By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
SANTA CRUZ, CA — The news/talk radio station in question is not owned by a hedge fund or multi-billion dollar conglomerate. Their ownership group doesn’t occupy the top floors of a big-city skyscraper. You will not see the morning or afternoon show brandishing seven-figure contracts, nor the corporate PD flying into town on the company Lear jet, or the “brand manager” moving from market to market implementing new strategies to grow the market cluster.
The fact of the matter is none of the above elements – which have become somewhat commonplace in today’s radio industry – at this station exist.
10k KSCO (1080 AM) is located in Santa Cruz, California, in a neat stand-alone building (that also houses its smaller sister station KOMY 1340 AM – a facility that owner Michael Zwerling uses as a developmental farm club) on a piece of land that overlooks the Pacific Ocean that would be the envy of any real estate developer in this town known for its college, beach and boardwalk, liberalism, and state park land and forests. It is an 80-minute drive from San Francisco.
KSCO is also one of the last “mom & pop” radio stations left in the United States. It has not only survived the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it has thrived despite consolidation based upon several key factors: the vision by its family ownership, a shocking format change by a chief competitor, along with a non-traditional revenue approach and a solid and real commitment to a local audience.
To understand KSCO, you have to understand the people who run the highly successful news/talk station.
When Michael Zwerling bought KSCO in 1991 he was inadvertently fulfilling a promise he made 24 years prior when he was getting his start in the radio business at that very same station. He had done something on the air that the owner did not appreciate, and he let the young Zwerling know it.
Zwerling tells TALKERS, “It was January 4, 1967, and I was on the air and made a ‘raspberry’ sound during a conversation in order to make a point. Into the studio came the owner and after he lectured me I told him off and said to him that one day I will own this station. Twenty four years later, I bought it.”
During those 24 years, prior to Zwerling’s prophetic acquisition, KSCO carried a number of formats. It also had a sister FM station. When the stations were put up for sale in 1986, the FM was bought by Viacom, but it didn’t want the AM station or its property. After racking up debt and trying to recoup losses, KSCO-AM was put up for sale.
Zwerling made his money in real estate, and one of the main factors in buying KSCO was not just because of that youthful promise. It was the land the studio occupied.
“On February 1, 1991 I paid $600,000 in cash for the radio station and the real estate. The land is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean,” and according to Zwerling, the land the radio station still occupies. However, Zwerling quickly found out that owning a radio station isn’t as easy as he thought. However, a chance encounter with a prospective advertising client changed everything, including thoughts of selling the station or even shutting the station down.
“It really wasn’t fun at first; making payroll wasn’t easy. I was actually ready to throw in the towel, but then I got a call from a doctor who wanted to do a weekly alternative health and wellness program on the weekend. I said ‘OK,’ and immediately it became an amazing and captivating program,” said Zwerling
About 10 weeks after the show first aired on KSCO, the host of the show presented a seminar in Santa Cruz, and the response was tremendous. The doctor wanted to get more airtime for his show on the weekend, and not only was the doctor sold on the station, Zwerling was sold on the doctor and his alternative products, as were listeners to the show.
“People raved about the products, and I had an epiphany,” said Zwerling, who decided to move the show from the weekend to weekdays and began airing it following the syndicated Rush Limbaugh show. Now, instead of selling the show as brokered time, Zwerling brokered the time himself, and since then he has never looked back.
“I made more money on one hour of this show than I did selling all 23 hours of the programming day combined,” says Zwerling. “It wasn’t your typical infomercial. The radio station became a distribution network for the products. People raved about the products and they trusted the station. It became a life-changing decision.”
Zwerling’s experiment with the provocatively-titled “Dead Doctors Don’t Lie” program (hosted by Dr. Joel Wallach), and later its syndication, was one of a number of chances he took programming his small AM station as it fought against competition, especially from the legendary KGO in San Francisco.
While KSCO has been built partially on non-traditional revenue, the news/talk station would not continue to survive today without the unbreakable bond it has created within the community of Santa Cruz and the listening area. It works with the community in ways that other radio stations either cannot do or do not try to do.
“We are a Rush Limbaugh affiliate in the most liberal area of the country. We also had KGO in nearby San Francisco as a competitor for 20 years, one of the most successful stations in America. We went in a different direction. We went local,” says Michael Olson, KSCO’s general manager and GSM.
With three salespeople, only one of which is full-time, KSCO carved deep inroads in the local marketplace.
“We have a few syndicated programs from the outside, but we have a large number of local voices on KSCO. I recently told a Chamber of Commerce breakfast that we have 89 distinct local voices on KSCO. That means you’re guaranteed to hear your friends and neighbors on the station. Companies like Clear Channel can’t do that since they consolidate and don’t focus locally,” says Olson, whose duties include overseeing the station and sales. He also hosts his own weekend program on KSCO (“Food Chain with Michael Olson”), that is self-syndicated on over a dozen radio stations.
KSCO’s local approach also includes partnering with the community on the internet. They are a charter member of ThinkLocalSantaCruz.com, a website devoted to promoting local businesses. The key, according to Olson, is to make connections with the community and be an active part of it, with the people you see every day.
“We are not an Arbitron subscriber, so we sell local through our relationship with the community. Selling radio is one of the most difficult things on the face of the earth,” says Olson. ”You can’t see it, touch it, or feel it. You can hear it, and that makes it a tough sell, especially without the written proof of how many people are listening to you. We bring local businesses into the radio station. They become a part of the station.”
They also have a strong commitment to local news, something that came to the forefront recently when two Santa Cruz police officers were shot to death, the first two local officers killed in that city the line of duty. The story became national news but for the people of the Monterey Bay area, their source of information became KSCO, their hometown radio station.
“We provided extensive coverage of the killing of the officers, with team coverage and live coverage of the funeral,” says Rosemary Chalmers, KSCO’s program/news director an morning host. The funerals were attended by California Governor Jerry Brown and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Chalmers joined KSCO about 20 years ago. After moving to Santa Cruz, she called the station over a dozen times and, during her interview with Zwerling, she stopped the meeting and answered a phone that was ringing and took a message, reminding him that the person on the other end of the line could have been a potential advertiser. Chalmers was hired on the spot, and in addition to her aforementioned duties is also the receptionist, helps with sales and is the “station mom.”
One of the biggest programming challenges KSCO faced was the brouhaha involving Rush Limbaugh and his “slut” comment. In a liberal bastion like Santa Cruz, there were numerous calls for KSCO to stop running Limbaugh’s syndicated show. The station had a choice to make, and its choice was to let the listeners decide.
“There was a lot of discussion, but in the end the people decided they wanted to hear Rush on the air. That goes to our programming. We mix liberal and conservative programs. We offer both,” says Chalmers, whose morning drive program is titled “Good Morning Monterey Bay.” While the station carries the syndicated Limbaugh, Alex Jones, pharmacist Ben Fuchs (a Michael Zwerling-favorite syndicated by GCN) and “Coast-to-Coast AM,” a majority of its programming is live and local. Some of its popular local personalities include Charley Freedman, Dave Michaels, Ethan Bearman (a Michael Harrison “pick to click”), Dave Alan, Cory Gold and quite a few more.
“What makes the station unique is this is a station where content is not dictated by corporations. You don’t find independent operators in radio anymore,” says Rich Lieberman, who hosts the local afternoon show following Limbaugh. “I do a local show with local content. I’m never told what I can and can’t say. Michael has his own business interests, but he gives me complete, 100% editorial control.”
The surprise format change of the legendary news/talk KGO in San Francisco gave KSCO even more of an opportunity to serve talk listeners than it ever had before.
“We temporarily picked up some of their hosts. [Dr. Bill Wattenburg has stayed on with the station.] When KGO was dismantled we benefitted, gaining lots of new listeners and issues. People want to talk, and we were there for them,” says Chalmers.
Lieberman, who is also operates the “415 Media” blog about Bay Area radio and television, richliebermanreport.blogspot.com, says the surprise format flip of KGO in December, 2011 which ended a number of local talk shows on the Cumulus-owned station benefitted KSCO in a number of ways.
“Radio still has the direct medium aspect. People listen to find out what is happening. They still want local information and want to talk about their community,” says Lieberman.
Lieberman’s assessment of KSCO accurately describes the “Good Morning Monterey Bay” program Chalmers hosts. Chalmers says her show is not about the world, but instead about the area that is home to her listeners. Chalmers recently told TALKERS TV, “I don’t do politics. I talk to politicians about what they are doing for us. When I get up in the morning I want to be entertained. I want to be informed. I want to know what the weather and traffic is and I want to know what is happening in the community.”
Another person who also has complete control over her content is the person who may be the most popular figure on KSCO — Zwerling’s 92-year old mother Kay. Her daily conservative-leaning commentaries are a fixture on the station her son owns.
“Mom is more popular than Limbaugh,” says Michael Zwerling. “She has an opinion on everything. People love her, lefties maybe not so much.”
TALKERS magazine publisher Michael Harrison believes a lot of radio stations and broadcast companies can learn something from KSCO’s live and local approach, stating, “Radio is a people business and KSCO is a people station. Michael Zwerling and his colorful crew of offbeat, eccentric folks live and breathe radio and its relationship to the community. Add to the recipe the fact that the station does not carry a huge debt service. More importantly, between Zwerling’s adventurous experimentation in and ultimate mastery of non-traditional revenue and Olson’s savvy, street-smart dedication to local advertising sales and service they have found the magic formula that can fuel a 21st century radio station rooted in pride and purpose.”
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at Mckayway@aol.com. Meet Jeff McKay at Talkers New York 2013 on Thursday, June 6, 2013.