Monday, September 2, 2013

Radio Station Field Trip 50 - KSMC at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA

Signage at KSMC in 2012

As I write my 50th radio station field trip post, it's hard to believe that this project started 5 years ago. When I visited my first station in March, 2008, my goal was to explore lesser-known college radio stations in different parts of the country. That first field trip, to WECB at Emerson College, was a chance for me to give some attention to a station that most people were unaware of. Hidden in the shadows of the other Emerson College radio station WERS-FM, the student-run online station WECB attracted my attention largely because of its underdog status. I wrote up a short piece, took a few pictures (the blog post only features three), and my field trip series was underway.


KSMC in 2012

Over the years I've broadened my criteria for station field trips and have visited not only college radio stations, but also high school, commercial, community, pirate, and religious radio stations in both the United States and Ireland. However, I'm still the most passionate about obscure student-run radio stations. With that in mind, I couldn't have picked a better station to feature for my 50th radio station field trip than KSMC.  Located at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, KSMC 89.5 FM is a little-known FCC-licensed FM radio station east of San Francisco. I first visited in March, 2012 and was so intrigued about its hidden history that I delayed writing up my field trip while I attempted to track down more details about the station's past. This summer I was able to meet up with one of the current station's founders in order to get the full scoop on the past, present, and future of KSMC.

KSMC Studio in 2012

My first visit to KSMC was on March 14, 2012.  It was a rainy, blustery day and when I arrived on campus the parking lots were chaotic, with cars waiting for spaces to open up. By the time I got to the station in Ferrogiarro Hall, I was a bit stressed, but KSMC Manager Corey Fedor was warm and welcoming. A junior at St. Mary's College at the time, Fedor started working at the station in 2010. He said that when he first arrived on campus the station had only maybe 3 or 4 DJs. Fedor left school for awhile on a journey to Alaska and upon his return in 2011, he found the station was "dead air."


Corey Fedor in KSMC Studio in 2012

Saddened by the situation, he took it upon himself to get the key to the station and resume live broadcasts. A year after his return, KSMC's roster was filled with 35 DJs and live streaming launched in February 2012. Surprisingly, the station hadn't been online prior to that. He said that it's been a huge deal for them and told me that he loved the fact that DJs said that they were excited to have their parents listen to their shows online. Fedor told me that his dad has listened to every single one of his shows since the streaming began.

 View into KSMC Studio in 2012

Fedor said that since KSMC launched its online stream, the station has picked up momentum. At the time of my visit the station had just signed up with CMJ again and was planning to begin submitting music charts to the college radio publication soon after. He was hoping that the relationship with CMJ would help KSMC to acquire more music for the station.

 CDs at KSMC in 2012

Although he told me that the CDs that I spotted at the station in 2012 were "purely aesthetic" (the station's old CD player had been moved out of the studio), KSMC did have DJs interested in vinyl and Fedor had a cassette player in his kitchen at home. He admitted that there weren't any DJs at the station who were "clamoring" for a cassette player at KSMC, though. Placing these forms of media in context for his generation, Fedor said that his friends don't listen to albums all the way through. Instead, they play singles or listen to music on shuffle.

 7" at KSMC in 2012

In spring, 2012, the KSMC schedule was booked solid between 4pm and 10pm on Mondays through Thursdays, with some sporadic shows during weekdays and weekends. Fedor said that shows during that semester were mostly "mainstream underground" music similar to what is covered by Pitchfork. He referenced genres like electro and then added, "it's hard to generalize hipster music."

KSMC Hallway in 2012

There was also an all-punk show, an old school hip hop show, rock and blues shows. Fedor hosted "Psychedelic Talk Radio," delving into "all veins of rock music." Some of the bands that he played on his show included obscure 1970s artists (Fuzzy Duck, Dust, Move), as well as more well-known acts like the Stooges, Hank Williams, and White Hills. On the day that I stopped by the station, he was playing some "rainy day" music off of his laptop. He said that although many DJs don't like to talk on the air, he enjoys providing his listeners with background information about the music and artists that he plays.

KSMC Studio, looking out over campus in 2012

When there wasn't a live DJ in 2012, KSMC would run automated programming using iTunes. Rather than playing a random mix of music, Fedor said that he liked to put together playlists containing music, station IDs, and planned segueways.

 View of KSMC Studio from outside the building in 2012

As far as non-music programming, Fedor mentioned a political talk show hosted by hardcore feminists, and a few sports programs. My visit to the station in March, 2012 happened to coincide with the March Madness basketball tournament. St. Mary's made it to the first round and KSMC was able to broadcast some of the games during the season.

 Stickers at KSMC in 2012

During my visit to the station last year, I learned a lot about KSMC's social media efforts. The station had a Facebook page and a tumblr blog that it streamed off of. DJs were also encouraged to create their own Facebook pages for their shows. Fedor said that for his show he'd post the playlist as well as YouTube links on his Facebook page.

CDs and turntable at KSMC in 2012

Back in 2012, Fedor also alluded to some upcoming changes at KSMC. He told me that the Communication Department had requesting funding in order to build a new radio studio in a state of the art facility. The station that I saw in 2012 had been in the same location since the 1970s in a nostalgic-feeling building. Equipment had broken down (although they had a nice record player, the needle and cartridge for it didn't match) and the station was showing its age. Fedor acknowledged that, saying, "we're like pirates." In fact, the earliest version of student radio at St. Mary's College began as a pirate operation in 1947.

KSMC Sign in 2012

Today the station is FCC licensed and Fedor said that he actually had a lot of friends who would tune in on FM as they drove to school. On campus, people tend to listen to the station on their laptops, but there were also occasions were groups of friends would sit in their cars and smoke while listening to the radio.

Wall at KSMC in 2012

Fedor said that he was pleased with all the progress that KSMC had made in the past few years. With plans to graduate in December, 2012, he told me, "If I can still listen to this station online after I graduate, I'll be happy." He explained to me the important cultural role that the station played on campus, saying that it's a place where people with a strong sense of their identities feel welcome. He told me that he felt like KSMC was a place where the "lunatic fringe" and the "outcasts of the school" can find a home.

7" on wall at KSMC in 2012

Intrigued by KSMC's history, I'd delayed writing up this report until I could get more details about the station's storied past. I knew that radio began on campus in 1947 (under the call letters KHSM) as most likely a carrier current station. St. Mary's College posted a 1948 photo on Flickr, stating, "1948: The College's first radio station, KHSM, goes on the air on March 1. The Navy had provided the radio transmitter. It was one of the first College radio stations on the West Coast."

Ed Tywoniak shares vintage St. Mary's College Glee Club LP

A yearbook entry from 1961 states that the origin of the call letters was a mystery, but that "it is rumored that they belong to a secret society of Physics majors." The KHSM call letters were in use until at least the early 1960s. By the 1970s the station was broadcasting over 89.5 FM as a 10 watt class D station, after the Associated Students' of St. Mary's applied for a license in 1973. In 1979 KSMC submitted an request with the FCC in order to upgrade the station to a class A facility at 100 watts.

KSMC Sticker-covered cabinet in 2012

To get a better sense about the history, I made another trip to KSMC this summer. On June 27, 2013, I met up with Ed Tywoniak. Not only is he the station's advisor, he's also an Associate Professor of Communication and chair of the department.

Ferroggiaro Hall in 2013
Ed Tywoniak is Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the department of Communication - See more at: http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/communication/prof-ed-tywoniak#sthash.oNpD34h6.dpuf
Ed Tywoniak is Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the department of Communication - See more at: http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/communication/prof-ed-tywoniak#sthash.oNpD34h6.dpuf
Ed Tywoniak is Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the department of Communication - See more at: http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/communication/prof-ed-tywoniak#sthash.oNpD34h6.dpuf, and helped build the KSMC that we know today.

When I arrived on campus I checked in with security. After I told them that I was visiting the radio station, they said that I couldn't get into the station due to asbestos removal in Ferrogiarro Hall. Surprised to hear this, I proceeded to the station anyway and waited outside the building. When Tywoniak arrived, he told me that the building was being renovated and that the station would be moving to a different location on campus. He then filled me in on all of the twists and turns in KSMC history.

Construction signs at Ferrogiarro Hall in 2013

Tywoniak's connection with the station dates back to the 1970s when he was a student at St. Mary's and was the KSMC Music Director. At the time, the station operated out of a ground floor space in Augustine Hall. KSMC had a recording studio and Ampex tape machines. Tywoniak told me that he has fond memories of playing music at the station, messing around with tape loop delays, and deconstructing synthesizers during late nights at KSMC when he was a student in the early 1970s. He said that it was a place where "football players, hippies, and brainiacs" hung out and that it was an important lesson to him about the "power of college radio...in the college experience." This was the case even though, at 10 watts, the broadcasts barely made it to the dorms.

Transamerica Plaque at KSMC in 2012

A few years later, the school was awarded a large grant from the TransAmerica Corporation in order to build a new radio facility. By this time Tywoniak had acquired some broadcast engineering training (as well as an advanced degree in electronic music composition). He and some other former students worked to build the new station around 1977. In conjunction with that, the college started a Department of Communications Studies and began offering some classes in broadcasting. Tywoniak joined the St. Mary's faculty in 1978.

Poster featuring early shot of Ed Tywoniak at KSMC

As far as the early history of the station, Tywoniak said that radio began on campus around 1946 as a physics student's project. Lore has it that by the 1950s, a local commercial station had donated a transmitter. Initially it was a campus-only carrier current station, but by the 1970s it had acquired a class D license to broadcast over FM. By the late 1980s the station was broadcasting over both 89.5 FM and through the Televents Cable System at 88.9 FM.

Ed Tywoniak in his office in 2013

During my visit, Tywoniak shared with me a binder full of historic KSMC documents, since he knew that the mysteries of the station's past were taunting me. Some of the gems that I found in the binder included a 1982 memo from the Dean of Students asking that KSMC "eliminate the punk rock segments of your programming effective immediately." This was based on concerns that punk rock "is not acceptable...music for a Christian institution." Student surveys that KSMC conducted around this time indicated that many students on campus stated that they did not like punk rock, new wave, soul and disco music.When I followed up with Tywoniak about the punk rock ban, he told me, "The ban on punk rock lasted about a year (two semesters), and it represented more of a backlash to student behaviors including inappropriate language on air and in song lyrics, along with repeated warnings about partying in the air studio. It was a combination of all those things that led to the ban."

By 1987, the KSMC program schedule contained a range of music genres, including new wave, new age, gospel, metal (from 7am to 5:30pm on Metal Mondays!), progressive rock, top 40, soul, blues, reggae, beat, classical, international, and jazz. The station had its own news department which produced a half-hour news show that aired on weekdays at 5:30pm. The station also scheduled a range of public affairs programs, including syndicated shows.

 Sichel Hall, home to Communication and temporary home of KSMC in June, 2013

It was also interesting to see that as early as 1984, the station was contemplating a future move to a new Communications building. According to a 5-year plan proposed in 1984, KSMC was also hoping to "sponsor a first Bay Area College Radio Seminar/Conference" during the 1987-1988 school year and planned to "formalize an area-wide college radio broadcast group" the following academic year.

1980s KSMC flyer

My friend Ted Coe was at KSMC in the 1980s and he described the KSMC scene to me, saying, "The station was an island during the years I was there: 84-88. The morning in America years, into Iran-Contra. It wasn't like it was a radical place, but for a school that didn't really have a lot going on in terms of live music/punk/house shows or anything like that, it was a necessary hub for SMC's Freaks and Geeks and the like..." Former Program Director Krissi Sandvik (1985-1987) concurred, telling me, "It was a haven of creativity on a right wing campus right in the middle of the Reagan years.  I remember it fondly."

Another DJs from the 1980s, Frank McKenna, recalled hosting a comedy show on KSMC. He said,

"My show was called the Japanese Boki Cleaner Show and we had a cast of 5-6 regular characters which were basically myself and Chris Catalano changing our voices and improvising different situations and stories.  The characters were Kung Fu Jack (the main DJ and record spinner that did not know Kung Fu).  Peabody (a high pitched voice guy that eventually went on to marry a chicken that looked like Sylvester Stallone), Hershal Witness (a guy that used to report everything going on in the world from the chopper in the sky - basically we just ran a helicopter flying loop track and had him barely audible reporting on various odd events happening in different parts of the world)."

A clip of the show from 1986 can be found here.

Today, KSMC's 100 watt signal can be heard about a mile away in one direction and as far away as Fairfield "on a good day" in another direction. Tywoniak said that obviously KSMC doesn't rely on the terrestrial signal, telling me that the Internet is the station's real audience. As Fedor had mentioned to me back in 2012, Internet broadcasting has helped to increase participation in the radio station. Tywoniak estimated that there were around 100 volunteers at the station during the 2012-2013 school year. He said that it's a big deal when students' friends "can listen from Fresno."

Deconstruction of the old KSMC space in Ferrogiarro Hall in June, 2013

Tywoniak said that KSMC is on the cusp of a "watershed moment" and shared with me the plans for the new station. During the renovation of the old building, KSMC has a temporary studio in the Communication building. In small room across from Tywoniak's office, a computer plays a mix of music on automation ("from punk to funk, reggae to fusion"). After renovations are completed in the old building, KSMC will move back there for perhaps a year while its new home is being constructed in Communications.


KSMC's temporary studio in Sichel Hall in June, 2013

The Communication department is housed in Sichel Hall, a building that in the past contained the Chemistry and Anthropology departments. Tywoniak said that it was "where they used to keep the cadavers" and is still full of "weird storage rooms for volatile materials." He said that because of that, the entire space will need to be redesigned in order to accommodate 21st century educational needs.

 Temporary KSMC Studio in Sichel Hall, June 2013

Although Tywoniak has a deep connection to the station, he's far from trapped in the past. In fact, his enthusiasm about new technology was infectious and his belief that KSMC will be the "heart" of the school's evolving media offerings provides reassurance that radio is alive and well, although ever-changing.

Plans for new Media Learning Center (arrow points to future KSMC)

A huge thanks to Corey Fedor for showing me around KSMC back in 2012 and to Ed Tywoniak for giving me the grand tour this year. I also really appreciated hearing stories about the station in the 1980s from Ted Coe, Frank McKenna, and Krissi Sandvik. Your tales helped to weave together a picture of the role that KSMC has served at St. Mary's over the years.

KSMC Antenna Atop Augustine Hall in June, 2013 (KSMC was originally in this building's basement)

Here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips. Come back to see more tours from stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and beyond.


2 comments:

Jerry Gaule said...

Jennifer,

I like your articles,it is only college radio? that you do?..well I have a story to tell you about what I do. I have been in radio since 1975 and I am Disabled and radio is my passion and music as well. My e mail is kivcradio@gmail.com..Gerald and thanks..

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks, Jerry. I'm interested in all kinds of radio, but my passion is college radio. I appreciate the interest and thanks for sharing your story!