Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
It's great fun to be able to visit some of the college radio stations that I listen to regularly, including today's tour of a station in my very own city of San Francisco. On Friday, January 30th, 2009 I took a trip to see the University of San Francisco station KUSF. Thanks so much to Co-Music Director Irwin Swirnoff, as well as the staff and DJs of KUSF for allowing me to tour the station and quiz them about its past and present.
Like me, Irwin is a college radio veteran, having worked at 3 different college radio stations, including one of my radio alma mater's: KSPC at Pomona College. It was fun comparing notes with him about our college radio experiences and it was also inspiring to see so many folks at KUSF who are passionate about music and college radio.
KUSF has been around at University of San Francisco (a private Jesuit university) since 1977 as an FM station, but began as an AM station in 1963. Following their move to FM, the AM station continued on campus and still exists as student-run Internet-only station KDNZ.
KUSF is located in the basement of Phelan Hall on the USF campus in San Francisco. Nearby is a bookstore, dorms, and campus ministry. I was told that their location has meant that they have to be careful about having live performances at the station, since sound might bleed over into classrooms and dorms that are above the station. Despite all of that, Irwin told me that they've had a lot of cool bands come in (Matmos, Kronos Quartet, indie rock bands, etc.), often doing more stripped down performances.
DJ "Stereo Steve" On the Air at KUSF
When I visited the station on a Monday morning, Irwin was on the air interviewing and spinning records with a few of the organizers of the Disposable Film Festival. As I waited for Irwin to finish his show, I was able to chat with a number of KUSF staff members and DJs who were hanging around, including General Manager Steve Runyon, who has been at KUSF since the very early days of the station (beginning as Student GM in 1970).
It was fun chatting a bit with Steve Runyon, as he gave me some great perspective about why so many college radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area are still going strong after decades on the air. He pointed out that KUSF, KALX (UC Berkeley) and KFJC (Foothill College, where I DJ) all have long-time station supervisors/GMs overseeing their stations. I'd never really thought about that; but having a consistent leader (especially one connected with the faculty and administration) is a huge benefit for college radio stations, which often have ever-changing staffs. In addition to a long-time GM, KUSF also has many long-running shows and DJs that have been on the air from 5 to 30 years.
The KUSF program schedule is broken down into 2 categories: New Music and Cultural programming. On weekdays, new music programming airs from midnight to 6pm, with cultural programs from 6pm until midnight. The weekends are entirely devoted to cultural programming.
New music shows focus on the latest releases being added to the KUSF library; with DJs being required to play at least 50% new music adds (aka "currents") during their shows. Irwin said the goal is for the station to be "diverse" and to "play amazing music that you don't hear elsewhere" across a range of genres.
In order to be eligible to apply for a shift as a New Music DJ, volunteers must first complete a training program that begins with "ride-a-longs" (sitting in on a DJ's show), followed by a month-long training slot (where there's some supervision), and then about 6 months of graveyard (3-6am) shifts. Each quarter the schedule changes, with DJs being asked to fill out an application for their requested time slots along with details about their involvement and contributions to the station. Irwin told me that if you are doing a lot of work for the station, then you are more likely to get an air shift (or keep your shift if you already have a show).
Cultural programming on KUSF features a broad mix of shows that are meant to "serve and represent San Francisco," according to Program Director Trista Bernasconi. Each of these programs is supported by and required to bring in a specific amount of underwriting for KUSF.
Trista told me that she "tries to have a program for every community in San Francisco." Shows include niche community-oriented programs like "Chinese Star Radio," "Radio Goethe," "So Da Brasil!", and "Hamazkayin Armenian Hour." Additionally, some specialty music programs are also featured in the "cultural" block of programming. One such show, "Rampage Radio," at 2am Sundays, has been playing heavy sounds for 28 years and according to Irwin is one of the longest-running metal shows in the country. "In the Soul Kitchen" (also around for 25+ years) features soul, funk, reggae, and world music. "Jukebox" is another music show and it features a different former KUSF DJ hosting every week. Following "Jukebox" is the "Local Music Program." The longest running cultural show is "Podium," which spotlights lectures recorded at USF.
Like most college radio stations, KUSF is pretty low budget, keeping themselves afloat with a small amount of funding from USF, underwriting, donations, and proceeds from benefit shows (they had a big one for their 30th anniversary featuring Yo La Tengo) and their several-times-a-year record fair aka Rock 'n Swap. Irwin told me that recently they expanded their fundraising repertoire by doing their first on-air "quiet drive."
In addition to raising more money (something all stations struggle with), Irwin told me that they've been working really hard to increase student involvement at the station. DJs are a mix of students and community volunteers, with the ratio fluctuating over the years. Irwin said that the number of students at the station is on the rise, which pleases him greatly. He told me that he guessed that the current staff was probably 40% students (vs. maybe 20% four years ago). Irwin said that the station's connection to the college is really important and that "Some of the biggest fans of the station are professors here." He added that some professors have been guest DJs, including one who came on the station to talk about the history of disco. Similarly, Irwin said that they've heard that some students chose to attend USF in part because KUSF is there.
CD Storage at KUSF on Rolling Shelves
Irwin and I talked a lot about the music at KUSF and the process for adding and reviewing new releases. He's part of a team of Music Directors and he told me that they listen to every piece of music sent to the station in order to "give everybody a chance." To accomplish this, they get a lot of help from staff in terms of checking out new music. Every other week they have Music Meetings, which are open to all DJs. At the meetings they'll preview "borderline" material that's been sent to the station and get a group vote on whether or not the music should get added to the library. After DJs attend 3 music meetings they are eligible to take home a stack of music to review. For these initial reviews, DJs fill in their feedback in a review database which can be referenced when speaking with label representatives. More formal reviews, and "fuck patrol" (checking for obscenities) happen next. If a piece of music gets the thumbs up, then it's added to "currents" for 3 months.
KUSF's Irwin Swirnoff in the Record Library
Irwin told me that vinyl still plays a big role at KUSF and said that they regularly add vinyl LPs and 7" singles. He also mentioned that often, when given the choice, they'll add a vinyl version of an album rather than the CD version. He said that there are certain DJs who do primarily vinyl shows, but that the newer DJs often need the most help in terms of learning how to handle vinyl records. He added, "We try to encourage newer DJs...to utilize vinyl."
7" Vinyl Storage at KUSF
KUSF doesn't add digital releases. In a follow-up converstation Irwin said, "We still believe in the beauty, work & passion that goes into making a record/cd and having all that info, artwork, etc is such a vital part of the listening experience. I'm sure down the line we will have to give in a bit but we believe vinyl for sure will never die!"
When I asked him whether or not DJs were allowed to play material from iPods, he told me that it was discouraged, saying, "We don't supply equipment for people to use an iPod." He added that KUSF has records in their library that "you won't find anywhere else." He said they have vinyl dating back to the early days of the station, including probably every piece of vinyl ever released by Sonic Youth.
Reel-to-Reel Player in KUSF Broadcast Studio
In response to my question about whether or not they add cassette releases, Irwin agreed that there was a "re-emergence of cassette culture," but admitted that KUSF doesn't have a cassette player in their studio or add cassettes to their library. He mentioned that there are DJs playing material off cassettes on their shows and they end up bringing in a boombox and mic'ing it for broadcast. KUSF does, however, have a reel-to-reel machine, which at least one DJ uses regularly during his shift.
Every week KUSF not only tallies their top plays (to report to labels and CMJ), but also does a "Top 10" show, where they count down the weekly top 10. On New Year's Day they also play the top 90.3 of the year (here's the list for 2008). Although they have a database that they use for charting purposes, DJs still keep track of their set lists by using paper playlists. Recently KUSF began podcasting and archiving their shows online and many DJs are also posting their playlists.
Irwin summed up his take on college radio, saying that "college radio is...[one of the] last reminders of what the medium at its best represents." He talked about the importance of community and how KUSF helps to build and support the community of San Francisco by highlighting local artists, filmmakers, activists, and musicians.
Thanks again to Irwin and everyone else at KUSF for a fun visit! In the coming weeks I'll be continuing my tour of some other San Francisco Bay Area college radio stations.
Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips: