Saturday, March 7, 2009

Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University

Hallway Mural at KSJS

I'm getting close to completing my tour of San Francisco Bay Area college radio stations. On Tuesday night, March 3rd , I braved the torrential rains to visit San Jose State University's radio station KSJS. Thanks to General Manager Nick Martinez and Subversive Rock Music Director German Toledo for inviting me down to the station. Unfortunately I missed their weekly staff meeting, but the station was still abuzz with students working on projects.

On-Air Studio at KSJS

KSJS, aka "Ground Zero Radio," started broadcasting in 1963 over FM. These days they are at 90.5 FM (they switched around a bit and were 90.7 until 1992), with 1500 watts of power. Although they were an early online broadcaster, rumored to have begun in 1992, their music webcast initially went silent in 2002. According to Nick, the station resumed netcasting for a period of time after Sound Exchange was formed, but ceased music netcasts entirely in July 2007 due to the complexities of reporting requirements for music.

KSJS is still legal to broadcast online, having registered with Sound Exchange, and does continue to air netcasts for sports and public affairs programs. Nick told me that when he turned off the Internet feed an interesting thing happened: the "programming got better," and the station started to focus more on locally-oriented programming. Additionally, the free weekly, San Jose Metro, began awarding them best college radio station (which they also were given a nod for in 2008, along with mentions for some of the best local radio DJs).

DJ Kevin Foley in KSJS On-Air Studio

Nick told me that he was optimistic about college radio, saying, "satellite is basically dead and everyone said that would kill radio." He argued that he thinks that radio in generally is going to have to shift to local, community-oriented programming in order to remain relevant.

One of my tapes of the 1985 KSJS "Top 90.7" countdown that I recorded off the radio

Back in the 1980s, KSJS was one of the stations that I regularly listened to and I actually found a cassette tape of one of their Top 90.7 Countdowns that they used to do on New Year's Eve. I brought my tape with me to the visit and some of the current radio station staff mentioned that they didn't recognize many of the bands. One girl even said, "that's from before I was born!"

Programming at KSJS has changed quite a bit in the decades since I made the tape. Nick told me that KSJS is sort of a "hybrid" of two different extremes in college radio. On the one hand it has elements of the more freeform, stations that function like campus clubs and on the other it has the structure of some of the more, rigid, regimented formatted stations. He said, "we're cut right in the middle," telling me that they are unique in that respect.

On-Air Studio Board at KSJS

Nick is on the faculty of San Jose State and runs the radio station as GM. Student managers report to him and they are all responsible for their own department staffs. He said that one must be a student or alum to join the station and everyone on staff must be enrolled in a radio class. Around 115 people make up the current staff and there's about 40% turnover per semester according to Nick. As of 2000, non-student, community members are allowed to participate, but they must register for radio classes as well, at a cost of $700 for "open university" students.

Production Studio

Prior to 2000 there were many more non-students at the station and Nick estimated that the percentage of community DJs was 30% back then. These days the staff is about 97% students and 3% alums. I did actually meet a community DJ, Kevin Foley, who has been at KSJS since 1993 as a jazz DJ. He told me that he got "grandfathered" in when the rules changed due to the dearth of student jazz DJs at the time.

On-Air Studio

In order to get on the air, one must first take a radio class, a DJ training class, do four to five weeks of in-studio training with a DJ, and then pass an exam. Brand-new DJs may do graveyard shifts, but it's not required if they are deemed ready for regular fill-ins. An interesting thing about overnight shifts at KSJS is that if they are open, then all staff members are potentially required to fill-in from time to time. Everyone gets put on a rotation for graves, and if your name comes up, then you must take the fill-in. Pretty much everyone on the staff (including managers) is responsible for one to two fill-ins each semester.

KSJS Program Schedule

Each staff member must commit to doing 114 hours of work per semester (16 weeks) at the station. Nick told me that all station work (except for one's show) counts toward the required hours. The schedule (which changes 3 times a year with the semester) is broken down into 4-hour shifts across 5 different music formats: subversive rock, electronic, jazz, hip-hop and alternativo (Spanish language music across a wide range of genres). There's currently only one specialty music show, an oldies show on Fridays from 10am to 2pm hosted by long-time DJ (35 years at KSJS) Dennis Terry. Nick told me that there are some half-hour music interview shows and that a professor will occasionally do a disco/funk show.

In the On-Air Studio, German tries to find room for "sub rock" CDs that have come out of rotation

According to Nick, the record library contains about 20,000 CDs (mostly stored in the On-Air Studio) and around 700 CDs a month come in to the station from labels and promo companies. Currently they have a limited amount of vinyl, mostly in the hip hop and electronic libraries. Nick told me that in the past they had a huge collection of jazz vinyl, but the station donated it to the library. I was also told that more vinyl is in storage and they are working on selling or donating it as well. "Sub Rock" Music Director German said that he rarely gets sent vinyl, perhaps a handful of 7-inches a month.

Some of the "alternativo en espanol" CD collection housed in the on-air studio

Nick told me that there's a push from students at the station to go completely digital and sell off their CDs as well. He mentioned that maybe 20 to 25 percent of their servicing comes as digital downloads and that eventually he'd like to be able to put the music library on a hard drive. However, Nick isn't anxious to do away with CDs just yet, saying that he hates to see DJing becoming "just drag and drop." German agreed, saying, "I definitely prefer physical copies."

CD storage in On-Air Studio

Besides music shows, they air public affairs programming and San Jose State sports. Nick emphasized to me that KSJS is very much a part of the school and that they are largely funded from student activity fees and donations. Faculty and staff are also invited to join the station and their Jazz Director is part of the faculty. He added that "...very few stations get the love that we get from [our] school....and we play death metal...and they still love us."

Nick said, "We are an education service," but acknowledged that with the changes in the radio industry they've also had to change what they are teaching. He pointed out that KSJS is a "tool" for learning not only about radio, but also about management and working within an organization. He said that probably 35-40% of the people on campus know about the station, a pretty high number compared with what I've heard at other stations.

Nick admitted that he's sort of an anomaly because he isn't much of a "music" guy. He said, "I'm not a huge music fan" and told me that he's purchased maybe 12 to 15 albums in his life. What got him into radio, and the station, was that he "fell in love with talk." He joined KSJS when he was a student, initially doing news and sports. Eventually he did music shows as well, became Program Director, and then upon graduation took over the General Manager position from the departing GM.

He said that he does enjoy learning about new music and continues to do music fill-ins at KSJS, saying, "it helps me to get into the mindset of a freshman." Nick also pointed out that the station strives to be "inclusive" in its music programming and the goal is to not be "so niche that people won't understand it." Doing the fill-ins helps him spot-check the station to make sure that the formats are understandable to even non-music types like him.

Subversive Rock Music Director German Toledo

German and I talked about the overall music philosophy of KSJS. He said that being a non-commercial station they aim to play under-represented music and local artists. He's the Music Director in charge of "subversive rock," and when I asked what that meant, he said that it's pretty broad, covering "...punk, metal, indie, ska, hardcore and progressive" music. He also explained that DJs are given shows on a particular format and must play music within that broadly defined genre. He said, "we can't do freeform." He told me that most DJs seem to gravitate to rock and hip hop shows.

In terms of format rules, German told me that "...DJs have to play rotation within their music department...and have to follow a clock per hour (most shows are 4 hours). They must play 3 heavies, 2 mediums, 1 feature and the rest are options." DJs can only play music from the station's library (no music from home) since it's been screened for obscenities and profanity. German also mentioned that some music departments are more diverse (especially alternativo), so some DJs are allowed to play music from sub-genres within their broad category of music format.

Rotation List for Subversive Rock Shows

And, finally, we talked about the community of staff members and listeners and the role of social networking tools. Nick told me that his biggest struggle is keeping a dedicated tech-savvy person on staff to work on projects like social networking features for the website. He said that he'd like to revamp the KSJS website, add blogging features, and create an easy way for people to donate to the station.

As I've heard at many stations, Nick said that a great thing about KSJS is that everyone works well together and that there are no cliques. He told me that the age range of the staff is from 17 to 65 and that "they're all friends." German also mentioned that initially he joined the Television, Radio, Film, Theatre department because he wanted to do film making, but added that now, "I'm all about radio."

Thanks to everyone at KSJS for taking the time to chat and show me around the station. Stick around for my next tour stops: WBAR (Barnard College) and my home station KFJC (Foothill College).

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
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX

3 comments: said...

thanks so much for writing this... i love seeing the has been a long time since I have been by the station (I was on air 1984-1987)...back when we got our first cd player. I think we had about 5 cds for that first month. I made great friends during that time (and even met my husband) so KSJS has a special place in my heart. Thanks again for the in depth commentary.

Chris Bucholtz said...

Jeepers - I might be on that cassette of yours! Owing to my scintillating social life, I did the New Year's Eve show with Gary Lucy and JC in 1986 and 1987 for certain. Great years for music, those...

Jennifer Waits said...

Hi Chris,

Wow. glad you spotted the post. I used to love those end of the year count-down shows!

All the best,