Henry Wimmer, an SFCR board member and DJ at the station with his 17-year-old pet Augie Doggie.
Story and photograph by Thomas K. Pendergast
A radio station that the University of San Francisco drop-kicked off the airwaves back in 2011 is hoping to bounce back, after the Federal Communications Commission awarded it a new lower-power frequency last June.
Formerly known as KUSF at 90.3 FM on the dial, the resurrected online streamer still faces a major financial hurdle: raising about $50,000 to buy a new transmitter and related gear, which it has to do over the next year.
Operating as San Francisco Community Radio (SFCR) at the moment, they will be sharing the 102.5 FM frequency with the San Francisco Public Press (SFPP), a local newspaper published quarterly, splitting the day into four shifts of six hours each. The current plan is for SFCR to take over broadcasting twice each day, between 10 and 4, with SFPP filling in the rest of the air time.
“It seems like it could be a really good partnership of them doing news content and more spoken-word stuff and we’re more musically oriented, although we have a history of being community-oriented as well,” said SFCR board member and DJ Henry Wimmer. “We thought that might be best for both entities because a lot of people get their news as they are driving into work and that would allow Public Press to reach their people. And a lot of our listeners are late-night listeners. We’re hoping that’s a win-win and works best for both of us.”
But first, SFCR has to come up with money to buy the gear it needs .
According to media reports, KUSF was started in 1963 at the university as a campus-only, student-run AM station. Ten years later it was offered an FM slot on the dial and became a noncommercial educational station. It began 24-hour programming in 1981 and over the years it has received several awards.
Then, in January of 2011, it was unceremoniously given the boot by the university, after USF sold its license to a corporation owned by the University of Southern California that operates classical music stations, which then dropped the entire staff, changed the programming and renamed it KDFC. The university reportedly received $1 million for selling the school’s over-the-airwaves license.
Ted Dively, a DJ and SFCR board member, said he was not totally surprised that they sold the station.
“There had been talk about this on and off for years. And I knew that the university was probably looking to turn it over to make some quick money for their capital campaigns and whatnot. So it didn’t totally surprise me but the way they did it caught me and I think everyone else off-guard,” said Dively. “All of a sudden we were told to leave, then escorted out, armed guards, door locked, combinations changed. It reminded me the way they do things in commercial radio sometimes. You know, just dump the whole staff and change the format of the station when the owners change or when they decide they need to take it in a new direction.
Many fans of the radio station also felt the sting of the university’s decision. Protests followed, along with public meetings, letter-writing campaigns, rallies at City Hall and legal action. They also challenged the sale at the FCC.
“And that went on until just this past year. We were fundraising and paying lawyers for years to fight this,” Dively said.
The FCC ultimately decided in favor of the university, which by that time had already torn down the studio building on the campus.
They did get one lucky break, however, a few months after getting 86’d, when Light Rail Studios in the Bayview District offered them a small studio space from which to broadcast by live streaming over the Internet.
“We thought at the time that setting up a streaming operation would be a good way to continue rallying folks in San Francisco and show everyone that we weren’t going quietly, and that we were intent on continuing to serve our audience,” said Dively.
But in the process of switching over to the Internet, they lost a lot of their audience.
“When we were still on KUSF, our average quarterly-hour listenership was oftentimes around 30,000 in any given quarter hour, listening to the radio station. Your average listenership in an online radio station, streaming online, the biggest of them will have maybe a few hundred people concurrently listening.
“When you lose the transmitter you go from thousands of listeners … to hundreds, if you’re lucky, dozens is more typical. You just capture a much larger audience when you’re on radio because people can listen in their cars. Or they can listen with an AM/FM radio that they get, powered with a couple of double-A batteries. The barrier to listening to radio is much, much lower,” Dively said.
“People still hear radio in their cars,” Wimmer explained. “And the cool thing about a car is it acts like an antenna because it’s this big metal thing. So, radio is actually pretty accessible in people’s cars. One of the advantages of us getting back with a low-power FM signal is that the people who don’t stream might rediscover us, or discover us for the first time. And being at 102.5, we’re going to be close to some heavily enjoyed stations.”
“Also it may help us with fundraising,” he said. “I think for a potential underwriter or somebody who wants to invest in and entity that is reaching people in the Bay Area, the fact that we’ll be both streaming and on the regular, terrestrial radio waves will be a double benefit.”
Steve Zweig was the program director at KUSF, and at first he wasn’t a fan of online streaming, but did see it as an option that was also a means to an end.
“At first I was a little unsure and after a while I started to really enjoy it,” said Zweig. “When we became a non-profit, our goal was to get back on the airwaves. So, we knew that either we would get back on the airwaves or stop, cease to be a station. So I jumped on that train.”
And he hopes to get off at an over-the-air radio station.
“Our main focus is the community. We don’t just do music. We have other types of shows too. We have talk shows. We have a Turkish (new hour) show,” he said. “We have a guy that he goes to a lot of open mike nights and he brings those people into his show. And we really encourage that kind of thing because we want to bring in as many local scenes as we can because we really want to represent the community as much as possible.”
On Sept. 23, SFCR will be hosting a fundraising event, called Fall Frenzy, at the Women’s Building in the Mission District, from 7 to 10 p.m. The event will include comedy, music, food and beverages. Advanced tickets are available for $35 at www.sfcommunityradio.org.