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College Radio: You Will Be Assimilated

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Like the B-52's? Metallica? The White Stripes?

You might have never heard of them if not for KUSF, the venerable San Francisco college radio station that first played their music.

College radio is part of the diverse package of community media voices around the country that with spit-and-glue budgets, volunteer energy and a handful of overworked staff, keep bits of the television and radio waves open to the public, while training millions of young people in technology and how to use it.

These do-it-yourself outlets, which have survived for decades with an open door policy, often feature unique and eclectic formats inspired by the passions and talents of the surrounding community. At the University of San Francisco for the past thirty years, that has often meant the city's flourishing and influential music scene, one of the most vital in the country.

KUSF hasn't gone unnoticed. Besides a lofty alumni list of musical talent that later became household names, KUSF also broadcast public affairs programming in 9 different languages, weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and other random niches rarely served by larger broadcasters, and received commendations from a hit parade of local and national institutions including the United States Senate, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, American Women in Radio and Television, The National Association of College Broadcasters, The United Way, the San Francisco Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and SF mayors Willie Brown, Jr. and Dianne Feinstein,

Sounds like a community media success story.

But KUSF broadcast for the last time on January 18, 2011. Howard Ryan, a former DJ, describes the events of that day:

"I turned around to see Trista Bernasconi, KUSF Program Director, standing in the doorway of the studio. She asked me to step outside, and looked upset. I went over and she told me: This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. The station has been sold, and I have to turn the transmitter off. I looked behind me into Studio A and the signal was already gone as my record continued to play silently on Turntable One."

I could end this story in the most conventional of ways: large corporation buys scrappy but financially challenged community institution and adds it to growing pile of investments. We've all seen that play out. Corporate media consolidation is not an untold tale.

But what happened to KUSF and Rice University station KTRU and about two dozen other college radio stations in the last decade wasn't a corporate takeover. Their licenses were absorbed into public media or NPR, assisted by the public media financial leveraging firm Public Radio Capital.

Public Radio Capital has been around for about a decade, an initiative arising from the Station Resource Group. A planning document left up on the net drew my attention with a sentence it contained:

"With virtually all FM channels in well-populated areas already assigned, the only option is to obtain outlets from those who already have them, including commercial, religious, and educational broadcasters outside the public radio system."

Educational broadcasters outside the public radio system include a large variety of college-based and community-based stations that criss-cross the country, including the 5-station and 150-affiliate Pacifica Radio Network.

Every year, the public and community media family sing kumbaya at annual conferences like the National Federation for Community Broadcasters or the bi-annual National Conference on Media Reform, where independent, alternative, community-based and public interest media are saluted for their roles as antidotes to the lack of credibility of the commercial and corporately-owned networks, the cable giants and the radio empires of Clear Channel, Infinity and Entercom.

Seemingly united around shared values of localism and diversity, one hates to think that behind the solidarity is a plan for the long-term absorption of all licenses outside the master ship.

At this time, when public media financing is facing serious challenges in Washington, and all hands on deck are needed to help preserve what little public interest media we have, perhaps we need to redefine the private financing needs as Community Radio Capital and the challenge as leveraging the financial resources to keep educational and community-based broadcasters, NPR-affiliated or not, right where they are, servicing their unique neighborhoods and developing formats and programming priorities that are as varied and diverse as the local places they inhabit.

After all, if there's a million channels and they're all playing the same thing all day, what have we gained?

Somebody's got to take a chance with the B-52's.