Monday, August 3, 2009

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 10 - Minnesota's KRLX

I'm so excited to resume the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour with another virtual visit to an impressive college radio station. The goal of this project is to do interviews with college radio stations from each of the 50 states in order to highlight some of the amazing things happening in college radio in every corner of the country.

The first nine virtual stops have been to stations in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia and Kentucky.

For my 10th stop, I "traveled" to Minnesota to learn about Carleton College radio station KRLX 88.1 FM in Northfield. The station first got on my radar when I was doing research about the very early days of college radio. I found a 1926 New York Times article, "Colleges Organize for Broadcasting," in which Carleton College faculty member Dr. C.A. Culver was cited as being one of the leaders of a new college radio organization. At the time the Carleton station was known as KFMX.

According to the 1937 book Education's Own Stations, Carleton College station KFMX was licensed in December 1923 and began broadcasting January 16, 1924. After a series of frequency shifts, issues over time-sharing the same frequency with both college and commercial stations (WRHM, WCAL, and WLB), and interference with another station, KFMX decided to go off the air in 1933 and "the rights to the station were turned over to the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College...the time divided by the Federal Radio Commission among the two remaining educational institutions and WRHM."

During this period in radio there was much discussion about commercial stations squeezing educational stations off the dial and Culver said at the time (as quoted in Education's Own Stations), "...there are almost unlimited educational possibilities inherent in broadcasting...these possibilities can never be realized until the Federal Government sets aside definite frequencies for the exclusive use of educational institutions."

According to the KRLX website, radio came back to Carleton in 1948 with the AM carrier current station KARL. In 1974 the station was granted a license to broadcast over FM and KRLX was born as a 10 watt station at 90.3FM. In 1983 they got upgraded to 100 watts and moved to 88.1FM.

KRLX Studio
Photo provided by Gabe Silberblatt

Today, KRLX is a freeform station and is the biggest student organization at Carleton with around 250 folks on staff. What's even more amazing is that Carleton is a small (less than 2000 students) liberal arts college, meaning that 25% of students play some role at the college radio station.

To learn more about how a station with such rich history continues to thrive every year, I talked to Station Manager Gabe Silberblatt. In our email interview Gabe spoke about KRLX's upcoming broadcasts in Taiwan, their coverage of the Pitchfork Music Festival, their vintage vinyl collection, the station's close connection with long-time campus pub (since 1927) The Cave, and their role in the broader community of Northfield, Minnesota.

Spinning Indie: I understand the station is off the air for the summer. What are you guys working on over the summer?

Gabe Silberblatt: At the end of the last academic year, KRLX received a very large some of money from Carleton to enable a big IT modernization project. Over the summer we have been ordering and installing new equipment, as well as making structural improvements to our facilities.

We have also just finalized plans to join forces with an American web-radio organization in Taiwan that re-broadcasts American radio programs for college-aged students who want to study abroad. (here is their beta site: The organization will begin re-broadcasting KRLX content in Taiwan this coming fall.

We also did extensive coverage of the Pitchfork Music Festival, to which we were given press passes.

Spinning Indie: When does broadcasting resume?

Gabe: September 14th.

Spinning Indie: Are shows already scheduled for the fall? What does the programming schedule look like? Does it change dramatically every semester or do you have any long-time shows?

Gabe: No. KRLX is an entirely free form station at heart, so the programming changes depending on student involvement and interest. The programming for each trimester happens the first week of the term. That being said, we have many individuals who maintain a show from term to term in a regular time slot, sometimes for years at a time.

The news is always a staple, with 5 minute recorded segments at the top of the hour between 6am-5pm and a live 15 minute broadcast recapping the major stories at 10pm every weeknight. Ultimately though, the content changes a great deal from term to term, especially in the fall, when all new freshmen come to the station.

Spinning Indie: For such a small school, I'm really amazed that you have 200 staff members and DJs. How do you draw so many people to the station? Is it all students or can community members participate?

Gabe: KRLX is student run from the top down. We have no professional or paid employees working there, which I understanding is exceedingly rare for college stations. There are actually more than 250 students working at KRLX in some capacity, be it as a DJ, news anchor, promoter, record librarian, technician, web manager, or any combination of these.

KRLX is easily the largest student organization on campus, with almost a quarter of the school involved with the station in some way. There always seems to be a great deal of natural interest in the station from students, who volunteer their time willingly. Perhaps students are attracted to the station's extremely flexible and free form programming. We do have a wonderful promotions director and team who help make the station visible on a day to day basis and get the word out about promotional events on campus.

As I understand, there may have been community members participating in the past, though none currently work with the station. We do occasionally have a faculty member host a show or appear as a guest on a student's show. We're certainly open to the idea of having non-students serve non-leadership roles at KRLX.

Spinning Indie: Carleton College has a really impressive radio history. I just learned that an early station there called KFMX was licensed in December 1923 and began broadcasting in January 1924 through 1933. Are people at the station aware of this early history?

Gabe: It is a source of pride for the board of directors at KRLX, but the majority of students at Carleton, or in the town of Northfield for that matter, are not really aware of this history.

KRLX Record Library
Photo provided by Gabe Silberblatt

Spinning Indie: How is station history preserved at KRLX?

Gabe: In terms of content, only a portion of the shows are recorded and saved. These are typically talk or specialty shows or extended new coverages.

Spinning Indie: I hear that you have records in your library dating back to the 1940s. Do DJs play these early records?

Gabe: Absolutely. Though less and less students are familiar or comfortable using vinyl in the studio, we have several shows that play exclusively vinyl from the record library in addition to DJs who play from their own collections.

Spinning Indie: Does the station play a role in the broader community and music scene surrounding the campus?

Gabe: Our 100 watt frequency reaches the larger Northfield area, and we know from surveys that businesses tune to the frequency. We also frequently get phone calls and messages from residents, which suggests they use the station as well.

KRLX is very tied to the on-campus bar and music venue called "The Cave," which I believe is the oldest student-run pub in America (est. 1927). We host events there and broadcast them live on air. We also cover concerts and promote local artists on air. Typically, those students who work and attend Cave events are also very involved with the radio station-- there is a great deal of overlap and dialogue between the two.

Spinning Indie: What's the overall music philosophy of the station?

Gabe: Like I said, the station is completely free form, so eclecticism is encouraged on all levels. We try to encourage DJs to play music that would normally never be heard on broadcast radio, but at the end of the day, the content of an individual show is designed by and for the students involved, and they are free to play pretty much whatever they please.

Spinning Indie: Are there any specific rules about the music that gets added to your station? Are DJs required to play anything in particular? Is there anything they aren't allowed to play?

Gabe: Adding music is the painstaking job of two music directors and a small team of associate music directors. Of the thousands of albums that get sent to the station each year (vinyl, CD, digital) only a portion make it onto the air and into the record library. Each week a computer in the FM studio is updated with "new music" that has been added to the station. DJs are required to play and identify one piece of this new music for every hour they are on the air.

Because there is a variety of new music available for DJs to choose from, this practice enables the station to promote specific artists that the student body enjoys or artists that may be coming to play concerts there. The only things that DJs are not allowed to play are songs that don't comply with FCC requirements.

Spinning Indie: Do you add and play vinyl? mp3s? cassettes?

Gabe: We have the capability to rip vinyl, and frequently we will make a CD copy of a vinyl record for the record library. We have started to receive more and more music in the form of mp3s from both independent and corporate record labels. We definitely add this music to the station computer and record library. Part of the IT modernization plan budget is to increase the capacity and quality of our digital music storage so that we can continue to collect and preserve this format as it becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

Thanks again to Station Manager Gabe Silberblatt for taking some time out of his summer to chat with me by email about KRLX. Keep your fingers crossed for the timely posting of future installments of the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour.

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