Maui Condos or Public Trusts?

As part of an epidemic of higher education institutions ridding themselves of educational TV and radio licenses, the San Mateo Community College District announced the upcoming sale of KSCM-TV, the noncommercial TV station it has owned and operated for 48 years.
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As part of an epidemic of higher education institutions nationwide ridding themselves of educational TV and radio licenses, the San Mateo Community College District in Northern California has announced the upcoming sale of KSCM-TV, the noncommercial TV station it has owned and operated for 48 years.

The 3rd largest independent public TV broadcaster in the west, KCSM was a PBS affiliate from 1964 to 2009, when they disaffiliated from the public broadcasting system. For much of its history, KCSM provided some of the strongest broadcast training programs in Northern California, far outstripping many 4-year institutions, although the programs were largely dismantled in the last decade. The station provides telecourse and distance learning programs during the week along with local and syndicated programs on the weekend.

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 word 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 say, like Public Radio Capital/Public Media Company one of the bidders who attended a mandatory pre-bid tour on January 10th, they are "beachfront property".

This 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.

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.

Six bids were submitted in response to the district request on Valentine's Day, February 14th. The district has not been forthcoming in releasing the terms of the bids, the amounts offered or what kind of television station the bidders intend to operate. In some cases, the names of the bidders has been obscure and it has taken some detective work by interested observers to suss out who is who.

At a minimum, sales of public assets should be conducted with enough transparency so the identities of bidders are not cloaked. One hopes the San Mateo Community College District will be forthcoming soon. It seems unlikely the corporate headquarters of a bidder for a multimillion dollar broadcasting license is really a UPS store in Encinitas in Southern California.

If the mystery bids correlate with attendees at the Jan 10th walk through, it's likely that in addition to Christian televangelists Daystar Networks and ethnic/foreign language broadcasters KTMP and KAXT, bidders also include some variation of Public Radio Capital/Public Media Company.

PRC/PMC is an interlocking chain of Boulder-CO-based limited liability companies (LLC's) that have been buying up college radio licenses at a dizzying rate, most notoriously the still-contested sale of San Francisco's KUSF-FM. Originally founded as a noncommercial radio license broker that lined up financing for NPR stations to buy translators to expand their signals, PRC has expanded in recent years to identifying non PBS-owned educational licenses and attempting to buy them and incorporate them into National Public Radio. In the opinion of many local communities, the replacement of their unique stations with boilerplate jazz or classical music formats has been a significant loss in local community service and on-air diversity.

Certainly in the Bay Area, the gigantic NPR affiliate KQED, in both radio and television formats, has been criticized (and with merit) for a paucity of locally-originated quality content.

This author, in a previous piece, entertained some resemblance between Public Radio Capital and the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, in desiring the relentless absorption of all into one.

The San Mateo Community College Board of Trustees has an opportunity to do the right thing,

If, as they say, it is financially impossible to continue to operate the television license as they have for almost 50 years, then they should select a buyer who will maintain the station as an educational institution for the county Their responsibility is to make sure all assets under their supervision serve the residents of the district, KCSM can continue to do that under local independent ownership, not as televangelists nor as a syndicated Borgian outpost.

Even an agency as bureaucratic as the Federal Communications Commission points to localism as a broadcast priority.

I agree. Let's not lose another one to the Borg.

(This blog first appeared, in an earlier version, in the American Federation of Teacher's Advocate Newsletter on February 14, 2012).

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