KCSM and the future of community TV

Pub date November 6, 2012

OPINION On October 24th, the San Mateo Community College District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to reject the final two bidders (of an original six) for the broadcast license for KCSM television, bringing to an end an 18-month process by the district to try to sell the television broadcast license housed at the College of San Mateo since 1964. KCSM television reaches 10 Bay Area counties and is broadcast on 60 municipal cable systems in Northern California.

The 48-year old TV station was originally established as a broadcast training facility. From 1964 to 1980, the College of San Mateo ran one of the most comprehensive broadcast journalism programs in the country. In 2004, the station converted to a digital-only signal and in 2009, dropped PBS affiliation and became one of the largest independent public televisions stations in the country.

The district, which operates the College of San Mateo, Skyline College and Canada College, has experienced the severe financial pressures affecting California higher education generally and community colleges in particular. Throughout the US, colleges and universities have been shedding non-commercial broadcast licenses at a rapid rate, causing a crisis in independent media that has long had a home at educational facilities. KCSM-TV is the largest Bay Area media asset to go on the chopping block so far.

KCSM currently broadcasts a block of distance learning opportunities and on-line courses that provide a lifeline to many Bay Area residents who for reasons of disability or family obligations can’t participate in campus-based education. It also features a variety of cultural-exchange, craft/hobby, theatrical and informational programs including Ideas in Action, the Miller Center forums and Moyers and Company. The station is also one of the few sources for children’s programs free of commercials and provides 16 hours of week of kids TV.

Educational broadcasters are a bulwark against the commercially-driven broadcast media, whose need to deliver eyes and ears to advertisers compels them to avoid potentially controversial content and pander to the audiences that are most likely to buy large amounts of consumer goods. The freedom to present content that appeals to smaller niche audiences or presents ideas that may be challenging to some aspects of the status quo largely belongs to the independent media. So when a big chunk of it goes up for sale, it affects everyone who values the free exchange of ideas without a corporate blockade.

My organization, democratic communication advocates Media Alliance, filed a public records request with the District to obtain the details of the bids for the broadcast license and the documents are available for review at media-alliance.org.

Unsuccessful bidders for the station included Christian broadcaster Daystar Television Networks, low-power San Jose station KAXT, the Minority Television Project, which operates KMPT, Channel 32, and Belmont’s Locus Point Networks, a startup run by two former telecom executives The final two runners-up were Public Media Company, a division of the Colorado LLC Public Radio Capital, the radio brokers who have been active in scooping up college radio stations, and San Mateo Community Television, a newly established nonprofit connected with Independent Public Media of Colorado.

At the October 24th board meeting, district trustees stated repeatedly that despite the collapse of the process, they were unwavering their determination to sell the television license. This follows previous board meetings at which some trustees referred to the $5 million public asset as the equivalent of a junked car.

A new bid cycle is likely to ensue, which will provide an opportunity for an open and transparent process to find a responsible local operator to serve Bay Area residents and their informational and educational needs. It’s more than time for colleges and universities to stop speculating on broadcast infrastructure like Maui condos and strive to fulfill the public interest obligations inherent in the free gift of a non-commercial license to broadcast.

Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an Oakland-based advocate for community media. They can be found at www.media-alliance.org.