Can the late Art Blakey keep KSDS afloat?
Although KPBS-FM is officially non-profit, it took in over $26 million in donations in the 2019 fiscal year. KPBS-FM regularly finishes in the top three in the Nielsen ratings among all San Diego stations.
KKSM AM-1320 is on the other side of the non-profit radio spectrum. Its owner, Palomar College, gives the 500-watt station an annual budget of about $10,000. Yet it continues to win national awards and helps launch broadcast careers.
Zeb Navarro, right, after a recent live edition of "Not So Serious Radio."
So then what’s the point of KSDS 88.3 FM with studios on San Diego City College. Its 22,000-watt FM signal blankets San Diego County, super-serving the fans of straight-ahead jazz, blues, and big-band music. Bucking the national trend on commercial radio, all the KSDS DJ’s are live and local. On a recent show, nighttime DJ John Phillips imparted fun-fact jazz trivia – like how jazz drummer Art Blakey switched from keyboards to drums because a club owner forced him to give up his seat at the piano to Errol Garner at gunpoint.
The most recent KSDS ratings showed it had just a 0.4 market share (compared to KPBS-FM which regularly shows a 6.0 rating). Plus, the students of San Diego City College don’t get the on-air experience at KSDS they enjoy at Palomar’s KKSM.
The San Diego Community College District has been propping up KSDS with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The station’s latest financial statement (through June 30, 2019) showed it keeps going deeper in debt. KSDS owed the district a total of $1,085,596 at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, up from $755,734 a year before.
“KSDS is financially dependent on the San Diego City College to support them,” is how the CPA firm Munger & Company summarized KSDS’s status. “Without the ongoing financial support from the District or College Foundation, KSDS would not be able to continue.”
KSDS employs six full-time and six part-time staffers. All the DJs with once-a-week specialty shows get paid. Both KSDS and the San Diego City College were not forthcoming about KSDS’s red ink status. KSDS general manager Ken Poston says he preferred not to comment. San Diego City College president Dr. Ricky Shabazz did not respond to a request for comment.
San Diego City College spokesperson Cesar Gumapas would not comment about KSDS’s annual need for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash infusion from the SDCC’s general fund other than to say that the rumor that the station may be for sale was not true.
One KSDS employee who did not want to be named says his station has reduced its budget “down to the bare bones…We don’t spend what isn’t absolutely necessary. We are in the process of creating a board that will run the station as a separate entity.” He says currently the KSDS operations are ultimately overseen by SDCC president Dr. Shabazz. “We want to create a new, separate foundation.”
The employee says that he has had to dispel rumors about KSDS. “I’ve had to tell people there is nothing in the works with the administration [to sell the station].”
About why San Diego City College does not allow its students to participate on the KSDS 88.3 airwaves, Gumapas responded: “This is a personnel matter and district policy restricts us from commenting on these type of matters.”
“We get former students from San Diego City College who came over to us when they found out they could not get on the air at KSDS,” says Zeb Navarro, KKSM general manager and Palomar College broadcast instructor. KKSM’s three broadcast towers in Oceanside were donated to Palomar College in 1996, which then allowed the Palomar campus station to get on the airwaves.
KKSM and Palomar College’s telecommunication program has seen a number of its graduates move on to careers in broadcasting including Greg Simms (KRTH, Los Angeles), sports journalist Jeanne Zelasko and Jesse Lozano (Star 94.1).
The current KKSM lineup is a hodge-podge of shows including sports talk show “The Spurge,” the all-reggae “Yard Sounds,” a talk and music “Club TuesGays,” an oldies show dedicated to “One Hit Wonders,” and a local music show called “Not So Serious Radio.”
Navarro says KKSM is where future broadcasters can get over their fear of live radio and learn the basics of broadcasting. “I tell the students this is where they can crash the car, and then crash the car again until they learn how to drive.”
Navarro learns this week if KKSM wins the award for Best College Station in the Nation by the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System. It is the only AM station nominated. The other six stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Hartford, Connecticut are on the FM band. KKSM won the award in 2015 and 2017.
Navarro says he has 19 students connected with KKSM class and 44 students in his intro to broadcasting class. But isn’t radio broadcasting on the decline, especially considering all the recent layoffs? “I tell them it is getting very, very hard. That they should consider getting into management or considering doing other things like podcasting. I tell them not to expect to automatically expect to make six figures and that if you want to get into it, you really have to love it. But I think at some point broadcasting will swing back to local content.”
He says being on the AM band is actually kind of cool. "It's the new underground radio."
Navarro says that if sports station Xtra Sports 1360 moves over to 760 AM as is rumored, “I definitely see 1360 AM becoming a non-profit station. I hope it becomes a truly independent station and not have to be responsible to a corporation. I would love to consult it if they asked me.”
Unlike the Palomar College/KKSM model, San Diego State University telecommunication students who get accepted to the KPBS internship program do not get on-air access to KPBS-FM. But KPBS spokesperson Heather Milne Barger says the 50 students per semester who do get accepted, get hands-on experience at the KPBS radio and TV stations. “They get jobs in every single department from being embedded in the news department, to working behind the camera, to finance, to helping run station events.” Plus, she says all the SDSU interns get paid minimum wage during their KPBS internship.
KPBS bought KQVO-FM in El Centro for $1.1 million so that it could re-broadcast the KPBS radio signal to the Imperial Valley. Published reports said KPBS was once considering buying the station formerly known as KPRI, 102.1 FM about a decade ago. Presumably KPBS would then flip it to non-profit status and transmit classical or another style of music. Since the value of traditional terrestrial stations has significantly dropped, would KPBS now consider buying an FM for either an all-classical format or a modern music format similar to KEXP/Seattle or KCRW/Santa Monica?
“At this time we are not looking to acquire another station,” says KPBS spokesperson Barger.