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Struggling KALW Gets Boost from School District

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School board unanimously approves $200,000 loan to public radio station

With fundraising hauls taking a hit from the recession, KALW 91.7 FM, an independent public radio station in San Francisco, is set to receive a $200,000 loan from the cash-strapped San Francisco Unified School District.

The seven-member school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve the loan to the storied station, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The funds are due back, with interest, at the end of June 2012.

Since 1941, the school district has held KALW's license to broadcast.

The station’s finances, like those of many nonprofits, have been suffering since the economic slump fully took hold at the end of 2008, said Matt Martin, the general manager.

“Contributions have taken a big dip,” Martin said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It bounced back somewhat this past year, but we’re still not at the level in 2008.”

Martin said that the station’s financial situation, as of now, should not affect operations.

Station employees learned about the situation on Wednesday afternoon, when Martin sent an internal memo to staff in anticipation of a local newspaper article about the loan.

In the near term, the station will begin to air a “Quiet Drive with a Big Vision” later this month that will be “no-muss no-fuss,” Martin told employees — a campaign with few thank-you gifts and minimal interruptions to programming.

Over a longer period, Martin said, the station will seek to adjust the balance of its revenue streams, to rely less on on-air fundraising drives and more on generating income from existing members and other sources.

“Honestly, we’ve set our goals too low,” Martin wrote to station employees. “The station is doing a remarkable amount with the support we have, but [given] the value we’re delivering to the community, it’s time to raise our expectations.”

KALW, an NPR member station, is the oldest noncommercial FM station west of the Mississippi. It began broadcasting in 1941, after General Electric set up the broadcasting equipment as part of a demonstration for the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair on Treasure Island. 

Martin said he was heartened to see that the school district was firmly supportive of the station.

“The school district is facing so many big issues,” he said. “I can understand that it’s a challenge to say, ‘Why should we be providing this line of a credit to a public radio station?’ They really showed they understand that the station is part of the educational mission of the district.”

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