As part of my on-going mission to explore college radio stations from every corner of the U.S., I'm pleased to present the first installment of the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour. Every week (keep your fingers crossed), I'll be interviewing stations from each of the 50 states. I'm selecting a variety of stations that have caught my eye, in order to share their stories and remind people that there's a whole lot of cool stuff going on in college radio all over the country, from small towns to big cities.
The first station on my 50 state virtual tour is KXUA-FM from University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I found out about KXUA when I learned that long-time Spinning Indie reader and former KSCL-FM General Manager "voice of Schleuss" had recently joined the station. Coincidentally, Barsuk Records GM Wes Howerton (featured this week on CMJ's staff blog) is also a KXUA alum and former Music Director.
KXUA has been broadcasting on FM since 2000, but it took years of work for the organization to acquire the frequency. As an homage to their struggles, they launched the station on April Fools and played nothing but political speeches on that inaugural day of broadcasting. In the years prior to that there were other radio stations, different call letters, and a student station that has been NPR-affiliate KUAF since 1986. In my interview with Station Manager Stuart Feild, he talks a bit about their struggles to get on the air (including their battles with radio-hungry religious groups), KXUA's programming philosophy, their searchable music archive, what happened to their old vinyl, and how they decide what music gets added to the station.
Image from KXUA blogBy the way, if you live in Arkansas, KXUA is holding a carnival this weekend with clowns, fire blowing, magic, and a chance to make your own radio station T-shirt. Sounds fun! You can learn more on the KXUA blog, which also has station news, charts, and links to podcasts.
Thanks so much to Stuart for taking the time to talk to me about KXUA. You can tune into his freeform show on Sunday afternoons or download one of his podcasts.
Spinning Indie: What's the overall mission/programming philosophy of KXUA?
Stuart: The mission statement at the founding of KXUA was to bring eclectic music to the North West Arkansas, that is music that is not and can not be provided by commercial radio. Our policy is that we do not air any tracks that have been in the billboard hot 100 in the last 50 years. Since becoming station manager I have strived to expand that goal beyond simply music and into anything audible we can possibly push over the airwaves that isn't on other stations. Radio plays, poetry, interviews with interesting people, we even do straight sound effects shows sometimes. I'm willing to work with anyone who has an idea for some new and different use for radio and sound.
Spinning Indie: Your station has been around since 2000, but radio has existed for much longer at University of Arkansas. Any favorite tidbits from your path towards getting your FM license?
Stuart: Well I wasn't around when the station was founded, but from what I understand there was a pretty nasty battle with the Christian fascist network over our spot on the dial. They now bookend our station with two stations, and I get some pleasure in knowing that people trying to tune into them have probably accidentally landed on us and hopefully become fans. It took the founders two long years to get KXUA on the air and I always try and keep them and their struggle in my mind with every decision we have to make. I always want to honor and protect their wishes for what they wanted our station to be, and I hope future station managers and executive boards can do the same.
Spinning Indie: Do you continue to celebrate April Fools at the station after your inaugural music-free day in 2000?
Stuart: We usually have a "Birthday Bash" in the Spring but we have not had a repeat of the original no music day. However, it's a good idea!
Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show/DJ at the station? When did the show/DJ first go on the air?
Stuart: The Digital Earthquake, which features electronic music...has been airing on Sunday nights and hosted by Bo Counts since the very beginning of the station. He's actually the only person that's still around that has been with the station since it's inception. He was station manager twice (no one else has done that that I know of) and has since graduated and now works for the University.
We have a few shows that I like to refer to as "legacy shows" that have been around since the beginning but have changed names, hosts, and time slots several times over the years. The Concrete Schoolyard is our hip hop show and it's been around forever and has been all over the schedule and had dozens of hosts. The Gutter is our punk and thrash show, it's been on Saturdays forever but gone by various names and hosts, Down By The Old Main Stream is our Rock n'Roll history show and it's always been on Sunday afternoons. Thunder Mountain is the metal show and it's been on several night and had lots of different hosts and names. etc etc. I guess basically we have a couple of genres that we want to make sure are always covered by genre DJs and it's just a matter of who is willing to do them.
Spinning Indie: Did your station inherit anything from the other campus stations (eg old records)?
Stuart: We used to have a massive record collection that we inherited from KRZR. Space is a constant problem for us and we hardly have room for our 3000+ CD archive. The records were in storage and not accessible to DJs anyway so they ended up being sold off. I ended up getting quite a few DEVO records, which was awesome. Hopefully we can find enough space to keep storing CDs cause everyone is pretty opposed to going all digital.
Spinning Indie: Do you have any specific programs/specialty shows that are unique to KXUA or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?
Stuart: Oh yeah, I'd say every show is unique to our market. No one is playing spoken word/poetry, black metal, or real punk rock. Just go down our programming schedule, you won't find any of it on any other station. We are kind of lucky that way. If you want something different we are it.
Spinning Indie: Is there certain music that DJs are required to play? Is there anything that DJs aren't allowed to play?
Stuart: We have around 90 CDs in "rotation" at any time. This is divided into heavy, medium, and light. "Rotation DJs", who come in between 6am and 6pm are required to play 5 tracks out of heavy, 3 of medium, 2 of light every hour and then whatever else they want (as long as it's an eclectic mix). Rotation is chosen by our music board, who review all the music that comes in. We accept music from anyone, but usually less than 10% they deem good enough to keep. Other than that we only require that our DJs abide by FCC foul language rules, and only because we have to.
Spinning Indie: How does your MD decide what music to add? What's your philosophy about indie vs. major label? Do you add material by major labels? If yes, why? If no, why?
Stuart: I think I answered most of this in the last question. Our goal is to get things on the air that aren't there already there, so often there is no reason for us to play some major release cause it can be heard on all the other stations. If it's a major release that we like and it's getting no play elsewhere we might consider it. The reissue of Laurie Anderson's "Big Science" comes to mind, it was in our heavy rotation for a while but got no play on other stations.
Spinning Indie: Do you add and play a lot of vinyl?
Stuart: Not a lot. We have turn tables, and a lot DJs bring records in, but we usually
don't require anyone to play records unless it's something that is only on vinyl and there is some malicious person on music board that is just insistent that something that is only available on vinyl must go into rotation.
Spinning Indie: Do most students at University of Arkansas know about the station? Do a lot of students listen to the station? Is the staff/DJs mostly students?
Stuart: Most people don't know about the station, but it's not because we aren't constantly spreading the word! It's just under most people radar, and we probably operate a lot better that way cause we can do whatever we want. It's hard to tell how many people are listening since radio is a passive medium and there is no way to survey that other than seeing how many people will call in when we give out the number on the air for whatever reason. DJs are mostly students, we have a few faculty and staff members with shows. The staff is all students, and our constitution is pretty clear that it must be, other wise we wouldn't be "student run radio".
Spinning Indie: It's amazing that you can view your music library, current & light rotation releases from your website. Does this represent your entire record library?
Stuart: Yes, our entire archive is searchable on our website. About a year ago we started a blog and there was some debate about whether we would be abandoning the old website, but it works so well that we have decided to keep them both.
Spinning Indie: How much of the schedule is automated programming? How do you come up with the music for that?
Stuart: We try and have as little automation as possible, ideal none. In fact we are currently looking for DJs to fill the 12am-5am hours. In the past the philosophy about automation was that it should sound bad, to encourage DJs to do their show. Well, I thought that was the stupidest thinking ever. Why anyone would think the station should ever sound bad is beyond me. When I got on the exec board one of my major goals was to fix automation. We now keep it up to date with current rotation, as well as tons of music from the back catalog. We keep it loaded up with old PSAs, old commercials, old time radio shows, short syndicated programs, and sound effects, anything to keep the station interesting while there isn't a live person there.
Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations? Who do you admire?
Stuart: I love WFMU in New Jersey. It used to be a college station but now manages to be a commercial free independent station. I get a lot of inspiration from them and the things they have done with radio. In fact their blog is what inspired me to start the KXUA blog and I've tried to model it after their style.
Stay tuned. The next stop on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour is a college radio station in Wisconsin.