Friday, November 14, 2008

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 5 - Alaska Station KSUA

Welcome to the 5th installment of the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour. The goal of this project is to do interviews with folks from college radio stations from each of the 50 states in order to highlight fascinating stations (and their tales) from all over the United States.

So far I've traveled (virtually) to Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Today we visit Alaska to talk to Matthew Schroder, the General Manager of University of Alaska, Fairbanks station KSUA-FM.

The first non-commercial radio station in Alaska (KUAC-FM) was actually located in the current KSUA studios. Public radio station KUAC-FM went on the air in 1962 and is still in existence in a different location. In 1972, carrier-current station KMPS-AM became the first student station on campus. This "progressive rock" station could only be heard in the dorms and on campus.

Radio KSUA first began broadcasting in 1984 as a commercial station playing album-oriented rock, and later indie rock. Due to financial difficulties they shut down in March 1993. In December 1993, KSUA was re-born as a non-commercial "edgy alternative rock" station.

Thanks so much to Matthew Schroder to taking the time to chat with me about KSUA. In his interview, he talks about his personal history in college radio as well as his other favorite college and community radio stations, shares the programming requirements at the station, and provides details about a few of the long-time shows at KSUA.

Spinning Indie: How did you get involved with college radio? Do you have a show?

Matthew: My first experience in college radio was with KDOX (X-58). X-58 was a part of the radio broadcasting program at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon, and it was there that I received my associates degree in radio broadcasting. The station didn't broadcast over the air, but it was received over the local cable system in the area on Channel 58 and over the internet. It has since been renamed KMHC and has a sister public jazz station named KMHD. It was there that I learned the basics of radio and had a blast doing so.

I came to KSUA in '06 and did a show called Riker's Full Spectrum. I was looking for a station to get involved in while I was in school, and KSUA is the student station, so it fit my schedule and tastes perfectly. I became program director during the summer of '07 and general manager of the station this last summer. My show is now called "Soundtrack" and I play music from movies, musicals and television shows.

Spinning Indie: What's the overall mission/programming philosophy of KSUA?

Matthew: Everything about KSUA revolves around these three goals. To provide programming and music that is desired by the students of UAF, to provide programming and music that is otherwise unavailable to the Fairbanks community, and to provide training and radio experience to UAF students interested in a career in the broadcast industry.

Spinning Indie: I haven't heard of many college radio stations that transitioned from being commercial stations to non-commercial. Is there station lore about why KSUA was initially a commercial station?

Matthew: KSUA is fortunate to have a lot of its history still present at the station in the form of documents, pictures and first person accounts. There are quite a few people who are still involved at the station who were a part of it during the transition. The relationship between students and the university is difficult to quantify (even today), and KSUA starting as a commercial station was a way of students asserting their independence from the university while still being a part of it. Although, the commercial KSUA failed, the current KSUA which is funded by the student government, still maintains quite a bit of independence.

Spinning Indie: Did you inherit music/equipment from any of the earlier stations at University of Alaska? Anything interesting?

Matthew: A small sum of money and a transmitter were given to KSUA when the station switched from it's old commercial 103.9 FM spot on the dial to it's current non-commercial spot. The transmitter has since been upgraded.

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

Matthew: The two longest shows on the station are both on Sunday afternoons. "The Dead Session" a Grateful Dead show and "Eat @ Joe's" which is a folk-bluegrass show, have both been on the station over 10 years. The shows are hosted by UAF staff, so that helps preserve the longevity of the shows.

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

Matthew: As far as the Fairbanks market goes, I like to consider a lot of our programming as unique. It's one of our main goals to offer different programming. Almost every show format on KSUA can not be found anywhere else in this part of Alaska. We have many DJs who add their own flavor to their shows, and many DJs who might not fit the conventional role of a radio DJ, fit in well here.

One that stands out in my mind is the show "Family Ties" on Mondays. Murray Richmond, the main host, does a show with his children. Initially it started off with his daughter and has moved on to his older son. He frequently brings his younger son in to do the show as well. While the format of the show may not be entirely unique, the on-air presence of the family is.

Spinning Indie: Is there certain music that DJs are required to play? What type of music comprises your "play list" for daytime alternative format shows?

Matthew: Day shift DJs (8am-6pm) are required to play 6 songs from our play list each hour. If there is no DJ during the hour, the automation is scheduled to play 6 songs as well. The play list is made up of whole disks by artists and not just individual songs. We realize that the tastes of DJs vary greatly, so the play list usually offers a lot of flexibility in the genres and songs the DJ can play. If a DJ is really in to metal or some other genre, there are usually a few disks for them to play.

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?

Matthew: A lot of the music you hear on KSUA comes from the recommendations of the DJs. The music director will give a DJ music to review, and many times our play list is updated from their reviews. Every disk in our library has been reviewed by someone at the station. Quite often a label will be looking for us to add a CD to our play list that is just horrible, so the opinion of our DJs really matter. We will still stick the terrible CD in our library, but we will not add it to our play list.

KSUA isn't an indie station per-se. One of our main goals is to provide programming that can not otherwise be found in the market. Quite often, we'll receive a disk from a major label and play it until we notice it in rotation on another station. This shifts between music directors, because some are hardcore indie only type people and others are a little more lenient. We're a place of learning, so a concrete rule is not enforced when it comes to mainstream vs. indie. As long as the main goals are followed.

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

Matthew: Not anymore. DJs that want to play vinyl can, but it's been a few years since KSUA has actively used it.

Spinning Indie: Do most students at University of Alaska know about the station? Do a lot of students listen to the station?

Matthew: I would say that most University of Alaska students do not know about KSUA just because the university system here encompasses the whole state. This means the three big cities in Alaska and all of the rural campuses. The Anchorage campus has its own station, and KSUA does not broadcast to those other campuses (besides the Internet stream).

I do believe a lot of Fairbanks students and people in the community listen to KSUA. We don't subscribe to Arbitron or any other monitoring service, but we do receive a lot of feedback on our programming. We get a lot of positive feedback on the non-commercial feel of the station.

Spinning Indie: What's the application process like for prospective DJs? Do a lot of people apply for shifts? Is it mostly students on the air?

Matthew: Every DJ on KSUA has to go through the process of filling out a show application each semester. Even the long running shows have to fill out a show application. We use the application as a contract between the station and the DJs to ensure that they understand what is expected of them.

The program director then takes the applications and designs the semester's schedule based off of past participation and need. If there are applications in for 4 metal shows, obviously not all of them will receive shows. If a genre or time are full, DJs who have proven their ability to host a show will receive shows before new DJs who haven't.

There are a lot of applications each semester for shows. We encourage DJs to get their applications in early, so they have an easier time getting the slot they want. It is mostly students who apply for shows, and the station emphasizes that students make up the bulk of it's DJs. We do allow faculty and staff members to host shows, but we limit their numbers, because it is a student station and paid for and staffed by students.

Spinning Indie: I love the DJ etiquette PowerPoint on your site. What station rules do DJs seem to have the most difficulty with?

Matthew: We have hand written operator's logs, and DJs not filling out the logs completely seems to be the biggest rule that gets broken time and again. We understand that volunteers can be forgetful sometimes, so it's a rule we really try to hammer in to to people's heads.

Keeping overly mainstream music off of people's shows seems to be frequent as well. I'm talking stuff that's played on top-40 radio stations. A lot of new DJs have never had any experience in playing non-mainstream music, so a lot of the choices they make music wise are what's familiar to them. So in our reviews of people's shows, we really try to encourage branching out and trying new things.

Spinning Indie: What sort of training do new DJs go through at the station?

Matthew: The first semester as a new DJ is one long training period. Each new DJ (and some old ones) go through one-on-one training with the station's program director. The PD schedules a time to meet with the host and they'll go over every piece of equipment in the studio and everything in the DJ handbook. We believe a lot of the learning is done by doing, so we really encourage new DJs to just get in there and do their show. They're encouraged to take things slow, and not rush in to anything. New DJs are required to host a day shift show for their first semester. It gives the PD a whole semester to evaluate what type of DJ they are and if they're up to hosting in a later time slot. It also allows the PD to work with the new DJ over the course of the semester on anything that needs attention.

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

Matthew: I do still listen to KMHC whenever I have a chance. It was my first station, so I still like tuning in now and again. I like to listen to KBOO and KPSU in Portland, OR a lot as well. KBOO isn't a college station, but it's format is a lot like KSUA, so listening to them is great for motivation. KPSU is another great college radio station that I really enjoy for no other reason than I listened to it growing up and their format is similar to KSUA as well. KRUA, our sister station in Anchorage is a frequent stop for me as well. When I'm bored, it's fun just searching for college radio stations around the country and listening to what they're doing.

Spinning Indie: Any exciting plans for KSUA this year that you'd like to share?

Matthew: KSUA does have a lot of things on the horizon this year. We're hoping to improve a few things in house, and start doing some fresh things with the Internet and our website that are unavailable at other Alaskan stations. We're also rolling out new promotional campaigns that I think will help draw attention to the station. We're also looking in to broadcasting upcoming local events that have pretty much been ignore by other stations in town.

Next week, the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour will journey to North Dakota!


Anonymous said...

Hey Jennifer. As an obnoxiously militant college radio person for 20 years, I've been a fan of your blog for a while. I was behind on my reading, and am surprised to see myself (Paul Searls) quoted in your entry of October 20. How you ran across that college newspaper article mystifies me. And it's rather discouraging to think that the message got out on the blogsphere, but up here at Lyndon I remain largely shouting down a well in futility.

If you are going to visit Vermont in your 50-states project (perhaps inspired by Sufjan?), go to WRUV at the U. of Vermont. I did a show and was faculty adviser there for a decade. It's a great station.

And yes, the newspaper misspelled "indy." You see what I'm up against?

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks for the note. It is kind of amazing how all of these little articles get out into the blogoshere...there's a whole network that collects college newspaper stories, so that's probably how I found the one that quoted you (included in my 10/20/08 post below).

I appreciate the Vermont tip, too.