91 -- one of the last 24-hour jazz stations in the United States -- is trimming its live programming and cutting much of its part-time staff, citing budgetary reasons.

On March 1, KCSM started carrying prerecorded shows from a Chicago station between 10pm and six in the morning. But listeners got a hint of the changes Sunday evening, when part-time host Harry Duncan announced he was airing his last show.

“It’s a pretty dire situation,” said Jim Bennett, who hosted In the Moment, a Thursday night show featuring music recorded live in Bay Area clubs. Bennett lost his job and airtime last week.

The San Mateo Community College District owns KCSM and provides substantial subsidies, including electricity.

Harry Duncan, DJ and music veteran who was let go from KCSM this week.
Harry Duncan, DJ and music veteran who was let go from KCSM this week.

Ron Pelletier is a part-timer who worked at the commercial jazz station KJAZ before it went off the air in 1994. He lost a Wednesday evening show in the change, and said station management gave conflicting reasons for why they were making the cuts. The main problem, management said, was that KCSM was running a deficit, even though Pelletier said the public radio station had often exceeded its fundraising goals over the past two years, and had contributed to a rainy day fund amounting to more than $1 million as a hedge against fiscal emergencies.

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Pelletier and Bennett said they were also told that the station needed to enforce previously overlooked hiring policies barring short-term part-timers, and that the college district also wanted to involve students with the station.

“The sound and the identity of KCSM is being changed drastically,” Pelletier said, “no matter how you look at it.”

Mitchell Bailey, a spokesman for the college district, has yet to respond to phone or email requests for comment. But Bailey told the San Francisco Chronicle that “Like all public broadcast stations that continue to struggle with the same issues, we want to decrease expenditures and increase revenue, and meet the needs of the listening audience.”

Part-time staff at the station sent an email on Thursday encouraging listeners to contact station management to offer donations and their support for jazz programming.

Pelletier said that many listeners were horrified when they learned of the changes earlier this week. “The phone would not stop ringing,” he said. Listeners were calling in saying “‘What can we do, what can we do? Oh, we don’t want to lose it.’” Pelletier said.

The station has about 200,000 listeners in the Bay Area, and streams digitally around the world.

Pelletier and Bennett fear the district may be considering selling the station -- in a booming market, no less, with wireless companies snapping up parts of the FM spectrum. The college is selling its KCSM-TV license for $10 million, as part of a Federal Communications Commission auction.

Pelletier said he won’t participate in a scheduled May fundraising drive, because he doesn’t believe the station will continue broadcasting jazz, even with its reduced staff, past the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

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