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The End of the Pledge Drive?

Armed with a one-time cash infusion, tiny-budgeted public TV stations are venturing into ambitious new waters.


First came the cash; now comes the payoff. Bay Area public television outlets, fresh off last year’s unprecedented, one-time sale of unused bandwidth, are for the first time in ages flush with money. And those funds are a shot in the arm with the potential to rearrange and energize the public media landscape. In December, the first real evidence of that potential will make its television debut: Live from the Freight and Salvage, a 10-part series of concert films shot at the storied Berkeley music venue and broadcast on the newly formed station KPJK-TV and also KRCB-TV, both part of Northern California Public Media. “Before the auction, doing a show like this would have been out of our reach,” says Amy Boyd, the station’s media production manager.

The windfall that’s paying for the new programming has been a godsend to stations nationwide, although it’s one that comes with a hint of irony. The same demand for streaming entertainment that has decimated broadcast television in recent years has now created a lifeline, at least for public stations: At the end of March 2017, bidding closed on a one-time auction in which the FCC sold off stations’ un- and underutilized UHF bandwidth to Internet, phone, and other service providers. All told, public stations across the country received some $2 billion virtually overnight. In the Bay Area, two public television outlets participated in the auction, netting a combined $167.4 million: KRCB, out of Rohnert Park, raised $72 million (almost 25 times the station’s annual $2.8 million budget). And KQED—by far the region’s largest public broadcaster—raised $95.4 million, some $20 million more than the station’s 2017 budget.

That, in turn, has spurred some downstream activity: KRCB used part of its proceeds to buy out the television arm of KCSM for $12 million. (That station, owned by the San Mateo County Community College District, had bungled its bid to participate in the auction, losing out on tens of millions of dollars in the process and triggering a series of lawsuits.) The new TV station will operate as the aforementioned KPJK-TV; the radio arm of KCSM will continue on as the Bay Area’s only full-time jazz station.

Most local stations are using the cash infusion to bolster long-neglected endowments or to fund technology and infrastructure improvements. KQED announced its plans to squirrel away 70 percent of its profits from the sell-off in its endowment, with CEO and president John Boland telling the Chronicle that “not a dime” would be spent on operations. Other stations around the country have invested in reporting; in Pennsylvania, once-­beleaguered PBS-39, which laid off half its staff in 2009, plans to expand its programming and educational content. Locally, Live from the Freight and Salvage is the first palpable result of the sell-off. Modeled on the famed Austin City Limits, which premiered in 1976 on Texas station KLRU and gradually gained national exposure, the series will initially air monthly. The program, edited and directed by Isabel Fischer, draws on the increasingly diverse roster of acts at the Freight & Salvage, a nonprofit venue that celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer. Already, the newly formed station has filmed the Blues Broads, singer and songwriter Justin Townes Earle, vocalist Perla Batalla’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, the Ukrainian folk-punk band DakhaBrakha, and legendary South African vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who were captured in an ecstatic moment onstage when they received news that their 2017 Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration had won the Grammy Award for best world music album. Live from the Freight and Salvage, Boyd says, is designed to take advantage of the 450-seat theater’s up-close-and-personal vibe, using handheld cameras to provide the audience’s view of the action. “I’m really excited,” says Peter Williams, the Freight’s artistic director. “You never know how it’s going to look, but the clips I’ve seen look and sound amazing.”

The station is hoping to pick up corporate sponsorship for the series, but organizers figure they probably need a successful first season under their belts to do so. They’d also like the show to be syndicated widely; the Public Broadcasting Service makes such programming available to its 350 affiliates. “We would love 100 stations across the country to carry this show and continue for a few consecutive seasons,” Boyd says. Should Live from the Freight and Salvage succeed, it would represent a double win for the Bay Area, she adds, by highlighting emerging acts in a local venue and by filling a void in arts programming that’s existed since KQED scrapped Spark, its regionally focused arts-and-entertainment show, several years ago.

Yet if the cash infusion has Bay Area station managers suddenly thinking big, they’re quick to point out that ambition is relative—this is public broadcasting, after all. “We didn’t go down this road because we thought we’d make a bundle of money,” Boyd says of the new programming. “This is really about enriching the Bay Area music scene.”


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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