Friday, October 17, 2008

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 3- Kansas Station KJHK

It's time for the third installment of The Spinning Indie 50 State Tour, my new feature in which I highlight college radio stations from all over the U.S. in order to draw more attention to the amazing work taking place at non-commercial student radio stations.

The plan is to feature an interview with a different station every week from each of the 50 states. So far my virtual tour has hit stations in Arkansas and Wisconsin and this week I turn my attention to Lawrence, Kansas, the home of University of Kansas station KJHK-FM.

Campus radio began at University of Kansas in the 1950s with various iterations of carrier current station KUOK. On October 15, 1975 KJHK had their first FM broadcast (happy 33rd anniversary!). Nearly 20 years later, in December 1994, they were a pioneer in online streaming, claiming to be the first continuous live radio station on the Internet (another station was on first, but had signal troubles). To learn more about the extensive history of KJHK, be sure to read the comprehensive piece published on

Today, KJHK's schedule includes "format" and "specialty" shows, including a Japanese music show ("Dodododo"), a talk show about sexuality ("Kansas in Heat"), a metal show ("Malicious Intent"), jazz programs, hip hop, sports, etc.

One of their latest projects is RIYL, their brand new, really well-written 'zine full of clever comics, music reviews, and essays by DJs at the station. My favorite piece was a play-by-play of one DJ's 14-hour show. She kept extending her time on the air throughout the night and it's funny and inspiring to see how she filled that much airtime while maintaining her sanity.

Thanks so much to Danielle King (PR Director), Tom Johnson (General Manager), and Ian Hrabe (Music Director) for taking the time to chat with me via email about their experiences at KJHK. In the interviews they talk about some amazing station lore (a severed foot's appearance on the metal show!), clue me in to the Wilt Chamberlain connection, discuss their favorite vinyl from the archives and the challenges they face in being able to play it, and talk about how they decide what music to add to the station.

Spinning Indie: Your station has been around for 30 years. What are your favorite tidbits from your station's past?

Tom Johnson, General Manager: Most of my favorites are before I got to KJHK. There was an instance once on our Sunday night heavy metal show 'Malicious Intent', where a dedicated (some might say 'hardcore') fan happened to have his foot severed from his leg somehow, but he kept it preserved in a bucket of formaldehyde. One night there was an unsanctioned party up at the Shack, and the police were called. When they got there, they broke up a beer-laden heavy metal party at the station, and upon arriving discovered that this guy had brought his severed foot up to the station as a conversation piece at the Malicious Intent party...

Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show/DJ at the station?

Tom Johnson, GM: As with most college stations, KJHK has had a bevy of shows that go back a ways in history, with name change and format shifts along the way...I'd have to say that, appropriately, 'Plow the Fields', our local music show, has been around the longest in terms of name and type of program. I don't know who began the show (it dates back to the early 1980's)...

Our current longest-serving DJ is Gavin Bruce, who hosts a Jazz in the Morning show...He's been on KJHK on and off for the past eight years (don't worry, he's got some degrees along the way).

Spinning Indie: Do you have music in your library dating back to the early days of the station?

Ian Hrabe, Music Director: We have a rather extensive selection of vinyl from KJHK's heyday in the 80s. That's where most of our 80s punk rock is. The jackets are all torn up, but my favorites are Black Flag's "My War" (mostly because it has one of my favorite album covers ever) and the Buzzcocks "Singles Going Steady" is one I used to play all the time when I did rotation shows. We also have the first few Beat Happening records, but I can't find them anymore! That makes me quite sad. Oh, and I'm pretty sure we still have "Let it Be" by the Replacements.

I've really been trying to incorporate the review-style from those records into my own. I feel like the vinyl reviews are the best ones we have at the station. We've recently started a thing called KJHK Essentials, which takes classic college radio albums that have been stolen or lost or broken and replaces them and puts them in a place where DJs can find them. It's a way to bring back the classics. I'd prefer having the KJHK essentials be vinyl only, but given that our turntables are constantly breaking down I don't think it would work as well.

Danielle King, PR Director: My favorite vinyl records are by Jonathan Richman. We have maybe 5 and I adore them. I play one probably every other week. I don’t know if anyone else does. Many DJs are intimidated by the stacks because it takes a lot of time to find things you’re look for and some DJs just don’t feel comfortable playing vinyl...but there are also plenty who do.

Spinning Indie: Do you have any specific programs/specialty shows that are unique to KJHK or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?

Danielle King, PR Director: All of our special programs really stand-out if you put them next to shows on commercial radio. We have shows dedicated to: pop, ska, classic college radio, rockabilly, music from Japan, music from Great Britain, music from Brazil, metal, folk, soul & funk, noise, hip-hop, Broadway and more. I think the most unique shows to KJHK are Plow the Fields (local and regional music) and Little Red Radio. Little Red Radio is a show intended for kids of all ages and features stories and music for children. Sometimes children even come on the show to assist the host. It’s adorable and makes people smile.

Spinning Indie: Is there certain music that DJs are required to play? Is there anything that DJs aren't allowed to play?

Danielle King, PR Director: All rotation DJs are required to play 6 songs from the current rotation. One of these songs should come out of the essentials section. Our rotation is generally pretty large, so DJs can generally find things they would like to play from various genres. It’s a way to assure that we are constantly providing our publics with new music.

DJs are not allowed to play anything that goes against FCC regulations or against KJHK policy... Also, as a general rule of thumb, we really encourage DJs not to play things that they would hear on commercial radio on a regular basis.

Spinning Indie: How does your MD decide what music to add? What's your philosophy about indie vs. major label? Do you add material by major labels? If yes, why? If no, why?

Ian Hrabe, Music Director: I decide what music to add based on my opinions and the opinions of my staff. Every Sunday, about twelve of us get together and go through all of the new submissions from labels, promo companies and bands and we present the stuff we took from the week before. The records being presented go through a thumbs up/thumbs down vote and if they get a majority they go into rotation.

As a little aside, I often choose which records to listen to based on cover art. That is, there are a lot of bands I know or have heard of that I'll listen to, or if it's on a label I like I'll check it out, but there are so many CDs that come in it's really hard to get to listen to everything. So if it has a really cool, well-designed cover, or if the band has a cool name (recent example: Dream Bitches, who put out one of my favorite records of the summer that I probably wouldn't have heard had I not randomly put it on) they have a better chance of their stuff getting heard. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but there are so many CDs that we get with really awful covers with terrible fonts and layouts that I think, "If you're not going to put time into the first thing that people see when they see your record, what makes me think you put the effort into your music?"

Ideally, we don't add major label stuff. We feel that if these bands are on a major label, they'll have their shot on mainstream radio, which is what we kind of use as our antithesis. Really, it doesn't matter too much. If a record is good, and we feel that it will fit in with KJHK's mission to be the Sound Alternative (in the sense of an alternative to all of the major Clear Channel radio stations in Kansas City and the surrounding area). Usually, though, we try to push music that people won't hear on any other radio stations, so most of the stuff in our rotation tends to come out on indie labels. It's our job to get this music to the people.

Spinning Indie: Do you add and play a lot of vinyl?

Ian Hrabe, Music Director: I think a lot of DJs might be a little timid about playing vinyl, and it's become easier not to since everything is available on CD and a lot of DJs just play stuff off of their computers and iPods (which is problematic). That and as I mentioned earlier, the turntables break all the time by either being manhandled or just being really crappy, which is a total pain in the ass. Just the other day I was commiserating with a couple fellow DJs about how the DJs who want to play vinyl (including the three of us) can't a lot of the time. I wish we could play more vinyl, it's fun, and I generally think vinyl sounds better. Ok, maybe not our old records that are scratched up and dusty, but there's something romantic about the little pops and clicks, something that makes listening to a record tangible opposed to the cleanness that you get most of the time. I'm not saying that CDs are bad or anything like that, it's what we need to rely on most of the time, but every once in a while hearing someone playing vinyl is really satisfying.

Some labels still send us 7-inch records, and I usually add them but no one ever plays them. Which is sad, because we get some really awesome sevens sometimes. The Coathangers "Shake Shake" seven was one that I was hoping people would play and they didn't. Maybe we need to require DJs to play vinyl, I don't know.

Spinning Indie: Do most students at University of Kansas know about the station? Do a lot of students listen to the station? Is the staff/DJs mostly students?

Danielle King, PR Director: In our last listenership survey we received these results: Out of 690 undergrads surveyed, 44 responded that they listen daily, 78 listen weekly, 89 listen monthly, 343 do not listen, 134 did not know about the station and 2 did not respond. The survey was also given to grad students, faculty and staff with similar results.

So most students know about the station, but don’t listen. This can be attributed, obviously, to the fact that most students have more commercial taste in music and that is not what we’re about. It’d be nice to have more listeners and obviously that is something we are always striving for, but a loyal listenership is better for us than changing our programming to suit the tastes of the masses.

The station is entirely student-run and operated 24/7 and we have a general manager, Tom Johnson [the only non-student].

1st issue of RIYL

Spinning Indie: Tell me about the new zine RIYL that you guys just launched.

Danielle King, PR Director: RIYL is intended to show our listenership that we’re more than voices they hear on the radio. Prior to joining music staff, I never really thought about how much time people spend reviewing the material that is added to our rotation and stacks. RIYL is our new publication to let people read our album reviews, music articles and find out what the station is up to these days. It’s really a labor of love because the people who contribute to it are music nerds and adore the station. I’m really pleased with how the first volume turned out and the second volume will be out by mid-month.

Spinning Indie: What's the status of your station move?

Tom Johnson, General Manager: We're getting final drawings and designs finished up, and hope to start building in February 2009 for a summer 2009 opening. It's going to incorporate the best pieces of KJHK's history (from the books and the Shack itself) combined with some of the best facilities an indie college radio station has ever seen. Can't wait.

Spinning Indie: Can you tell me about the Wilt Chamberlain connection?

Danielle King, PR Director:

Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations? Who do you admire?

Danielle King, PR Director: I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t regularly listen to any other station besides KJHK. I have listened to: KEXP (Washington), WRSU (Rutgers) and WSBF (Clemson) because of friends and with KEXP, it was curiosity.

I think KJHK is really focused on doing what we want to do irrespective to other stations. I think we’re incredibly lucky at KJHK to have so much on-air freedom and influence regarding events and projects. Many stations are required to play very specific things or have governing boards that control everything. Here students are in charge of almost everything and I think that is fantastic.

Next week, the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour continues with a virtual trip to Louisiana.

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