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KUSF Off the Air; Details Emerging

A KUSF logo
A KUSF logo

A KUSF logo
Zoe Corneli
A KUSF logo
Zoe Corneli

Updated Jan. 18, 2011 at 4:02 p.m.

In a shocking move — to DJs as well as fans — the University of San Francisco has sold KUSF and taken the free-form 34-year-old station off the air.

In an online press release, USF details its move. "The university has reached an agreement to assign the FCC license for radio frequency 90.3 FM to Classical Public Radio Network, which is launching a non-commercial classical music station in the Bay Area," said the statement, noting CPRN is owned by University of Southern California.

Effective immediately, as the now-blank KUSF website shows, the station is moving to an online-only format. USF's statement said that the station will go dark briefly for "engineering work."

The news seem to come as a total surprise to station workers. On Twitter, DJ Carolyn Keddy said, "Just showed up @kusf to my show and the doors are locked. USF has sold the station. Management was in on it. They're keeping all our records."

USF also said in its statement that all workers would be offered their jobs in the online-only era. We'll update with more info as we get it, but the SF music community is already reacting with sadness about the loss of the long-running staple of the scene. As musician Chuck Prophet noted on Twitter, "The apocalypse is here. Still reeling over KUSF being sold off." The station says an impromptu demonstration is planned for 7 p.m. tomorrow.

At 10 a.m. this morning, Irwin Swirnoff, a DJ and music director at KUSF, was doing some volunteer work in the station when he heard an alarming thing: silence. Or rather, the sound of static as USF, per an agreement with USC-owned Classical Public Radio Network, cut the transmitter. 

To those present at the station, including the on-air DJ, Howard Ryan, it seemed that no one had been given warning of the sale.

"The hallways filled with people in suits, and others started to change the locks," said Swirnoff of the scene immediately after the transmitter stopped working. He, along with other station workers, didn't mince words about their feelings towards USF. "The university had been keeping this from us, hadn't involved us at all," said Swirnoff, speaking from the work room of KUSF, where he and other volunteers have been frantically pulling records of past ticket winners and music press, trying to get the word out that KUSF had been unfairly brought down. 

University spokesman Gary McDonald affirmed that USF had kept information about the station's sale — which was a $3.75 million dollar deal — quiet, but said that two of the four full-time workers did know about it. Discussions, he said, had been taking place for the past few months. 

"The papers were signed on Friday," McDonald said. He cited confidential legal reasons as the cause of USF's silence to the station's volunteers. 

While the format change, from radio broadcast to online-only, is obviously the largest change, McDonald also pointed to other transformations in the works. "We are going to refocus the station on its primary purpose as a teaching lab for students," he said. "We are looking at ways to enhance curriculum in digital media."

Swirnoff and others, meanwhile, are trying to rally the public behind the station. The FCC filing allows for 30 days of public comment before the sale goes through. Why, he asked, was the station not given a chance to buy itself if the university was so desperate to sell?

"We never had the opportunity to do outreach," he said, amid the hubbub of a noisy room. "For a school that prides itself on Jesuit values, it is acting in the interests of greed and dishonesty."

McDonald said that, right now, the full context of this move hasn't been made public, but there will be an announcement this afternoon that will place these events "in a larger story."

UPDATE: More details about recent KUSF goings-on are coming out. Last week, it seems that station managers informed volunteer staff that the station would be moving into a new, smaller studio on campus.

This was not wholly unexpected, as a KUSF volunteer who wished to remain anonymous said that station founder and manager Steve Runyon had dropped a hint this summer that KUSF would be moving — although, then, the thought was that it would move off-campus, to Fort Mason.

USF spokesman McDonald acknowledged the inopportune timing of the announced move, but said it was unrelated to the change in format — the building needed rewiring and had plumbing problems. 

And the SF Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub said that the KUSF move was part of a larger deal. It seems that classical music is set to make a comeback in the Bay Area — USC is purchasing classical music station KDFC so that it will now broadcast on 89.9 FM and KUSF's now-former 90.3 FM. This deal means that KNDL, a North Bay Christian station, will also be losing its signal. 

In a press release, Entercom Communications and USC used quotes from SF Symphony director Michael Tilson Thomas and SF Opera touting the move as a positive step for Bay Area classical listeners. Also as part of this deal, Entercom will be broadcasting classic rock on both 98.5 KFOX (from San Jose) and 102.1 in SF. 

USF spokesman McDonald said that the deal was kept confidential on the wishes of the buyer, USC, although that was a common practice in a situation such as this. He said that the station could reopen as soon as Thursday, and the website would go back up as well. In response to those who protested the move, McDonald emphasized that KUSF isn't ending — it's merely streaming. 

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