Is the end near for local radio at Santa Cruz’s KSCO?

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For more than 30 years, it’s been a fiercely independent, occasionally quirky but always Santa Cruz-centric media presence, but as 2023 dawns, KSCO (1080 AM) might be no more.

Several weeks ago, the radio station was put up for sale — and, of this writing, it is still for sale. But with no serious prospective buyer in sight, owner Michael Zwerling announced to his staff that, if the station is not sold, he will convert its AM frequency to automated programming on New Year’s Day. Two weeks ago, the staff of about a dozen got word that their jobs would expire at the end of December.

“Yeah, it looks like our local programming is going away,” said Zwerling of his radio station, which he’s owned and operated since 1991. “I have the radio station for sale, and the real estate [for sale] separately. I think the ideal buyer would buy them both. But I guess that’s just not in the cards.”

On Jan. 1, the station’s live local programming — which includes “Good Morning Monterey Bay” with longtime hosts Rosemary Chalmers and Bill Wolverton — will cease. With the demise of the station’s local programming, Santa Cruz will lose a uniquely eccentric broadcast voice that loyal listeners turned to for everything from breaking news in a crisis, to scorching political opinions from right and left, to Christian evangelism, to controversial nutrition and medical advice.

And what will KSCO’s loyal radio audiences hear when tuning into 1080 AM beginning in January? Zwerling is still uncertain.

“We have thousands and thousands of hours of old classic KSCO shows that I think would be really interesting to listen to,” he said. “It’s the kind of things that we’ll play on holidays like Christmas or Fourth of July, and it makes for really good stuff. I still might do that, but it’s much more likely that we’ll make a deal with one or more of the syndicated radio companies [to air nationally syndicated programming].”

Syndicated programming has moved in to dominate local radio, even before the advent of podcasting. Once delivered by satellite, now streamed online, syndicated offerings are remarkably diverse in the realm of news, sports, music and other niche interests including religious programming, advice and educational shows, and often with celebrity or well-known hosts, aired live or pre-recorded.

Zwerling is asking $1.5 million for the 10,000-watt radio station, which includes its sister frequency KOMY (1340 AM). He said KSCO’s signal can potentially reach “in the daytime, north of Sacramento to south of Bakersfield.” That price does not include the building and the surrounding property on Portola Drive near Corcoran Lagoon, adjacent to East Cliff Drive and a five-minute walk to the beach. The 6.8-acre parcel — most of that acreage is part of the lagoon — contains the station’s three broadcast towers and its art deco-inspired building, first constructed in 1947. It is zoned for administrative offices and open space. The reported asking price is $6 million.

In the scenario where the station is sold, he said, Zwerling would remain as the property owner and the leaseholder would be paying rent on the building to the tune of approximately $15,000 a month.

Zwerling’s three-decades-long ownership of KSCO — the call letters, established by original owner Vernon Berlin, stand for “Santa Cruz’s Own” — has coincided with huge economic turmoil and rapid consolidation in the traditional radio business.

When he and his family took control of the station in the pre-internet age, Zwerling ran a fairly conventional business embracing the news-talk format that was ascendent at the time. The station’s airing of Rush Limbaugh’s hugely profitable daily show in the 1990s and 2000s provided some stability, though it earned KSCO the enmity of many progressives in Santa Cruz, not only for Limbaugh but for other local conservative talk show hosts. Zwerling’s mother, Kay Zwerling, was one of the station’s most high-profile, right-leaning voices. She, in fact, professed her support for the idea of Donald Trump in the White House five years before he was elected. Michael Zwerling himself has been the predominant on-air personality at KSCO for three decades.

As the digital age began to roil the terrestrial radio industry, Zwerling — who prefers to be known as “MZ” — had to get creative, initiating a kind of pay-to-play model of selling blocks of airtime to outside programmers. Since that time, however, the tide has gone out even further on AM radio. In October, San Francisco’s KGO-AM — one of Northern California’s dominant news-talk giants for decades — abruptly changed to a syndicated sports-betting format.

At KSCO, Zwerling says the time was right to get out for him, both personally and financially. He said revenues had long ago fallen short of expenses and that he has been operating in the red to the tune of around $35,000 to $40,000 a month. Zwerling, a Santa Cruz lifer, has been investing in local real estate for decades. “Thankfully, I’ve been able to do it, and I’m still able to do it,” he said. “But I don’t want to do it, and I’m not going to do it anymore.”

Another factor that has led him to move on from KSCO, he said, is a new relationship. And with his new partner — herself a co-host of a KSCO show titled “China Watch Radio” — Zwerling, 71, wants to spend his remaining healthy years traveling. “Before her, KSCO was my life,” he said. “Now, I have a different life, and I want to enjoy it. For so many years, KSCO was 90% joy and 10% misery and sadness. In the last two years, that’s reversed. It’s like 90% misery and no fun at all. It breaks my heart to have to send out these letters [to employees, announcing layoffs] to people who have essentially been my family. But I’m just tired of spending all this money. So many stations in the country now just don’t do live and local because it doesn’t pay, and it hasn’t paid for years.”

Though Zwerling is disappointed that the station’s local programming has come to an end, he is defiant about his decision to move on from KSCO, one of the few remaining live-crew and local radio stations in the county, along with KSQD (90.7 FM), KZSC (88.1 FM) and KPIG (107.5 FM). Referring to a failed bid by a group of radio station employees who wanted to take control of the station and run it as a nonprofit, Zwerling said, “I’ve been made to feel like a bastard for not donating the radio station for free, a station that I poured my heart and soul into for 32 years, to some yet-to-be-established 501(c)(3). I’ve been painted as the bad guy, when I should be getting a medal.”

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