Friday, September 5, 2008

College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR

Over the Labor Day weekend I was finally able to resume my series of field trips to college radio stations around the country, which began in March with my first field trip to WECB (Emerson College).

This time around, I went closer to home, visiting California station KCPR 91.3 FM at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. One of the station General Managers, Brian Hildebrand took time out of a busy day to meet with me and chat about the 40 year old station.

The first thing that struck me was that the station name was emblazoned across the top of the Graphic Arts building where the station was housed. That's some incredible exposure for the station and when I asked Brian about it, he said he had no idea how they got so lucky. The station has had a number of changes recently, not the least of which was a station move/remodel and a change in their transmitter location in order to gain wider coverage. While I visited, they were also gearing up to broadcast their first football game.

When I arrived, DJ "Otto" was in control of the board. As I'd suspected, "Otto" is an automatic DJ used when there isn't a live DJ available to fill an airshift. Cal Poly was still on summer break, thus the presence of Otto on a few slots. While I listened to the station over the weekend, I heard several Otto DJ shifts and the music sounded really good, most likely because KCPR takes a lot of care in choosing the music that is fed into the virtual DJ system. They have a beautiful, brand new board in their on-air studio that's connected to studio automation software called "NexGen Digital," that seems to do a lot of the work when there isn't a live DJ.

It says a lot about the station that even when the board is on Otto-pilot, the station still sounds great and is very listenable. I talked to both Brian and one of the Music Directors (Jack La Porte) about the station's programming philosophy, which leans heavily towards playing underexposed, mostly indie music. As a testament to that, KCPR also has a large vinyl library and regularly adds vinyl to the station (although they don't receive a lot in the mail). Additionally, they have a show called "Vinyl Frontiers," in which DJs go through the station library playing hidden vinyl gems that fit with a particular theme.

Vinyl Being Played during Jack's shift

KCPR features both format and specialty shows. Format DJs are required to play 7 "current" releases per hour, which equates to about 50% current per format show. Additionally, all music played on a format show must be from the station's library. However, specialty show DJs can bring music from home and are not subject to "current" requirements. Format shows are very eclectic, as I got to experience first-hand while observing Music Director Jack's show during my visit.

On the Summer 2008 schedule, some of the specialty shows included "Electronic Immersion," "Soul Patrol," "New Noise," "Slaytanic Carnage" ("the only death metal show on the central coast" and a big hit with the incarcerated residents of the nearby "Men's Colony" according to Brian), "Urban Landscapes" (urban show that's been on for about a decade) and "Psychedelic Gospel." The airstaff includes student, faculty and community member DJs. One of their longtime DJs, Disgusting Old Hippie (aka English Prof. James B. Cushing), has been hosting the acoustic jazz show "Miles Ahead" since 1997. Brian and Jack proudly told me that James was also featured in the film "Decline of Western Civilization."

Brian also talked about a recent article in the campus paper "America's Oldest College Radio DJ?" about KCPR's oldest DJ Charlie B, who hosts "Musica Americana," in which he plays old-time music.

I was intrigued to hear some station lore during my visit too, including tales about Weird Al's stint at the station. To hear more about the Weird Al connection, see some classic photos and read one KCPR alum's account of his time at the station in the 1970s, visit "My College Days at KCPR." There's also a Wiki for KCPR alum and you can find all sorts of goodies there, including pictures of old playlists, program guides, etc.

Paper Playlist

Speaking of playlists, KCPR still uses paper playlists, which surprised me in light of their glamorous new board. The MDs tally up the lists each week in order to compile their charts for CMJ and labels. I remember those days not so fondly.

Thanks again to the staff of KCPR for allowing me to tour their excellent station. I'm always thrilled to learn more about the inner-workings of other college radio stations and it's particularly cool when the station is devoted to underground sounds. I'll be keeping tabs on KCPR and look forward to hearing what they're up to as they celebrate their 40th anniversary this fall.


Anonymous said...

I really like these visits. I read your blog everyday. Keep up the good work! Being a radio programmer in the number 1 market, you keep the love in radio alive!

Jennifer Waits said...

Awww. thanks! Hopefully I can do another visit soon. It's so fun to meet other college radio folks. I always get new ideas and inspiration too.

pukey b said...

This is my station! I haven't seen the new incarnation of it yet, but I'm still proud as a mother about 'em.

Scott Larsen said...

That sign is over *cough* 20 *cough* years old. As part of the campus open house festivities ("Poly Royal"), I cut it out of Masonite and hung it up there in the middle of the night, hoping it would survive the weekend. We took it down a few times whenever the powers noticed it, but it would find its way back up after a little cooling-off period.