When KDFC, the popular commercial classical radio station, was sold to the University of Southern California in January and bumped down to 90.3, the nonprofit end of the dial, hundreds of thousands of classical music fans lost the ability to hear the station’s offerings, thanks to the downgraded signal strength.
But that was not the only local effect of the sale. For over three decades, 90.3 had been home to the much-loved University of San Francisco radio station KUSF, which was yanked off the airwaves to make room for KDFC when U.S.F. sold its license to U.S.C. for $3.75 million.
In the days and months after the abrupt sale, fans of KUSF gathered support and started an ad-hoc streaming service called KUSF-in-Exile.
But even with the public interest, most people thought the Federal Communications Commission would approve the sale; that regulatory agency rarely blocks transactions and makes it a point not to weigh in on the content of the programming.
Now, though, more than six months after KUSF went off the air, that easy approval is not such a sure bet.
In late June, the commission sent an unusual “letter of inquiry” to U.S.F. and to the Classical Public Radio Network, the nonprofit largely owned by U.S.C. that was set up to manage the now-public KDFC. Media observers speculate that the move may signal that the F.C.C. will use the KUSF situation as an occasion to sharpen regulation of national noncommercial radio.
Brenda Barnes, president of U.S.C. Radio, called the 15-question letter “unprecedented.” John Crigler, a communications lawyer in Washington, said, “Whatever the F.C.C. decides will have some kind of ramification for every noncommercial station going forward.” The machinations inside the agency are difficult to discern. There is no set time for the commission to make a ruling and no clear understanding about what its members are trying to determine in parsing the details of the KUSF sale.
The agency declined to comment on the pending case.
All that can be ascertained about its position is in the letter, which those from all sides of the issue are scrutinizing with Talmudic zeal.
“The key there is that this letter came out of the media bureau,” Ms. Barnes said. “That signals to me that they are looking at a policy issue. What that issue is, we don’t know.”
The letter included several requests. It asked for a year’s worth of e-mails between the parties related to the sale and for information relating to the operating agreements between the two universities, among other materials.
Friends of KUSF, the group that has raised about $40,000 to legally contest the sale, had previously submitted documents to the commission claiming that U.S.F. had destroyed the station’s studios, and could not oversee or originate the broadcast during the transition period before agency approval, as F.C.C. rules dictate.
In early August, the universities replied to the letter of inquiry, dismissing concerns about the state of the KUSF studio and refusing to submit the requested e-mails.
In a strong rebuttal, two lawyers for Friends of KUSF, Alan Korn and Peter Franck, called the answers to the agency’s questions “deceptive.” The group has called for a hearing. It hopes the F.C.C. will expand its oversight of noncommercial radio transactions, which, thanks to a bad economy and big audiences for public radio, have been a booming market.
Universities like U.S.F., Vanderbilt and Rice are selling their stations, turning their homegrown programming over to National Public Radio or nonprofits like KUSC, which owns a network of stations in California.
“It basically comes down to media consolidation,” said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a media watchdog based in the Bay Area that drafted a letter in July asking the F.C.C. to hold an inquiry on noncommercial-radio sales. Thirty other media and music organizations also signed the letter.
“It’s not only KUSF — it’s an ongoing problem, and it’s going to get worse,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “I hope that U.S.F. is a test case for examining these issues.”