KCSN-KSBR FM merger aims to create new Southland public radio powerhouse

A long-simmering, long-distance courtship between two humble members of the Southern California radio community will culminate Tuesday in a marriage that aims to create a new power couple in the hyper-competitive world of Los Angeles radio.

The two noncommercial stations soon to be united are KCSN-FM, based at Cal State Northridge, and KSBR-FM at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo in south Orange County, both of which have been operating for years on the same 88.5 FM frequency.

The joint agreement to share programming will bring the “smart rock” adult album alternative (AAA) format that KCSN has developed in recent years to a potential audience of 11 million listeners, according to KCSN general manager and program director Sky Daniels, making it one of the most ambitious expansions of a broadcast operation’s reach in public radio history.

Sheryl Crow will headline an Oct. 23 concert at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood to raise awareness — and money — for the new entity.

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Until now, KCSN and KSBR have been within earshot of about 1 million listeners apiece. By combining forces, the stations’ signals will span a region from Santa Clarita to San Clemente, Daniels said.

The intent is to transform what has been a signal interference problem in the large middle ground between the stations into a significant advantage for both.

The shared programming deal stands to allow them to compete more effectively with higher-profile noncommercial outlets such as KCRW-FM (89.9) and KPCC-FM (89.3) as well as the plethora of commercial stations that rule the all-important Nielsen audience surveys.

KCSN’s focus since switching to the “smart rock” programming in 2011 has been three-pronged: to spotlight emerging bands, expose Southland talent and provide an ongoing outlet for so-called “legacy” acts that often find little support from the vast majority of commercial radio stations.

“The station has already generated a strong response to its unique music format,” said Robert Gunsalus, CSUN’s vice president for University Advancement, who oversees KCSN’s operations.

“Having gained the respect and support of some of music’s most influential artists, this partnership will only grow its impact with the new coverage area,” Gunsalus said. “This commitment to supporting new, local and legendary artists serves not only the region but the needs of the music community in a powerful way.”

For instance, KCSN’s latest Top 10 chart places 24-year-old English singer-songwriter George Ezra’s “Don’t Matter Now” atop tracks by recent-vintage indie rock groups Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Fleet Foxes, which share space with new tracks from such rock veterans as Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and ex-Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant.

“We’ve always believed that if we could expand our reach, and build our impact we could help engender this idea,” Daniels told The Times earlier this week.

That idea has pitted KCSN as something of a David against a world of radio Goliaths, an underdog that has earned plaudits from established acts that were once titans of rock and pop radio across the country, among them Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jackson Browne, Sting, Bonnie Raitt and Sarah McLachlan, each of whom has headlined concerts benefiting the station’s mission.

“A number of reputable studies have shown that 92% to 93% of people still use the radio, and most of that listening is in the car,” Daniels said. “The older part of that audience says they really still want a radio station they can love. We did a perceptual study that showed 48% of listeners are saying, ‘Radio doesn’t speak to me like it used to,’ and that ‘radio is not as good as it used to be.’”

Daniels, who spent time at a number of heavy-hitter rock stations during the 1970s and ’80s, including KMET-FM in L.A. and San Francisco’s KFOG-FM, as well as stints doing radio promotion for major record labels, was aware of the signal conflict with KSBR when he signed on to try a new approach at KCSN in 2011.

Why did it take nearly six years to remedy it?

“It’s really, first of all, a big decision for both institutions,” he said. “There were literally three regime changes at their institution and one at ours. When you’re going through a total for four regime changes at respective institutions, there were a number of times where it became a case of, ‘OK, back to square one.’”

The stations will switch to joint broadcast on Tuesday at 10 a.m., during the morning program of veteran radio host Nic Harcourt, who moved to KCSN from his former longtime home at KCRW in Santa Monica.

“Having programmed radio in L.A. before,” Daniels said, “I can tell you that when you’re in New York City, or L.A. or Nashville — one of those three communities — you’ve got an almost undue influence on the music scene. Heads of labels, managers and artists themselves are all living in those communities.”

The combined operation will use “The New 88.5 FM” as the station ID and carry over most of the on-air talent from KCSN, but Daniels said some of the KSBR programs and personalities will also figure into the programming mix, which also will stream at www.885fm.org. KSBR is a mostly student-run station emphasizing contemporary and smooth jazz.

“When we flip that switch on Tuesday at 10 a.m.,” Daniels said, “it doesn’t mean suddenly a million more people will be tuning in. We have to win people over one listener at a time. But I have a lot of faith that once they discover us, we’re going to mean something to them.”

Debra Fitzsimons, interim chancellor of the South Orange County Community College District, described the deal as “a real win-win for both CSUN and Saddleback College….“We have always looked for opportunities to better serve our community, the region and students. Working together, we are able to increase the reach of 88.5 FM while supporting our students and artists throughout Southern California and beyond.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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