Sunday, March 1, 2009

Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU

Entrance to KSCU in Basement of Swig Hall

I've been sticking close to home lately, attempting to visit as many San Francisco Bay Area college radio stations as I can. On February 19, 2009, I traveled south to catch up with 2 of the Music Directors at Santa Clara University station KSCU. Over the years I've met a few folks who've DJ'd there, so it was fun to finally see the station in person. Thanks so much to Music Director Nicole Coxe and Assistant Music Director Sam Duarte for taking the time to speak with me about KSCU. Also a big thanks to DJ "E.O.," a long-time KSCU staff member, who gave me a bit of the low-down about the history of the station.

Located in the basement of the dormitory Swig Hall, thus the slogan, "The Underground Sound," KSCU would be impossible to find on campus if you didn't already know that it was there. There's no signage outside and the only real landmark is a big red flashing light atop the dorm building. Security on campus has been heightened recently, so any guests to the station need to be escorted in by a staff member. Like KUSF, KSCU is located at a private Jesuit University.

On-Air Studio at KSCU

According to E.O., a staff member and DJ (he does a dance/electronic/dark wave show now) at KSCU for 26 years, KSCU started in the mid-1970s, although campus radio at Santa Clara University has apparently been around for over 50 years in different forms (closed-circuit, etc.). E.O. told me that when he came to KSCU in the 1980s, the station only had 2 rooms and was located in a janitorial closet. Around 1985 the station expanded beyond the janitorial closet into a larger space in the basement thanks to their then-advisor.

The illustruous KSCU van!

E.O. had some great tales to tell about KSCU, including floods, power outages, a scandal involving the stolen KSCU van (rad! although it no longer exists, this is the first college station that I've heard of that had a van), and an incident in which a cockroach landed on a spinning record, causing it to skip.

Nicole has also been a long-time member of the station, joining when she was a senior in high school in 1999. She told me that she was aware of KSCU because she saw their presence at shows and knew that they were community-friendly. When she started, she said it was about 60% community members and 40% students at the station. She was Music Director from 2002 to 2004 and recently returned to the station. She mentioned that she was never actually a student at Santa Clara University.

Both Nicole and Sam talked about the value in having both student and non-student volunteers at the station. Although the General Manager is always a student, managers and DJs don't have to be.

Sam shows the paper playlists that KSCU DJs use

E.O, Nicole and Sam also swapped stories about famous KSCU alums, including musician Anya Marina, commercial DJ No Name (who used the same moniker at KSCU), Lex from Survivor Africa (and Frontier Wives) and the singer from Loquat (who was a DJ and GM).

Not only is the physical location of KSCU a bit removed, but their spot on the dial (103.3 FM) is unusual, in that it's a non-commercial station (50 watts) on the commercial band. It wasn't always that way, existing in the early years below 100 on the dial. I would guess this is both a blessing and a curse, as people seeking out non-commercial and college radio stations would be unlikely to find it if scanning the dial. Yet, commercial radio listeners might be more likely to run across KSCU. Sam mentioned that it's very common for people to call and request mainstream material, because they think it's a commercial station.

The station survives off of funding from the school and from paid public service announcements. I was told that KSCU used to do fundraisers, but that they stopped around 2006. When I asked more about funding, I was told that things have been cut from the budget, including trips to the annual CMJ Music Marathon in New York.

In terms of KSCU's role at the university, Nicole told me that they've enjoyed having events on campus, but that it's become increasingly difficult as the school has been reluctant to allow shows and events. KSCU had to cancel a planned Halloween event last year due to concerns from the school about student safety. Sam added that there have been break-ins on campus and that there is new heightened security and that the "view of non-students has gotten harsher." I asked if the fact that they are at a Jesuit university influences programming at all. Nicole said that in particular metal and hip hop shows have faced scrutiny over some of their content and they have had to step away from certain genres like dark, death metal after getting complaints.

Despite all of this, Nicole and Sam told me that a lot of new people are joining KSCU, many of them non-students and some from other college radio stations like KZSU. Nicole said that he appeal of KSCU for new DJs is that "it's so freeform" and that DJs are "generally allowed to play whatever they want." DJs are required to play 5 tracks an hour from their "clocks" (new adds) section. Music remains in "clocks" for 7 weeks and includes around a few hundred releases in a range of genres including electronic, rock, and hip hop. There are also specialty shows playing a range of sounds including blues, power pop, 1980s underground music, electronic, and reggae.

KSCU's Assistant Music Director Sam Duarte

Between 20 and 40 items are added to the music library every week, including some vinyl. Nicole said that they don't get as much vinyl as they used to and are increasingly getting sent digital-only releases, which they burn to CD and add to the library. Although it's not in place now, they're working on a digital library where they can house new digital releases for DJs to play. They don't play cassettes anymore, but Nicole said that when she started at the station there was still an 8-track player. She added that the majority of DJs are playing CDs on their shows, with some playing music from iPods and computers, and a small number (maybe 5) playing vinyl.

KSCU has a large music library, with a lot of vinyl (including a separate jazz library). Nicole said that they listen to everything that gets sent to them, including online submissions. They try to be "local-friendly," adding and supporting musicians from the area as much as possible. DJs are actually encouraged to play 2 local artists an hour on their shows. Within the music department there are also sub-genre directors handling electronic, blues, metal and hip hop.

Jazz Library

Since KSCU emphasizes adding non-commercial music that isn't being played on mainstream radio, I asked how they define "independent." Sam said she tends to focus on local artists and people who are struggling to get heard elsewhere and tends to put releases that look "pretentious" in a second opinion pile when deciding what to add to the station. Nicole added that it's difficult to figure out what's independent, as some releases are "masked" as indie, even though they are on a major label. She said that sometimes they will add major label releases, but just won't chart it. Nicole told me that once she was hassled for not adding a major label Beastie Boys release, but that she just didn't feel it was appropriate to add something that was charting on Billboard. Sam said that things have really changed, though, and that "indie is just a musical genre." Nicole agreed, pointing out, "The '90s indie is no more." Sam added that truly independent artists are still a primary focus, saying, "We still want to promote label-less bands."

I was told that one of the challenges at KSCU is attracting enough volunteers to the station. Many time slots are vacant and when I was there I witnessed this myself, as one DJ left and stuck a Depeche Mode compilation in the CD player on repeat as the fill-in DJ. Nicole said, "it's sad that it's gotten to that point," where they have to put CDs on repeat when there's no DJ. Nicole said their number one priority has to do with recruiting and retaining DJs. They are actively trying to recruit new DJs and each time I've listened to the station recently I've heard the on-air DJ making an announcement about how one can join the station. In order to become a KSCU DJ, one is required to do a certain amount of volunteer work (reviewing music, attending monthly staff meeting, etc.) before becoming eligible for DJ training. It's typically 2 to 3 weeks of on-air training and then one is allowed to apply for a shift the following quarter or begin subbing for shows right away. Sam told me that the current staff is about 50/50 between students and non-students, with more a majority of managers being students and a majority of DJs being from the community (or alums).

Flyer for upcoming KSCU off-campus shows

Nicole told me that one area where there is a lot of energy at the station is in promotions. They are doing lots of ticket giveaways for shows and are also putting on events off-campus by either co-presenting shows at local clubs like the Blank Club and co-presenting "Midnight Movies" at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose. A KSCU DJ is also doing live music shows at an arcade in San Jose called Nickel City. Nicole and Sam both talked about how the South Bay has been lacking in music venues and that they often get creative about places to host events, especially since they tend to have younger listeners and strive to have all-ages shows. Nicole mentioned that they used to do Listener Appreciation parties and even held one at a thrift store and had the punk band Discount (singer from the Kills) play.

We talked about the college radio community in the San Francisco Bay Area and Nicole told me that in 2005 there was a KSCU vs. KSJS basketball tournament. She said she'd like to do more things like that, where stations are interacting. Sam added that with "college stations's cool to pull together...with other stations." Sam added that KSCU feels separated from the school and other organizations on campus since they are located in a dorm basement, saying that it often feels like they are a "lone ranger." For that reason, she was excited about the possibility of connecting more with other college stations in the area and sharing "friendly advice," saying "it would be great to have a community."

Nicole and Sam added that they do have a community of long-time listeners, but still need to work to get their name out there. Nicole added that the availability of music online has hurt the music scene, saying that people used to go to shows to learn about new music and would hear opening bands and music they'd never heard before. She said that she used to go to the Cactus Club every week to see shows, like The Donnas, Toilet Boys. Sam agreed that she loved seeing live music and that today there are "so many bands" on MySpace that it's "hard to get close to them." She said that she'd like to host a local music show and have bands come to the station to play on it. KSCU does have musicians performing live at the station now, including a lot of hip hop acts.

Both Sam and Nicole talked about the closeness of the staff and sense of community within KSCU, with Nicole saying, "The people that are involved at KSCU are all very personable and just warm, we really are a big giant family. Most of my great friends I met through KSCU, including my boyfriend..." Sam said that "it would be cool to have more people hanging out at the station" as she really enjoys being around the station and having great conversations about music.

Thanks again to everyone at KSCU for a fun visit. Up next will be a recap of my visit to UC Berkeley station KALX.

Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:

Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip #4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF


Erica said...

Great blog on KSCU. It is a very friendly station! Thanks.

Rusty said...

Good story on KSCU! Sounds like things are just about the same as when I was there. I met my wife there!