Questioning The KCSM Sale


Originally published in the AFT Advocate – Feb 17 2012

As part of an epidemic of higher education institutions ridding themselves of educational television and radio licenses, the San Mateo Community College District has announced the upcoming sale of KSCM-TV, although not (yet) KSCM-FM, the district’s jazz radio station. Bids were due on February 14th to the District’s Board of Trustees.

As usual in these sales, the district’s managing board has issued a statement to the effect that broadcasting in the public interest is a distraction from the primary mission of the college: to educate students. The statement could have been copied word for world from similar trustee statements at the University of San Francisco, Rice University, Vanderbilt University, Duquesne University and others whose divestiture of their broadcast assets has hit the newspapers.

What may be most distracting to financially challenged higher education is the value of the assets themselves. Noncommercial radio and television licenses constitute a limited quantity product: and as brokers who deal in the product, like Marc Hand with Public Media Company, one of the potential bidders who attended a mandatory pre-bid walk through of KSCM-TV on January 10th, say they are “beachfront property”.

That is not entirely true. The Federal Communications Commission defines non-commercial educational licenses to broadcast as public trusts that belong to the American people and are leased out to meet the information needs of communities.

So speculating on them like a Maui condominium is not exactly the intended purpose.

What will happen to KCSM-TV after the sale? With several bidders, including Public Media Company’s Hand, closely connected with national public radio and KQED, the large public television empire that now spreads from Sacramento to Salinas, it doesn’t look unlikely KSCM may just blend into the existing public network. As KQED has long been criticized for a paucity of local and original content, this kind of media consolidation looks to reduce rather than increase broadcast diversity and alternative sources of information.

Another potential bidder in attendance at the meeting was Daystar Television, the fastest-growing Christian televangelism network in the country, whose mission is to reach souls with the good news of Jesus Christ. Members of the higher education community might want to think about the compatibility of such a sale with the district’s statement of mission.

None of this should be construed as a lack of sympathy with the financial challenges facing higher education today. Budget cuts have been ruinous. Any source of sorely-needed funds needs to be seriously considered, however some lines are always drawn. Leasing out the humanities building is not usually on the table. Educational assets cannot simply be up for auction to the highest bidder regardless of the public interest.

The district has presented a financial argument that KCSM-TV has been a financial burden on the district. Yet at the recent Board of Trustee’s meeting, trustees confirmed that many expenses would shift to KCSM-FM after a sale, rather than go away completely.

College students and faculty should be looking closely at this sale. Trustees should certainly be told that sale to a televangelist is unacceptable. And that any sale, if a sale is even necessary, must be guided by protecting the public interest in localism, broadcast diversity and a wide range of available points of view.

Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, a Bay Area nonprofit that advocates for community media and democratic communications. She can be found at