Radio control

San Francisco’s KQED has been accused of public-radio imperialism for its move into the Valley. But Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio has its own history of empire building.

Your local choice? Throughout the past decade, Capital Public Radio has grown to cover much of Northern California with identical programming.

Your local choice? Throughout the past decade, Capital Public Radio has grown to cover much of Northern California with identical programming.

Think of it as the mothership. With seven state-of-the-art control booths, wall-to-wall banks of electronics and the exterior lines of a flying saucer, Capital Public Radio’s new broadcast facility serves as the command center for an entire fleet of radio stations flung up, down and across the Sacramento Valley.

At a cost of $4.2 million—and climbing—the building embodies the strength of the Capital Public Radio (CPR) network and caps a decade of remarkable growth into one of the larger and more prosperous public-radio groups in the country.

From this central location, CPR remotely programs stations in Sacramento, Stockton, Tahoe City and Groveland (near Yosemite), and soon it will in Quincy and the Sutter Buttes, too. CPR bills itself as “your local choice” for National Public Radio (NPR) but dishes up identical servings of popular NPR shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Car Talk—along with jazz and classical music—to all within its sprawling earshot.

The network boasts hundreds of thousands of listeners and a $5 million budget. “Certainly in terms of the size, the budget and the complexity of the organization, we’re in the top 25 percent in the nation,” explained CPR’s general manager, Mike Lazar.

Or is it Captain Lazar? For a couple of years, while the CPR facility was under construction, it was rumored that the building was designed to evoke the distinctive profile of the USS Enterprise. Lazar, it turns out, is a big Star Trek fan, and his office walls are covered with Trek memorabilia: signed pictures of cast members, even an Enterprise poster with working neon lights for photon torpedoes. And though the building’s resemblance to Star Fleet’s excelsior-class warship is remarkable, Lazar said he did not tell the architects to make it so.

“It didn’t even occur to me until one of my board members pointed it out,” he demurred, strolling down a long, gently curving hallway.

Regular listeners know that CPR’s Sacramento stations are “licensed to California State University, Sacramento.” And technically, CPR is a university auxiliary. But for years, that relationship seemed to exist only on paper: CPR gets very little, only 3 percent, of its operating budget from CSUS. And CSUS has asked for very little in return, save that CPR prosper and occasionally mention the university.

“It allows us to work in the free-market system without the bureaucratic red tape that a typical [university] department would have,” Lazar explained. And for two decades, CPR operated far off campus, in an office park on American River Drive, mostly free of university entanglements. But the new building was built on university land, occupying a highly visible spot on the campus’ southern edge on Folsom Boulevard. And it was built with CSU-system bonds, which CPR is supposed to pay back over the next 30 years in lease payments.

Being back on campus has created some unforeseen problems for Lazar and other CPR officers. When the CPR mothership landed at CSUS this spring, students noticed. And the students have started asking tough questions about how the university’s broadcast licenses are being used, as well as CPR’s supposed benefits to the campus and to them as students.

“When did CSUS become a media conglomerate?” asked Rafael Chavez, a CSUS student and the sole student representative on the CPR Board of Directors.

When the new studio building was completed, CPR held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and threw a big party. As a board member, Chavez invited about 30 fellow students. But they were turned away at the door and told the party was invitation-only. Though he had an invitation, Chavez joined them in an impromptu “sit-out” on the sidewalk, demonstrating their frustration at being locked out.

“To me, that building represents corporate money being used to create a certain kind of media in Sacramento, to the exclusion of the students and student voices,” Chavez explained.

The 26-year-old Chavez is also the station manager of KSSU, the extremely low-power, student-run AM radio station that can be heard on some parts of the CSUS campus. He’s been an outspoken critic of CPR, which he sees as a sort of fancy brand of public radio, catering to the well-off and well-connected while ignoring other communities, especially people of color and the working class. And especially students.

Once CSUS students had a licensed radio station on campus. But today, students are told the licenses are too valuable for them to use. To Chavez, that seems contrary to the very idea of “public” radio, particularly public radio licensed to a university, which is why he and his fellow students are starting to make noises about liberating a chunk of CPR’s public-radio territory. “Frankly, I think we ought to get [the classical station] KXPR,” Chavez explained. That’s not exactly music to the ears of Lazar.

And there’s something else troubling the Captain: the breach of CPR’s airspace by a competing power from the west. KQED launched its own Sacramento station—KQEI at 89.3 FM—threatening CPR’s future growth and possibly luring loyal listeners away.

Welcome to the public-radio business in the 21st century.

From 1970 to 1979, Sacramento State University had a college radio station. You remember college radio stations. Lots of universities used to have them, before they became NPR affiliates. Its call letters were KERS, and it occupied 88.9, the same frequency where you find CPR’s jazz and talk station KXJZ today.

Like many college radio stations in that era, the kids played weird music, and students hosted talk shows about black power or the joys of being gay.

He means business: General Manager Mike Lazar (pictured in his new office) has overseen the growth of Capital Public Radio into one of the largest, and most prosperous, public-radio networks in the country.

Photo By Larry Dalton

This being Sacramento in the 1970s, some of the subject matter angered local residents, who complained that public money was being used to “promote the propaganda of homosexuals” (this from an actual letter sent in the summer of 1977 to the CSU chancellor’s office, one of many).

Still, newspaper accounts suggest that the university stood by its student broadcasters, for a while. In a March 1977 Sacramento Bee article, the KERS station manager was quoted as saying the station “had an obligation to provide programming other stations can’t or won’t do.”

But by the end of the year, that station manager had been replaced, and CSUS started the process of turning the student-run station into something much tamer and more lucrative: an NPR affiliate offering Morning Edition, All Things Considered and hours of classical music.

At first, students were promised that they would still be part of the day-to-day operations of the station. University press releases from then and now illustrate how the administration’s concept of public radio has changed over the years. The first example is from a 1977 CSUS announcement that KERS was bringing NPR programming: “The station will nevertheless carry large segments of locally oriented programs and serve as a training ground for CSUS students.” The campus would be one of the main sources of inspiration for the programming. “After all, the station does exist on a major university campus, and the yeasty ferment of ideas here obviously should find expression on KERS,” the press release says. It ends with this noble sentiment: “We can do things for unserved, or under-served public in the Sacramento area such as in-depth coverage of public affairs that commercial radio cannot do, because it doesn’t pay.”

Fast-forward 26 years. Gone is the yeasty ferment of ideas. Instead, a university profile of CPR from last year crows that “the dulcet tones of Capital Public Radio are a booming success.” The new profile does mention getting back to the “educational aspect of our mission,” but dwells more on CPR’s incredible growth over the last decade. And the notion of producing public radio that “doesn’t pay” now seems a little quaint. “Statistics show that the listeners are highly educated, community leaders with good incomes and affluent lifestyles,” the profile says. “This has made an excellent target market for various companies who support programming with underwriting.”

In 1979, KERS became KXPR and moved to an all-professional staff to program a mix of NPR, classical music and jazz that would appeal to those folks most likely to give money. Then, in 1991, KXJZ went on the air, giving listeners a mix of jazz and talk. In 1992, the network picked up a repeater station for its classical programming, KXSR in Groveland.

The Lazar era of public radio began in 1997. One of the first things Lazar did when he arrived was to create a new brand identity for the growing network. “Capital Public Radio” was born, and with it a vigorous strategy for growth.

That year, KKTO in Tahoe City went online, covering Reno, Carson City and a good chunk of western Nevada. In 2000, CPR took over the operations of KUOP, licensed to the University of the Pacific. And two more CPR repeater stations, covering Quincy and the Marysville-Yuba City area, have been built already and should go on the air this summer.

Since Lazar took over, the network has grown from three stations to seven. The budget has more than doubled, from $2 million to nearly $5 million, with about half of the current budget coming from regular pledge drives and about a quarter coming from corporate underwriting (advertisements).

Lazar said CPR’s rapid growth is just good business. For one thing, CPR’s costs for the ever-popular NPR are going up fast, increasing by 18 percent every year. By the end of this decade, CPR will be paying a half-million dollars per year for NPR programs, up from a quarter-million dollars today. That’s a 300-percent jump in the course of 10 years, said Lazar, and plenty of pressure to increase revenues.

“You can do that two ways. You can increase the number of listeners you have in your coverage area, or you can expand your coverage area. And we’ve tried to do both,” Lazar said.

The economics of “mainstream” public radio also demand that revenues be increased faster than costs. And that’s where, just as in the corporate broadcasting world, economies of scale come into play.

Take KUOP as an example. In 1999, the University of the Pacific was running about $800,000 in the red operating KUOP, which, at the time, offered a mix of NPR programming and music, especially bluegrass, hosted by volunteer programmers.

CPR took the station off the university’s hands—and ledger sheet—closing down the Stockton station and ultimately turning KUOP into a clone of its KXJZ program feed.

“One of the reasons they were running deficits is that it had the complete cost of running the station, including staff, facilities and the cost of NPR programming. It was significantly cheaper for us to add a station into our existing operation.”

And voilà, the university stops losing money, and CPR gets to keep whatever revenues it can raise from the station. Not that anyone should think all of this growth is just about raising more money, Lazar insists. “We’re in the public-service business,” he explained. “The more people we can reach, the more public service we are providing.”

Part of that public-service mission means giving folks the most popular shows, and it often means sticking to market-tested formats. Gone are the wildly divergent blocks of programming, the quirky niche shows that once flourished on the public-radio dial. “That’s changed. The industry is totally different than when I started,” Lazar explained.

“We started running public radio stations more like commercial radio stations, in terms of research,” he said. What the research shows is no surprise. Single formats, with lots of NPR, get the best ratings.

But there are trade-offs when local stations rely so heavily on NPR and other national programming, typically because that’s what pays the bills. It can come at a cost to diversity, localism and just plain “mixing it up.” Some stations make those trade-offs better than others.

Student activist Rafael Chavez thinks California State University, Sacramento, broadcast licenses should serve the education of students. He complains that Capital Public Radio today is “all about money.”

Photo By Jill Wagner

For Chavez, CPR board meetings can be like exploring a different planet. “It’s all doctors and lawyers and CEOs. I’m the only poor person in the room,” he said, laughing.

The CPR Board of Directors has been described as a “give-or-get board.” It includes CSUS faculty and administrators. Lazar himself is considered a CSUS employee, pulling down a $120,000 university salary. But much of the board is recruited from prominent law firms, financial institutions and real-estate developers. “Money pulls money,” Chavez explained. And money appears to dominate the board’s public meetings, which almost never are attended by the public.

Last month, the board applauded news that it had won an award from NPR, recognizing CPR for having increased major gifts (donations of more than $1,000) more than any other station in the NPR chain had.

In another item, Lazar suggested that all board members would have to pony up $1,000 a year, what is called “leadership circle” level, as a condition of serving on the board. The requirement wouldn’t apply to university appointees who hold about one-third of the board’s seats. Chavez calls the move “gentrification,” adding that “it ensures that no low-income people will ever serve on the CPR board. I think it just separates CPR even further from the community.”

To help pay for the furniture and equipment that is going into the new building, CPR’s board of directors has launched a “capital campaign” that it hopes will net about $1.5 million from big donors. For the right price, you even get certain naming rights to the new building. One conference room is titled the Enlow and Melena Ose Conference Room, in tribute to the generosity of the Ose clan—an affluent family of developers that produced former Congressman Doug Ose and his former congressional-candidate sister, Mary Ose.

But it’s not always easy to shake your social network down for cash. Gretchen Tobin, a board member who, by day, is vice president of Capital Builders Inc., a company that develops office parks, complained that she has trouble convincing her friends to give. “A lot of my friends are more conservative. They are kind of the KFBK crowd,” she said.

Lazar reminded Tobin of an item he started the meeting off with earlier in the evening; a study released that week by the media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which accused NPR of being dominated by Republican and conservative voices.

“People always accuse us of being liberal. Now you can show them this and present yourself with pride,” Lazar said with a laugh.

CPR may be “your local source for NPR,” but the entry of KQED into the market is shaking ideas of what “local” actually means in public radio, as well as ideas of what a public-radio station should be doing besides offering NPR programming.

Almost two years ago, KQED outbid CPR for the broadcast license of 89.3 FM, a frequency CPR had coveted for itself. That’s because two years ago, when CPR kicked jazz programming off of its daytime schedule, Lazar got an earful from local jazz fans. Since then, CPR has been hoping to find an additional frequency so it can spin the jazz and talk formats off into their own stations.

The KQED move into Sacramento predictably sent the CPR honchos, and even the local media, into a tizzy. What did KQED want? What was it trying to do?

Money springs immediately to mind. Some CPR board members suggested KQED was guilty of “broadcast imperialism” and was only looking to mine the valley for pledges. And during the two stations’ pledge drives in May, CPR came up about $50,000 short of its goal. Lazar said he simply doesn’t know whether KQED had an effect on CPR fund-raising. And there are any number of possible explanations for the shortfall. Earlier this year, NPR made an enormously unpopular personnel change, sacking the venerable host of Morning Edition, Bob Edwards. Some loyal listeners may have withheld contributions in protest. Others may have wandered off to Air America, the new lefty talk effort that is being touted as the anti-Rush Limbaugh network. Then again, pledge drives sometimes just come up short. And throughout the course of the last year, CPR actually has been right on its fund-raising target.

Lazar has called KQED’s move into town “unprecedented.” When Stephen Zink, vice president of information technology at the University of Nevada, Reno, heard this, he laughed. In 1997, when CPR went on the air with KKTO, extending its reach to Carson City, Tahoe and Reno, it overlapped the coverage area of KUNR by about 60 percent. And the most valuable programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered are aired on both stations at the same times. But rather than undermining KUNR’s success, said Zink, the two stations have “complemented each other,” even with the duplication of programming. “In fact, we just had our best year yet,” Zink said.

This has been more or less KQED’s argument, as well. KQED’s general manager, Jo Anne Wallace, cited NPR studies that show that when a new public-radio station comes on line, it grows the audience for public radio.

But Lazar presents two interesting counter-arguments. One, the public-radio audience is growing in just about every market, so the studies don’t take into account whether a lone station would have experienced more growth had it not been for a new competitor. Second, “in those cases, each station had a distinct personality. Here, there’s not much to distinguish the two stations,” Lazar complained.

And getting a distinct personality is exactly what CPR needs to do, say CPR’s critics.

“I think there’s a really talented core of people on that staff,” said Duncan Lively, former operations manager for CPR. “But what bothered me was that I never got the sense there was much of a vision.”

Lively said the biggest threat to CPR, where KQED stands to hurt it the most, is in local programming: CPR hasn’t paid enough attention to it. The station has been either too focused on expansion or just not proactive enough to build the news and public-affairs shows for which KQED is known. “Localism is what is going to distinguish you in the marketplace. It’s the one thing you can do that nobody else can,” Lively explained.

For example, take the two California reports. KQED has a show called The California Report, which it runs several times during the day and draws from some 13 different reporters spread around the state.

KSSU student DJs Greg Flagg and Brent Chaffins want a piece of Mike Lazar’s public-radio empire.

Photo By Jill Wagner

CPR tried its own statewide news product, The California Capitol Report, focusing mostly on state politics. That show never really caught on and since has been scrapped. But KQED’s The California Report is broadcast by more than 30 stations around the state.

“I do think it’s troubling that I hear more in-depth news about what’s going on in the capital and around the Valley from a San Francisco station,” said Lively.

Another former CPR staffer, Josh Chaffin, agreed. “The local coverage is middling to poor,” Chaffin said. “Go to any town the size of Sacramento, turn on the local public-radio station, and you’ll hear local feature stories a couple of times a day. Not so at CPR. There are a million people in the Sacramento area alone, thousands of stories, huge ethnic enclaves. Put a reporter in a car with a mic and demand a couple of stories a week.”

CPR’s newly appointed news director said the station is trying to add to its local coverage and said the number of local features was up last month to nine features from three at the same time last year. “I think there are frustrations sometimes. You always want to do more,” Joe Barr explained. But he said there had been “no lack of support” from his higher-ups. And Barr noted that CPR just won a national Public Radio News Directors Inc. award for its coverage of the recall election last year.

“Our news department is striving to do more and become better, and I believe this most recent award is a sign of progress we’ve made in serving our listeners,” Barr explained.

And CPR hopes to improve its local programming more by producing its own daily talk program, called Insight, and hosted by former News Director Jeffrey Callison. The show is scheduled to start this summer.

But in order to free up the money for the new show, CPR laid off its sole metro reporter. And Lazar said there are no plans to hire a new metro reporter anytime soon, adding that the metro beat has been absorbed by CPR’s other four reporters.

By contrast, KQED has 13 full-time reporters spread across the state, mostly in the Bay Area and San Jose, including two reporters on the ground in Sacramento. And the Sacramento bureau will add staff “as awareness of us grows,” said KQED’s Wallace.

Barbara O’Connor, a CSUS professor of communications and a former CPR board member agreed that CPR needs to pay a lot more attention to its news and other local programming, but she said she doubts the station wants to tinker much with its formula.

“CPR is one of the biggest and the most successful. You can’t really argue with that. They’ve been able to keep adding people who are loyal to what they already do,” which is to provide NPR. With KQED in town, she said, local programming will be much more important.

“But you have to want to do it. And it’s expensive,” said O’Connor. “It’s a question of how you allocate the resources.”

Localism may be more important than just competing with KQED. It may be crucial to the long-term survival of CPR, and to any public-radio station.

Jay Allison is a longtime contributor to NPR. He created the “Lost and Found Sound” series that aired on that network from 1999 to 2000. He also has dedicated his career to trying to “put the public back in public radio.” Two public-radio stations he started in the Cape Cod area, both NPR affiliates, have become laboratories for a new sort of public radio.

Allison said Sacramento’s public-radio scene represents “a pretty common set of conflicts: student interest vs. NPR listeners, dueling stations, a diversity of programming vs. mainstream NPR programming.

“It’s a dilemma. Everybody wants to remain viable,” Allison explained. “And we’ve sent surveys out, and they consistently come back showing that most people just want a good NPR signal.”

So, although the Atlantic Public Media stations play lots of NPR, Allison takes care to build in programming that is unique to the place it is being heard.

He spends hours on eBay, looking for professional-quality tape and mini-disc recorders that he then loans out to folks in the community to record their own stories or to capture local slices of life that air several times a day. “We are really trying to make the border between the community and the studio as porous as possible,” Allison explained. It doesn’t mean giving up the shows a station needs to survive. It means making the whole package as distinctive and local as possible.

Allison also helped to launch two services that he hopes will help stations diversify their programming. The first is, and the other is Public Radio Exchange (PRX). These Web-based services connect independent producers with public-radio stations around the country. PRX, launched less than a year ago, boasts a long list of member stations, including KQED and KVMR.

“Our intention is to get stations to dedicate some time each week that’s not strictly formatted. I mean, mix it up a little, people can handle it,” Allison said.

Part of the reason stations need to mix it up, he said, is that the most lucrative programs may not be there in the long run.

Host Steve Milne at work in one of Capital Public Radio’s new state-of-the-art control rooms.

Photo By Larry Dalton

He noted that NPR already offers a good chunk of its programming via XM Satellite Radio. It may be only a matter of time before the most popular drive-time shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are available on satellite, as well. Some day, listeners may no longer need local broadcasters for that type of programming.

“The future of public radio is really in the way that it connects to its place,” he said.

At the end of the spring semester, Chavez held a final KSSU staff meeting before the beginning of summer break. Though many on the staff were taking a couple of weeks off, some would return to help run the station over the summer. For the first time, Chavez explained, the station will be operating year round—part of his attempt to invigorate KSSU, even if no one will hear it.

There’s a lot of joking around between agenda items, and the students took a little time out to poke fun at CPR.

“It’s like this—this blob,” Chavez offered.

“Yeah, The Blob That Ate College Radio Stations,” someone chimed in.

“See it at the Tower, before it’s too late!” came a third, setting the whole group giggling.

In the shadow of the blob, students make the best of it, rocking what they like to call a “3,000 milliwatt” signal. That’s three watts, compared with KXJZ’s 50,000. Ironically, KSSU deejays get dozens of new records a week from record companies, especially new artists and independent music that typically finds college airplay long before crossing over to commercial stations, if it ever does. And the choices the deejays make feed the college-radio charts, just like at a real college station. But Chavez said he’d like to see a student station that does more than play “hot music.” For example, he’d like to work with the campus journalism department to produce news focusing on the campus and the broader community. “I envision a station with many different types of programming, something like [UC Davis station] KDVS or [Grass Valley community station] KVMR,” he explained. There’s been a resurgence of interest in student broadcasting, he said, partly because of CPR’s return to campus. But with no audience to speak of for KSSU, he wonders if the students’ self-started broadcast program can sustain itself.

“When I got here,” said Chavez, “nobody even knew where the [KSSU] transmitter was. It was kind of like an urban myth. People would joke that it was in a closet somewhere.” The transmitter is, indeed, locked in a tiny room on the third floor of Lassen Hall. You can see the unassuming antenna on top of Lassen Hall, rising perhaps 20 feet from the roof.

“It’s discouraging,” said Melissa Maxwell, a KSSU deejay who hosts a punk and indie music show called Damsels in Disorder. For example, Maxwell explained, she recently went to a local rock show and convinced one of the musicians to record a “drop” that would air during her show. “You know what it sounds like: ‘This is Jeffrey from Shakedown, and you’re listening to KSSU,’” she explained. “He was really excited, you know, ‘Where can I hear it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, well, you can come to the Sac State parking lot and listen.’ It was embarrassing.”

Like other KSSU broadcasters, Maxwell supports the idea of spinning off part of CPR for students. “I think we should get back the station they took away,” she explained.

Perhaps in response to this student agitation, CPR recently announced that it was reviving its long-neglected internship. And, in fact, one CSUS student has begun his internship already. He will be helping CPR with its marketing and fund-raising efforts.

But CPR brass say putting students on the air is out of the question.

“With a budget of over $5 million, it just wouldn’t be responsible. It would be a breach of our fiduciary duty,” said CPR Board Chairwoman Julia Jenness, an attorney with the law firm of Downey, Brand, Seymour and Rohwer. “It would be akin to putting students in charge of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” she complained.

The similes come quickly to mind for Lazar, as well. “It would be like letting student interns anchor Channel 3,” he said.

Or, it might be something like KCSN, the public-radio station licensed to California State University, Northridge. There, a professional staff works with students to program music, NPR programming and locally produced news and public-affairs programming.

Students there consistently have won awards from mainstream journalism organizations, right alongside professional reporters for KQED and NPR.

“To say that students can’t produce radio of good quality is absurd,” said Eric Guerra, a graduate student and former president of the CSUS Associated Students organization. It was Guerra who nominated Chavez to the CPR board, after working with him at KSSU. “Does it take supervision and planning? Of course,” said Guerra. “But I don’t understand why we can’t even talk about it.”

Students are hopeful they will get support from a new CSUS president, Alexander Gonzalez. Gonzalez refused to return phone calls or reply to e-mails from SN&R concerning CPR. But during a chance encounter on the CSUS campus, Gonzalez did offer this: “I do think we need to look at a station for the students.”

But Lazar has stated repeatedly his intention to pick up another frequency for jazz. Acquiring a student station would seem to be at odds with CPR’s business plan. And the experience with KQED shows just how inflated prices for stations really are. “It’s almost cost-prohibitive,” Lazar explained. Between expansionist public-radio entities like CPR and KQED, as well as religious broadcasters, any sort of grassroots community broadcaster or student station is practically locked out of the airwaves.

The Associated Students organization on campus has allocated $100,000 to help look for a station. But Chavez knows just how dubious the prospects of coming up with a new license are, and he thinks the university should make CPR give up something: a block of airtime or perhaps a station. He doesn’t see CPR doing so willingly.

“I don’t think they see their job as helping students,” he said. “They see their job as acquiring as many stations as possible and raising money.”