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KUZZ Excels at Bein’ Neighborly

Bakersfield station celebrates a heritage of community service

There are few awards in radio as exclusive as the NAB’s Crystal Heritage Award. It’s given to stations that have won five NAB Crystal Awards for community service. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, you haven’t talked to Sylvia Cariker, public service director and midday host at KUZZ(FM) in Bakersfield, Calif.

At April’s NAB Radio Show, the Buck Owens Production Co. station will go home with only the third Crystal Heritage Award in NAB history, an honor Cariker couldn’t even imagine when she heard about the first Crystal in 2008, which went to WUSL(FM) in Philadelphia.

“I was thinking that would be so cool, but winning just one is so hard,” she says. “Being in country radio, there’s a lot of store set by winning the Country Music Association awards or the Academy of Country Music Station of the Year. Nobody really said much (here) about the Crystal Awards.

“Then when we won two and three and four? Now they’re excited.”

That’s because the community-service focus of the Crystal Award program fits so tightly with KUZZ’s own community focus.

Mel Owens Jr., GM/owner, and Sylvia Cariker, public service director and midday host

“It’s a symbiotic relationship with the community. We give them what they need and in turn they reward us with their loyalty. We have to be interested in our community. We live here, my kids play soccer with their kids, we all go to church together.”

It’s a relationship that stretches back to the late 1950s, when KUZZ signed on as an AM daytimer playing the music of artists such as Buck Owens himself. Owens purchased the station in 1966, moving it twice to better AM dial positions and eventually to its current spot at 107.9 MHz, with a simulcast at 550 AM kHz.

Owens owned the station until his death in 2006, and his family still owns KUZZ and sister station KCWR(FM).

“Our local ownership is community, too,” Cariker says. General Manager Mel Owens, Owens’ son, “was born and raised here.”

So what is KUZZ’s secret? Relentless engagement with the Bakersfield community, including at least five outside events a month. One of the station’s signature events is the Bakersfield Relay for Life, which now raises $2 million a year for the American Cancer Society. “Our station has had a team out there for all 21 years of the event,” Cariker says. “We have a team out there, we walk, we do fundraisers.”

Cariker does more than walk, though. She also serves as the event’s media coordinator. It’s a role she’s happy to fill for many organizations that come to KUZZ seeking help.

“I like to get in there at the beginning of someone’s campaign or event and publicize the heck out of it,” she says. “One of the things I do as public service director is offer my services to do media training for any group that wants it.”

A young patient at St. Jude’s drops by for the station Radiothon. KUZZ raised $168,000 in February to benefit children via St. Jude’s.

She makes sure that groups remember to include radio when they’re looking for publicity. She cites the example of the Kern County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), which trains volunteers to assist neglected and abused children through the juvenile court system.

In need of more volunteers, CASA turned to KUZZ for help.

“They were doing TV public service announcements and newspaper articles,” Cariker says. “I said, ‘Let’s bring radio into the mix.’” KUZZ worked with CASA to create a series of 30-second radio PSAs that ran in heavy rotation.

“In two years, where they used to graduate six CASAs, they’re now graduating 24. The only thing we did differently was adding radio.” She shared the experience with KUZZ’s sales department to help them share the impact of radio with prospective advertisers.

Cariker shares her PSAs with Bakersfield’s other radio stations too. “I have wonderful relationships with the other public service directors in town,” she says. “We have an understanding that if we do the heavy lifting, creating and producing a public-service campaign, they’ll air it, too.”

The morning team of Steve Gradowitz and Geoff Emery, at top left, survey gifts donated by listeners to 70 local families in the seventh year of the campaign ‘KUZZ Cares for Kids at Christmas.’

The result goes beyond simple community service. It also contributes to a station culture in which staffers become a permanent part of the Bakersfield community.

“For people who come here and say, ‘I can’t wait to get out of this market to a bigger one,’ I say you may as well just leave now, then,” Cariker says. The result is an air staff with deep ties to the community. Morning man Steve Gradowitz, a Bakersfield native, has been with KUZZ since 1986; afternoon jock Chris Conner came to the station in 1977. For most of that time, KUZZ has occupied the top spot in the Bakersfield ratings.

That sort of community connection was to be expected when a station just “acts naturally,” to borrow a phrase from one of Owens’ biggest hits and from his philosophy.

“I remember talking to (Owens) when we won our first Crystal Award, and he said, ‘We’re just being neighborly.’”

Cariker will accept KUZZ’s Crystal Heritage Award at the NAB Show Radio Luncheon on April 17 in Las Vegas.

Buster Smith covers radio from Reston, Va.