Santa Barbara Foundation CEO and President Ron Gallo (Feb. 18, 2014)
Paul Wellman

Quelling months of speculation and rumors, the Santa Barbara Foundation announced that it’s signed a letter of intent to sell KDB FM — one of the oldest all-classical radio stations in the nation and certainly the South Coast — to Santa Monica public radio station KCRW for a little over a million dollars. The deal, however, is more complicated and interesting than that, offering at first blush something old and something new.

The agreement calls for KDB to retain its current location on the FM dial — 93.7 — and its same all-classical format. But it will be taken over by radio station KUSC, which now occupies the 88.7 frequency locally and also provides an all-classical format. Santa Barbara, it turns out, was the only city left in the country within broadcast reach of two all-classical stations. With KUSC’s move, that opens up space on the left end of the dial for KCRW, whose managers promise to deliver a menu of programs more appealing to younger listeners than most public radio stations.

Although KCRW has long broadcast in Santa Barbara, station manager Jennifer Ferro acknowledged the signal was “anemic.” For the first time, the station will boast a robust signal with which to broadcast into Santa Barbara households. KCRW will provide the usual public radio mainstays such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” but old war horses like “Prairie Home Companion” will be put out to pasture. Instead, local listeners will tap into one of the station’s signature programs, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Likewise, it will offer Warren Olney’s widely respected public affairs talk show “Which Way L.A?” and Madeleine Brand’s new show, “Press Play,” not to mention shows on books and food. Eventually, Ferro added, “We’d like to create programming exclusive to this area.”

To that end, she said the station plans to partner with The Santa Barbara Independent as well as Mission & State to provide Santa Barbara-centric news and public affairs programming. It will operate out of offices owned by Antioch University and work with Antioch students as volunteers and interns. Ferro added that the station also intends to jump feet first into the Santa Barbara arts and culture scene, promoting events, creating partnerships, and hosting forums. She expressed optimism the station could sponsor engaging, even entertaining, community discussions on such weighty issues as gangs, the drought, and the environment “without sounding like you’ve just gone to a city council meeting.”

Instigating this radio-waved do-si-do has been longstanding community concern about the economic viability of KDB. For years, the station was privately owned and operated, but about 10 years ago, local philanthropists felt compelled to intervene lest it go down the tubes. Eventually, its care and upkeep was laid at the doorstep of the Santa Barbara Foundation. But even when reincarnated as a quasi public-private-pseudo nonprofit station, KDB only managed to limp along, drawing on a loyal but aging listener base. The S.B. Foundation wound up pumping $450,000 into the station over four years, said foundation executive Ron Gallo, and that doesn’t count the $100,000 in administrative support. This fall, Gallo announced the foundation was hoping to sell the station.

While KCRW’s programming offers Santa Barbara the flash of genuinely solid and innovative programming, the $64,000 question remains whether the South Coast radio market is big enough to sustain not one but three public radio stations. Currently, Santa Barbara is served by KCBX — located to the north in San Luis Obispo — and KCLU, which is located in Thousand Oaks. Of the two, KCLU has made a consistent effort to cover regional news with a Santa Barbara slant. KCLU station manager Jim Rondeau expressed confidence that all three stations could “peacefully co-exist,” but also acknowledged it was possible that fundraising could become an issue. “If a local operation like KCLU loses a significant amount of listener financial support to a Los Angeles-based station like KCRW, it will drastically impact its ability to serve the community,” he said. “That’s an ugly reality.”

KCRW’s Ferro expressed optimism that would not be the case. The L.A. area, she said, has many public radio stations. “We found there is robust support for good quality programming that’s relevant to people’s lives. You can bring new people into the tent.” Ferro said KCRW enjoys much stronger support from 30- to 44-year-old listeners than do most public radio stations, which she said typically draw strongest among the 50-plus crowd.

While the letter of intent has been signed, the deal must first be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Ferro estimated that process should take no more than 60 days. If all goes according to schedule, the new stations could be up and operating by May. In the meantime, Ron Gallo expressed great satisfaction — and no small relief — that the deal appears done. “May I be so bold, so arrogant, to say it’s a win-win-win situation,” he said.


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