It's been a fun, but busy few weeks of visits to local college radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area! On Thursday, February 26th I crossed the bridge over to the East Bay to check out what's going on at KALX, the station at University of California, Berkeley. Thanks so much to General Manager Sandra Wasson, Co-Music Director Casey Koon, and Operations Coordinator Erin Ruiz-Prunchak for taking the time to give me the grand tour and chat with me about the station.
KALX's 45th Anniversary 7"
Radio at Berkeley began in 1962 with the creation of carrier current station Radio KAL. The original board for KAL was built from a cigar box, which is on display in the KALX lobby. By 1967, KALX was officially born with their first broadcast over 90.7 FM.Over the years KALX has done a lot to document their history and their website even includes an archive of old charts from as far back as the 1960s. In honor of the station's 45th anniversary in 2007, staff put together a double 7" compilation featuring live recordings from their archives, including a live Talking Heads track from 1978.
KALX History on Display at Station
KALX relies on its large staff of volunteers to keep the station running smoothly. Everyone who volunteers at the station (whether on the air or not) is required to do at least 12 hours of work a month. Volunteers work across 11 different departments at the station, including music, sports, music library, public affairs, and others. Casey and Erin told me that at the monthly staff meetings there are often between 80 and 100 people in attendance (and that's just a portion of the entire staff of 250). Station managers meet weekly.
DJ "Disco Shawn" in On-Air Studio at KALX
Anyone (students, community members, faculty, staff, alumni) can volunteer at the station, but at least 50% of on-air DJs must be students. Sandra told me that it's "great in terms of diversity" to have a "broad range" of DJs across a "huge range of ages." She added that they always have a high school student or two on staff. KALX recruits heavily on campus, showing up at events and activity fairs in order to attract students to the station.
Part of the vinyl library at KALX
One must work at the station for at least 3 months before becoming eligible to start DJ training. Sandra told me that there are a limited number of spaces in the weekly training class, which lasts for 4 weeks. Following that, DJs sit in with an on-air DJ, take a test, and are then required to do 7 overnight shifts. A Program Review Committee (a rotating committee of folks with stints of 6 months to 1 year) is responsible for awarding shows to DJs. Erin pointed out that this type of set-up isn't always the case in college radio, where oftentimes one person (the Program Director) is responsible for awarding shows. Music DJs don't apply for a specific style of show since the station is all freeform.
Since shows are awarded for only one year, Erin said, "there's always room in the schedule" and that it "gives everyone a fair chance." Sandra added that this makes for a "vibrant, changing" airsound. Existing DJs can re-apply for shifts as well. Additionally, DJs are approved to fill in on specific time shifts throughout the day. On can move up the "sub list" (for example from midnight to 6am shifts to daytime shifts) by submitting an application to a separate "sub list" committee.
Board in On-Air Studio at KALX
Sandra guessed that maybe less than 10 people on the entire staff are long-time members of the staff, some for 20 years. She added that since KALX has changed so much over the years, she doesn't like to focus on the longevity of any one show or DJ.
KALX Program Schedule
The KALX schedule is a mixture of music, public affairs (including a variety of talk shows), news and sports programming with no specific blocks set aside for any one type of programming. Sandra said that she really likes the fact that all departments attend staff meetings and that music DJs regularly interact with news, sports and public affairs programmers while on the air, saying that it "makes for tighter connections" between staff members.
On-Air Studio at KALX
In terms of music, KALX prides itself on its freeform style of programming and according to the KALX website, "...every KALX DJ is encouraged to play a variety of musical styles and genres." Co-Music Director Casey is a senior at Berkeley and has been at KALX for 4 years. He said that their music philosophy is to "spread as much good music as possible" with a particular emphasis on hard-to-find and local music. He said they listen to everything that gets sent to them and add around 30 to 40 items a week. They do add vinyl (but no cassettes), with more 7"s being added than LPs. Right now Casey said they don't add digital releases right now, but hopefully in the future will be able to establish a system to do so. DJs are allowed to play digital music from their own computers and iPods as well.
A Portion of the Feature File of Recent Music Adds at KALX
Music DJs are required to play music from at least 3 different genres during their shift. Additionally, they are required to play 4 tracks an hour from the "feature" file, which includes recently reviewed music. An interesting thing that KALX does is that they have 2 categories within their feature file: Red Dot (for amazing music that will remain in the library forever) and Green Dot (for music that DJs might be on the fence about). During the period that music is in the "feature file," any DJ can make an argument for elevating Green Dot items to Red Dot status. If something remains in the Green Dot category, then it leaves the feature file after a month and is sold or donated.
Music Review Checklist
Additionally, the Music Department oversees a handful of genre-specific specialty music shows that take place from midnight to 1am. The Music Department decides on the types of shows to air and selects the DJs. Currently there are shows focused on electronic music, modern & avant classical, Americana, difficult music, metal, hip hop and jazz. KALX also has a live music show called KALX Live, that airs from 9 to Midnight on Saturdays.
They have a massive music library of over 80,000 records and CDs that is housed in a single locked room, off-limits to non-staff members. No recorded material can leave the station and the library is protected by an alarm as well. The station has been in their current space since 1995 and clearly a lot of care went into the design of the record library, as its spacious and well-organized. Sandra talked about how pleased they were to find one particular storage unit that holds 18,000 CDs in a 5 by 10 foot space. All the CDs are filed A to Z, with all genres filed together. The older vinyl library is still broken down by genre.
Amazing CD storage unit with rolling shelves that holds 18,000 CDs
KALX uses a digital system to play their promos and station IDs and 2 years ago they replaced their paper playlists with Radioactivity. Through Radioactivity, they are able to post real-time playlists with time stamps on their website, including a list of all the music played in the last 24 hours. Sandra pointed out that before going digital, it took 6 hours to create weekly charts. Sandra told me that she's visited a number of college radio stations over the years and loves getting ideas from other stations. She worked at Rice University station KTRU when she was in college and later worked at KUSF. Additionally, KALX is part of the UC Radio Network (UCRN), a group of stations on University of California campuses that meets twice a year for a conferences at one of the member stations. I told her that I liked the idea of connecting with other stations and mentioned that when I first joined KFJC there was talk of a Bay Area College Radio Station picnic. Sandra filled me in on that, saying that someone from KUSF has actually put that together.
7" Library at KALX
Casey said that he also has friends at other stations, including UC Santa Cruz station KZSC and listens to KUSF. He told me that he definitely feels like he's part of a broader college radio community, especially because of KALX's participation in the UCRN conference every semester. He said, "it helps foster a nice sense of community" and has allowed him to see stations at UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. He also told me that the new University of California campus in Merced is starting up a radio station and that it's been great to share information with them and "brainstorm" and "give ideas."
KALX Co-Music Director Casey Koon
Erin added that KALX itself has a nice sense of community and that she really appreciates the diversity of the staff and thinks its beneficial to have a mix of students and non-students. Casey also pointed out that KALX DJs are an interesting group and are involved in the Bay Area arts scene in a number of ways.
Thanks again to everyone at KALX for a great tour. Up next will be a visit to San Jose State station KSJS.
Archival Carts at KALX
Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips: