Story and Photos By Jondi Gumz
Michael Zwerling has been in love with KSCO since he was a high school kid broadcasting Santa Cruz High On The Air in the mid1960s. As the station owner since 1991, he’s created a radio station that’s a voice for pretty much everyone.
But now, at 71 — his birthday was Nov. 9 — he has a new love in his life, Amy Hao, co-host of the China Watch show on KSCO and a veteran traveler, and he wants to spend his time traveling with her.
The couple, who met in 2019, are “totally into free speech,” Zwerling said.
They recently returned from a two-week safari in Africa.
“Amy’s not happy unless she’s traveling, and she wants to take me to all these places,” Zwerling said.
That’s why he’s looking for a buyer for KSCO 1080 AM, with sister station KOMY 1340, and the one-acre of flat land at 2300 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz, overlooking Corcoran Lagoon.
Asking price is $1.5 million cash for the two radio stations and the broadcasting business.
Asking price is $6 million cash for the property, which includes the Art Deco studio building, garage, parking lot, concrete event patio, plus the three broadcast towers in the lagoon, which give the 10-kilowatt station the power of a 50-kilowatt station on dry land, according to Zwerling.
He said he’s open to keeping the land and leasing it to the next radio station owner for $15,000 a month.
Of course, a developer admiring the view at Silicon Beach could buy the property and go through the often onerous county permitting process, seeking to change the zoning from broadcasting to something else.
Every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon, Zwerling — who dubs himself MZ — hosts the Saturday Special, an eclectic show that might feature him singing karaoke, proponents and opponents of a proposed empty home tax in Santa Cruz, or the recently fired CEO of the Santa Cruz County Fair.
In an earthquake — remember Loma Prieta in 1989 — a wildfire or major winter storm, KSCO provides a lifeline, replacing regular programs with news updates on current conditions, road closures and the like.
Zwerling leans conservative, but not all the listeners are.
In fact, Zwerling boasts that former Sen. Henry Mello (from 1980 to 1992) listened to KSCO on his way home from Sacramento.
Conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh held the morning slot from 9 a.m. to noon until he died. Now Rob Carson, who used to write jokes for Limbaugh, fills that spot.
Watsonville local Charles Freedman offers local news talk from noon to 2 p.m. His claim to fame is you can call and actually get on the air. He has encyclopedic knowledge of tunes from the 20s and 30s, used for his bumper music, playing requests, too.
Program director Rosemary Chalmers, with her delightful British accent, helms God Morning Monterey Bay from 6 to 9 p.m.
Other local hosts include:
- Gary Shapiro, From the Bookshelf, interviewing authors
- Pamela Fugitt-Hetrick of Money Moves, financial tips and tools
- Jonathan Parkhurst, My Empowered Hour, talking to people who have made a new life for themselves after incarceration and inspired others
- Conservative Kristin Hurley of Mama Bears Radio
- Dave Michaels, co-pilot of Flight 1080 from 4 to 7 p.m. and selling supplements produced by Dr. Joel Wallach, 82, the veterinarian-turned-naturopathic doctor who discovered that remedying nutrition deficiencies is the way to health.
Sales of those Youngevity products by Dave Michaels help finance KSCO operations.
But the radio operation isn’t a big money-maker.
In fact, Zwerling said he always operated the station at a deficit because he hasn’t had the heart to lay off any of his “great” staff.
“Not a smart way to run a business I know, but if I can’t have a radio station with a heart, a soul, and a personality, I don’t even want to be in that business,” he said.
He has about a dozen employees, and he’s loath to pay a sales staffer a salary because that person might not generate any advertising.
Other radio stations have gone automated, with message machines to answer calls instead of humans, but that’s no option for Zwerling.
It just wouldn’t be KSCO.
Zwerling’s mother Kay, who introduced her son to talk radio, was often on KSCO, using her distinctive voice to comment on current events. She died at age 95 in 2017.
The KSCO lineup includes a few nationally known figures: Dr. Joel Wallach’s show, “Dead Doctors Don’t Lie,” same title as his 1999 book, “Pharmacist Ben” Fuchs, a Youngevity rep, on Flight 1080 on Fridays, and George Noory’s Coast to Coast at 10 p.m.
Michael Olson, KSCO general manager and host of the Saturday morning Food Chain show, is active in Think Local First Santa Cruz County, a nonprofit formed to support locally owned businesses.
For several years until the pandemic, KSCO hosted Think Local First mixers on its concrete patio overlooking the lagoon. In August, Zwerling revealed on the Saturday Special that county planning department staff had ordered removal of much of the patio because there was no permit. Zwerling said he didn’t think a permit was needed. He signed an agreement that he hoped would resolve the matter, and afterward realized he had signed, in his words, “a blank check,” which he cannot afford.
The patio is still there, fenced off.
Another recent development: Rosemary Chalmers made a public service announcement to say KSCO can no longer be heard after sunset. Listeners must tune in to KOMY, the sister station at 1340 AM that KSCO bought in 1997.
Zwerling elaborated: KSCO has a 10,000 watt non-directional signal during the day, which is why it’s so strong, and a 5,000 watt directional signal at night, which resulted in losing 80% of the coverage area.
For years, Zwerling said, he had operated the non-directional signal at 20% at night because he believed it was in the public interest.
For years, Federal Communications Commission, which grants the radio station license, “looked the other way,” Zwerling said.
This year, surprise FCC inspections found the station not conforming with its license.
“In October, they got real tough with us,” Zwerling said.
The FCC has rules on “harmful interference,” and the enforcement bureau responds to complaints.
Zwerling contends there has not been a single complaint of interference.
After sunset, listeners must turn to 1340 AM, or listen online via the free KSCO app, but Zwerling expects the FCC problem to be resolved “fairly soon.”
Longtime followers of KSCO might recall that KSCO was put up for sale in 2007 but no sale took place.
Zwerling said he’s enjoyed his run, keeping the station alive for nearly 32 years, but it’s time for someone else to take over.
“I’m done,” he said.
This is what worries Michael Olson.
An employee purchase is not in the cards, so Olson hopes a gazillionaire will come out of the woodwork and buy KSCO.
Mackenzie Bezos? Reed Hastings? Sol Lipman?
But what if that doesn’t happen?
What if, on Dec. 31, there is no one to take over?
Does that mean the door closes forever?
Olson has an idea: Could KSCO follow the example of KMBY in Monterey?
That radio station was created after KNRY went silent in 2020 and then was donated to the Fresno nonprofit Hanford Youth Services.
KMBY began operating in April 2022.
Radio stations are bought and sold all the time but usually through behind-the-scenes channels, according to Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, which covers the talk-radio industry.
Harrison called Zwerling “one of the industry’s most transparent owners… so this is just another case of him letting everyone in on what’s happening in his business. He seems extremely concerned with the station continuing to serve the local community, which it has done for the last 30 years under his unique style of ownership.”
Asked about comparable radio station sales, Harrison said, “KSCO’s value cannot be judged solely on comps — the station is somewhat of a unicorn in terms of its special heritage not to mention location and assets. I cannot predict whether or not Zwerling will find a buyer in today’s radio market but it would nice if someone in the community could step up to the plate and keep this gem of a facility locally owned and committed to the region.”
What is the future of KSCO?
Only time will tell.
Interested parties should send an email with qualifications and questions to Michael Zwerling at [email protected].