KSQD’s Monterey County expansion marks resurgence of community radio in a time of media consolidation
A fundraising campaign allowed Santa Cruz-based KSQD-FM to buy two new frequencies and boost the station’s population base from 175,000 to 645,000 in an expansion that hit airwaves Wednesday as far away as Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.
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Rachel Goodman paints a bleak picture of the state of modern radio.
“Consolidated, faceless and syndicated,” she said, lamenting the deterioration of laws limiting broadcast ownership, which began in the 1980s and has led to the corporatized radio landscape seen today. “You lose your local community stations when that happens.”
Goodman, board chair at community radio station KSQD-FM and a radio professional since the early 1990s, has watched large swaths of the radio broadcast spectrum clot into a stiff mix of Christianity, conservative talk shows and commercials.
This homogenization teased Santa Cruz County with a similar fate after KUSP-FM 88.9, a community station that featured local programming with a mix of National Public Radio content, went under in 2016, leaving residents without a uniquely local spot on the dial. Educational Media Foundation, a nonprofit Christian media organization based in Tennessee, grabbed the frequency and turned it into a Christian music station.
In this spirit, Goodman’s and other KUSP castaways’ 2019 decision to buy 90.7 FM, start KSQD (colloquially pronounced K-Squid) and create a station reserved for local voices and local programming can be seen as an act of resistance.
The tide seemed to be going out on radio when KSQD launched at 90.7 FM in 2019, amid growing audiences for Spotify and...
It’s one that has evidently struck a chord with the community: On Wednesday, KSQD cut the ribbon on a massive expansion that captures 89.5 and 89.7 FM and will carry the signal to Watsonville, through Prunedale and into Salinas, Carmel Valley and the Monterey Peninsula.
The expansion, which officially reached Monterey County airwaves at 1 p.m. Wednesday, grows the station’s population base from 175,000 to 645,000 people.
Goodman says southern expansion was always part of the vision in rekindling the flames of local community radio. However, that first required building a following in its base of Santa Cruz (the studio is located on Encinal Street, across the street from the Santa Cruz Sentinel office in the Harvey West area).
Since the station doesn’t track listener data, reach was hard to measure, says Howard Feldstein, KSQD’s program director. Then, in a pledge drive that ended in February, Goodman and a team of volunteers were able to raise $400,000 to buy the frequencies — from, ironically, Educational Media Foundation — in Monterey County.
“Clearly, we’re striking a nerve with listeners,” Feldstein said. “Before we ever hit the air, we were wondering whether anyone would even listen to us. Is radio even relevant? Will people be able to even find us? Everyone has their own playlists, their Spotifys, their algorithms. But obviously, this station found some sort of a niche.”
Nada Miljković, who hosts KSQD’s “Cruz News and Views” show on Wednesdays from 3 to 4 p.m., gets wide-eyed when talking about the expansion and the arc of KSQD over the past four years.
“I’m just in awe. When Rachel [Goodman] called me years ago to tell me she was starting this thing up, I was so pessimistic, which is totally odd for me,” said Miljković, who was a board member for KUSP before it went under. “I was just thinking, ‘Good luck, lady.’ But she just kept going. And now, with the expansion … she’s realizing these big ambitions that I didn’t think our community was ready for.
“She made me wrong, and I’m so happy she did.”
When Congress established the radio broadcasting spectrum in the 20th century, it reserved the lower 20 stations, between 88.1 and 91.9 FM, for what it called noncommercial educational programming. To the “left of the dial,” as people in radio call it, commercials aren’t allowed, and the DJs can’t try to sell listeners anything. This is the realm of largely college, community and NPR radio stations, although some Christian organizations, such as Educational Media Foundation, have found their way in.
In the same breath that Goodman rattles off all of her aversions to the consolidation of the airwaves, she can gush about the potential of community stations to the left of the dial. Paraphrasing a quote from activist and author Lorenzo Milam, who wrote the community radio handbook, “Sex and Broadcasting,” Goodman said the medium is a place where you can “walk your walk, talk your talk, and know the rest of us aren’t irrevocably dead.”
“This is about all of us; it’s about connecting us to each other in a place where we all live instead of feeling isolated,” Goodman said. “People forget that the airwaves belong to the public. The challenge is that a lot of young people think of radio as obsolete or old-fashioned or that it’s just all commercials. I have to remind them that there is some really cool stuff happening at the other end of the dial.”
Miljković and Feldstein, who was program director at KUSP, say KSQD will survive in part because of the lessons learned from KUSP. The former station lived to see four decades, but entered into a lethally expensive contract with NPR to add some of its content in the early 2000s, which led to insurmountable debt and eventual bankruptcy. Feldstein, who referred to the fall of KUSP as “sad and tragic,” says KSQD will stay local.
“We’re not going to do NPR, we’re not going to do the same things as anyone else,” Feldstein said. “We’ve got a small budget, and we’re better managed financially. In the short-to-medium term, this is viable. I’m heartened, and a lot of our success is because of a quality-over-quantity approach. Now, we have the potential to reach more people, but it’s not about trying to be the biggest radio station in the world. It’s about affecting people.”
Goodman and Feldstein say they are figuring out a path forward in catering more of the programming to the region as a whole as opposed to just the north side of Monterey Bay. A handful of the radio DJs already commute from Monterey County. For now, the main studio will stay on Encinal Drive in Santa Cruz, but Goodman says the station could open up satellite studios in the future.
“We want people across the region to know that if they have a story, or an interesting topic they want to talk about, they should write to us,” Goodman said. “We want to know what’s happening in Salinas, we want to keep up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and in agriculture. We’ve got a few openings for talk-show hosts that we’d love to fill with people from Monterey County.”