A radio battle is shaping up on the Central Coast, with two similar stations preparing to face off for audience share from the Santa Ynez Valley to San Luis Obispo.
But it’s not another clash of commercial giants such as Cumulus Media and Clear Channel Communications. The contenders are KCBX and KCLU, two nonprofit public broadcasters that carry content from National Public Radio and similar syndicates. They receive some federal funding, but much of their operating budget comes directly from listener donations.
Both stations say they have experienced a surge in listener interest.
San Luis Obispo-based KCBX, which can be heard from Santa Barbara to Salinas, replaced its afternoon classical music schedule with news and information and has brought on a popular local call-in show called “The Reluctant Therapist.” Only a few months after the change, the station experienced its most successful pledge drive ever.
Thousand Oaks-based KCLU, which can be heard from East Ventura County through Goleta, has purchased a station in Santa Maria that will expand its footprint all the way to the Five Cities area and bring it right to KCBX’s doorstep, competing for listeners and donors. KCLU General Manager Mary Olson said listener interest drove the purchase.
“It’s the same factors that had us expanding into Santa Barbara in 1998. People living in Santa Barbara or just driving toward Los Angeles would listen to our station and like what they heard, and we started getting calls,” Olson told the Business Times. “The same thing has happened here. … People are living outside the Santa Barbara and Ventura area even though they may be working there. One of the places they’re moving is Santa Maria. We started getting the same message: I started listening to you during the day, and I want to have you at home in the evenings.”
Olson said the Santa Maria station’s programming will vary from what it broadcasts in Ventura County on 88.3 FM and South Santa Barbara County on 102.3 FM and 1340 AM. While staples from National Public Radio, Public Radio International and the BBC will likely be similar, other material such as traffic, weather and Central Coast news will be unique.
“We’re going to be expanding the scope of our news coverage. That will include stories and features that will just be heard on 89.7 FM [the Santa Maria frequency],” Olson said. She said that coverage would range from stories about Santa Barbara County governance to profiles of Central Coast business and community leaders, among other things.
At KCBX in San Luis Obispo, the station replaced classical music with news and information programs during its 1-4 p.m. slot. The decision was a tough one — arts and cultural programming are part of the station’s mission — but when all-classical-music station KUSC brought a repeater to San Luis Obispo several years ago, KCBX started to lose some classical listeners. At the same time, other listeners had been requesting more news and information programming, said General Manager Frank Lanzone. KCBX decided to take the plunge and switch, and within just a few months, listeners signaled their approval with their dollars. “The drive did really well — we had never made quite that much money in such a short period of time,” Lanzone told the Business Times. “In the past, it’s been easy for us to just go with the flow and leave things the way they were. With the possibility of losing federal funding now more possible than it’s ever been, we’ve had to pay attention to the business end more than in the past.”
The increased interest in news and information programming comes at a time when most commercial radio stations have cut back or eliminated straight news coverage. “We’ve had the quality news with Morning Edition and All Things Considered and have NPR’s newscasts throughout the day. It’s always been part of what we do and what people appreciate. Now, we’re giving them more of that, and it’s seeming to make a difference,” Lanzone said.
KCBX has also debuted a locally produced hour-long show called “The Reluctant Therapist” with part-time Cal Poly instructor and working marriage counselor Elizabeth Barrett. Barrett’s show was once a scripted 15-minute format, but she now hosts a wider-ranging discussion about mental health and takes calls and comments. Lanzone said it’s been a hit.
“It had only been on since January, and it’s only on once a week, and during the pledge drive it received considerable mention,” Lanzone said.
When KCLU comes on the air on the Central Coast in June, the question will become not just where listeners tune in, but where they send their pledge drive dollars. Olson said that she does not view KCLU’s move to Santa Maria as a move to compete with KCBX.
“Expanding awareness of public broadcasting in the area is going to have a positive effect on both of our stations,” Olson said. “Each station has it’s own personality – it’s like a person. Stations reflect their personality, and KCBX is unique.”
But Lanzone said there would be direct competition. While KCLU is a public service of Thousand Oaks-based California University in Thousand Oaks, KCBX is an independent nonprofit whose sole mission is to run the radio station.
Lanzone said that KCLU and KCBX will be “so closely formatted, their audience is our audience. Our programs are their programs. There’s no place else for them to draw from. I’m concerned about it, but on the other hand, we’ve got longevity and we’ve got loyalty. People understand what we’re doing, and I think they’ll continue to support us.”
• FULL DISCLOSURE: The Business Times provides volunteer news and commentary for a daily business news segment for KCLU.