College district silent about future of KCSM-TV

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

I’m worried that a valuable asset of the San Mateo County Community College District will be squandered. And district administrators are refusing to talk about it.

The district holds a television station license from the FCC, which is worth millions of dollars.

In 1964, when the district was simply the College of San Mateo, it got a noncommercial TV license on Channel 60. The station was used as a training ground for future broadcasters, such as Giants announcer Jon Miller.

Over the years, it was one of three noncommercial stations available in the mid-Peninsula. The others were KQED Channel 9 in San Francisco and KTEH Channel 54 in San Jose.

While KQED grew and eventually acquired KTEH, KCSM-TV withered and eventually dropped PBS because of the cost. In recent years, the station has been losing money.

In 2012, Congress decided it wanted to “repackage” the broadcast airwaves and sell spectrum space that broadcasters weren’t using to wireless carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast.

The FCC came up with a two-way auction process. The wireless companies made bids for the amount of spectrum space they wanted to buy and, in a separate auction, broadcasters were given the chance to sell spectrum space they weren’t using or didn’t want to use. Broadcasters even had the option of giving up all of their spectrum space in the auction. The amount each station would get would depend on how much money the wireless companies bid.

Pulling the plug

The community college district board, tired of KCSM-TV losing money, wanted to simply sell off the station and take a check.

Enter LocusPoint Networks, a creation of Blackstone Capital, a Wall Street private equity company that has specialized in leveraged buyout transactions that reap generous payouts for their investors.

The FCC auction was complex and the college district’s administrators felt they couldn’t go forward on their own. So they signed a deal with LocusPoint. LocusPoint would give the college district $900,000 a year to keep KCSM-TV running and when the station eventually sold, LocusPoint would get 34.5% of the proceeds and the district would pocket the rest. A nice payday for LocusPoint compared to the 2% or 3% a broker of broadcast stations might get.

The first part of the auction took place, and the wireless companies bid $18 billion — $10 billion of which will go to broadcasters giving up their airwaves. It’s far less than the $45 billion the government was expecting the wireless industry to pony up.

How much?

Commercial and noncommercial broadcasters are now announcing how much money they got for some or all of their spectrum space. Among the noncommercial stations the University of South Florida sold its station in Tampa for $18.7 million; the public broadcasting organization in Vermont sold a station for $56 million; and Central Michigan University sold a station in Flint for $14 million.

What about KCSM-TV?

The college district isn’t talking. While the district said earlier it would be putting the station on the block in the auction, the district’s spokesman, Mitchell Bailey, refused to talk to a Post reporter about it. He responded by sending a brief email saying nothing had changed regarding the ownership of KCSM-TV. LocusPoint Networks didn’t respond to the Post’s calls and emails.

Silence

I’m suspicious about the silence. Did somebody fumble the ball? Did they make a mistake and were unable to sell the station? Or will it be sold for a lower price than, say, the college TV station in Flint, Mich.?

And how come these other noncommercial stations were sold without the help of a middleman like LocusPoint?

The Post called the college district’s trustees and apparently they haven’t been informed about what happened in the auction. One trustee, Dave Mandelkern, admitted that he was “curious” about it.

The FCC will reveal what happened in the auction later this spring.

At one time, it was believed that KCSM-TV was worth about $30 million. Now maybe it’s worth $10 million because of the lower bids received by the wireless companies.

Windfall

Still, that’s a lot of money for the college district that won’t be restricted with state spending rules. And since they’re eliminating a TV station whose original purpose was to train future broadcasters, I’d like them to see them spend the proceeds on restoring the journalism program at the College of San Mateo.

In 2012, the college district eliminated its journalism classes and shut down the student newspaper, The San Matean. The excuse was that enrollment in those classes had been declining, but the school had done little to attract students to the journalism program.

The student newspaper often went head-to-head with college administrators, questioning how money was spent and the secrecy behind those decisions.

The college now says that journalism is taught in its “digital media” curriculum, which probably does a decent job teaching students how to become graphic artists, web designers or publicity agents, but doesn’t give them the skills to cover the news as reporters.

If the San Matean was around, they’d probably be all over the story about KCSM-TV.

I think it would be a fitting legacy for KCSM-TV if the proceeds from the sale could be used to bring a full-fledged journalism program back to that community college.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.