With one FM opportunity missed, Chico State’s KCSC isn’t giving up
Sometimes, admits KCSC Music Director Jacob Daley, he feels like he’s broadcasting into a void.
The half-century-old Chico State University radio station, which moved to an Internet-only presence in 1999, can be heard by only 50 listeners at a time and boasts a total listenership of about 900 a week.
“It’s kind of a cult,” Daley said. “We feel like we’re fighting the good fight, really.”
But KCSC’s dedicated stable of interns and volunteers—as many as 100 each semester—know how much farther their reach could be.
Recently, when station leaders heard that the Federal Communications Commission was opening bids on 288 FM frequencies around the country, they decided to throw their hat into the ring for an offering in the Hamilton City area. If no commercial stations bid on the frequency, KCSC, as an educational nonprofit, could have it for free.
But the shot-in-the-dark didn’t pay off: Commercial stations swarmed at the opportunity.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to get a radio station. All the noncommercial ‘educationals’ were just kicked out of the pool,” Nesto de la Torre, Associated Students assistant director of activity fee, told a meeting of the A.S. Governmental Affairs Committee on Sept. 20. (The A.S. funds KCSC to the tune of about $20,000 a year.)
De la Torre said the FCC got several bids of at least $125,000 for the frequency from the commercial community, and the governmental agency told Chico State it could go for as much as $2.5 million. “It’s one of the most expensive radio stations in the nation, the FCC estimates,” he said.
Dino Corbin, a Chico broadcasting mainstay and marketing manager for Deer Creek Broadcasting, which recently bought several Chico-area stations from Clear Channel, said when the FCC decides to do an “offering,” filling in an available frequency “kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle,” everyone in radio takes notice.
But Corbin said $2.5 million sounds way high for the Hamilton City frequency, even if it comes with a wide broadcasting range. All the money would buy is the possibility of a station; investors would still have to buy property and build a tower, transmitter and more.
“You’re basically bidding for a permit that assigns you a frequency,” he explained.
According to the FCC’s Web site, the Hamilton City construction permit auction drew 34 applications, and the qualified bidders will go head-to-head at a final auction on Nov. 3.
Lauren Patrich, a spokesperson for the FCC, said noncommercial applicants won’t even get a seat at the table.
“The odds were probably against [KCSC] from the beginning,” she said. “Chico is a growing area. I can’t imagine that one of the big, commercial stations wouldn’t want to go in there.”
Matt Kiser, KCSC’s programming director and a volunteer since 2002, said the rejection didn’t come as a surprise.
“All the frequencies get bought up,” he said.
Station leaders have also considered going for a low-power FM signal, with a much shorter range than the commercial-quality frequency would have offered. But with little bandwidth available and the FCC lagging on opening up more low-power stations, it could be a long wait.
In the meantime, Kiser said, there are some up sides to being an Internet-only station. With no FCC restrictions, “You don’t have to worry about music being censored.”
“It’s fun. You learn a lot.” Still, he said, “It’s not as popular as we’d like it to be.”
KCSC has gone through myriad incarnations since it was started in 1951 as an AM station, broadcasting over the college’s public address system as a classroom project. By the 1960s, the student-run station had produced everything from old-time radio dramas to anarchy-tinged underground rock shows.
In 1971, the station hooked up with cable TV to broadcast on FM, but in early 1999 Chambers Cable bumped KCSC to make room for more TV channels. That sparked the station to go online.
Daley, the music director, doesn’t find much worth listening to on commercial radio and said Chico needs to hear more of the indie pop and experimental music spun on KCSC.
“It’s sad, because it’s the best music around, but it really never gets played."