Friday, January 30, 2009

More Perspective on the Demise of Indie 103

A former Program Director for recently departed Los Angeles commercial station Indie 103 adds some perspective on the evolution of the station and why its eclectic format ultimately failed in the ratings. In Max Tolkoff's piece in the Huffington Post, he explains that the goals of the station were always commercial:

"...It's pretty much business as usual for radio as practiced in the United States of America today. It boils down to: formats that make money stay; formats that lose money go away.

Let me tell you what INDIE was not. INDIE did not spring from the fever dream of some enlightened station manger who woke up one morning convinced that L.A. needed another alternative station...

INDIE wasn't even independent. There was no pirate ship of swashbuckling programmers and music heads beholden' to no one, ravaging the high seas and singing Vampire Weekend songs while drunk on grog. INDIE 103.1 was the creation of Clear Channel..."

He points out that part of the station's downfall was its broad programming:

"By this time there were now 18, yes, eighteen specialty shows on the station. The music was, to say the least, eclectic. It was hard to believe this was an actual commercial station and not NPR, or college radio...It was just too much for the average listener. A plethora of riches that appealed to the very few, and the very hip. After the initial check-out people went away and did not come back. The station was too difficult to listen to for long periods of time. Too unfamiliar. At times even difficult to pin down what the station actually was due to too many specialty shows clogging up the format."

We've heard this before, that commercial radio is all about narrow playlists and familiar sounds. According to former PD Max, as "Indie 103" started programming more like a college station, with a variety of specialty shows, its ratings began to suffer. And, bad ratings mean the death of commercial stations. He writes:

"If your content can't get ratings, and sales can't sell it, you disappear from the airwaves. Even though you know, because listeners swarm to your events, clog your blogs, and buy the music, that you have a viable audience. But if Arbitron can't track them they clearly don't exist. And that's the shame of American radio today."

I guess college radio is lucky that we're not beholden to ratings. And, my assumption is that college radio listeners are very different from commercial radio audiences. Fans of college radio often "ride it out" through unfamiliar sounds because of the adventure and the joy of discovering new musical treats.

What do you think? Is it easier to listen to commercial radio or college radio? And why is unfamiliar music seen as so scary?

Monday, January 26, 2009

College Radio Tidbits - Cost Cutting at Miami University and Middle Tennessee State Stations, While Madison Station Expands

A few college-radio related items to report, as 2 public-radio affiliated college stations face budget crises, while the University of Wisconsin-Madison station moves to a shiny, new space:

Control of Campus Station WMUB to Transfer to Public Radio Group
According to a press release, Miami University (Ohio) may transfer control of their public radio-affiliated station WMUB to Cincinnati Public Radio in order to cut costs. The press release states:

"...the financial obligation of WMUB can no longer be borne by the university with the economic challenges we face," said Miami President David Hodge.

The university chose not to sell the station, as it would have likely meant losing the public radio programming that it now provides to the Miami Valley.

This decision follows a two-year process of exploring options for the future of WMUB, which did not result in an economically viable way to continue WMUB as a stand-alone station. Under this operating agreement, WMUB would join public radio stations WGUC FM and WVXU FM, which are owned and operated by Cincinnati Public Radio. WVXU and WMUB currently offer similar programming. With this alliance, WMUB will maintain its emphasis on news and information offerings on 88.5 FM as well as offer opportunities for student development."

Although this news is not the same as a campus losing a radio station completely, it is a sad move in terms of the increasing homogenization of radio and loss of local programming---even among public radio stations.

WSUM's New Digs
An opinion piece in The Isthmus discusses Madison Wisconsin station WSUM (Stop 2 on the "Spinning Indie 50 State Tour") and its new studios. The author talks about a $400,000 grant for the station move and writes, "The question is, what will WSUM do with its newfound wealth? Will its programming grow to reflect the quality of its facility? Or will it squander this amazing opportunity?"

Although the author praises WSUM programming, saying, "when WSUM shines, it can be brilliant," he also critiques the station for being "...notoriously uneven, and not something a new studio can fix."

Do you think shiny new studios and mounds of cash should lead to a more professional-sounding station? I'm not sure...But, I do think that DJs and staff should feel very very thankful and should work their hardest to do great programming.

My greater reaction to this story, though, is that especially in these economic times, it's fantastic to hear about a college radio station that's getting such strong support from the administration. Clearly they understand the importance of student radio.

Middle Tennessee State May Close Radio Station
An article about budget cuts at Middle Tennessee State University states that one of the casualties of their financial crisis may be the student radio station. An earlier article states that the radio station in danger of closing is public radio-affiliated jazz station WMOT. In a nice statement of solidarity, student-run radio station WMTS is hosting a benefit to help save their sister station.

Support Needed for KTXT as Texas Tech Plans to Transfer it to Public Station

I'm still keeping the faith for the DJs and staff of Texas Tech student radio station KTXT. The station was shut down without warning in December and its supporters are still rallying, writing, calling, and emailing in order to get the word out about the situation in order to hopefully keep the station alive.

An article in the Lubbock-Avalanche Journal this weekend reveals that Texas Tech still plans to move forward with their decision to merge KTXT with public radio station KOHM. According to the piece,

"Control of KTXT-FM's license has been transferred to Tech-owned KOHM-FM, Tech officials announced Friday.

KOHM, a non-commercial, educational radio station, features classical and jazz music and National Public Radio shows, as well as other programming.

'My goal is to utilize (the KTXT) signal for the training of students, which is what it was originally created for,' said Derrick Ginter, KOHM-FM's general manager...

KTXT-FM, which was broadcasting at 88.1 Mhz, had been a training ground for students since 1961, but officials in the Student Media department abruptly took the station off the air Dec. 10, citing money issues and a changing media industry...

Space and funding issues will prevent KTXT-FM from returning to its old format of little oversight, Ginter said. That format allowed students with little training to get their feet wet on air, playing wide-ranging music of their choice.

The already cramped KOHM studios couldn't support as many student volunteers as KTXT did, Ginter said. Some 70 students were volunteering at the station at the time of its closure, student volunteers have said...

Initially, broadcasting on the 88.1 frequency will probably be automated, he said.

KOHM - the first station in Lubbock to offer digital radio signals - wants to air music and programs on 88.1 with broader commercial appeal than the music played at KTXT, Ginter said. That's necessary to obtain the kind of financial support the station needs to run the frequency, he said.

'We are largely supported by our listeners through public donations,' Ginter said."

It's sad to me that all of the work and diversity of the old station seems to be discounted and discredited as a format of "little oversight." Additionally, it sounds like there will be a lot less room for volunteers at the new station; and a lot less room for creative sounds. An editorial in the Daily Toreador expresses dismay at this, saying:

"...KTXT was diverse. There was a sports show, a heavy metal show, a hip-hop show, a world music show, a current events talk show and even a comic book show. The music on KTXT was often different from mainstream radio. But in a town in which so little is different, KTXT was - and you hear this word used a lot - an oasis. For 47 years KTXT brought together a close-knit group of independent-minded individuals. Their views were myriad, their backgrounds dissimilar, and in many cases, they would never have met if it weren't for the ossifying nature of working for the same radio station. The Tech administration increasingly seems to think our school should be run purely as if it were a business, with efficiency valued more highly than intellectual rigor. With this cynical mindset, a non-mainstream radio station might appear superfluous."

If you are so inclined, visit the Save KTXT Facebook group and consider helping them with their latest (work-in-progress) proposal to the university. In particular, they need help from other college radio stations and fans to express why college radio is still relevant and important. You can also donate funds to help with the cause as well.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU

KZSU Entrance in the Basement of Memorial Hall at Stanford University

I finally decided that it was time to start visiting some radio stations in my own backyard in the San Francisco Bay Area. So, for my 8th radio station field trip I journey down the road to Stanford University in Palo Alto to visit KZSU.

I'd actually been to the station before, way back in 1986 when I was home from college for the summer. At the time I was a DJ at my college's AM carrier current station, so I decided that it would fun to go through training at KZSU in order to get on a "real" FM radio station. I barely remember the experience, other than that I trained with a guy named "Yo" (short for Johann) and gave him a ride to a Cure concert. I also remember playing an amazing "This Mortal Coil" track during my solo stint and also feeling so thrilled that my parents got to actually hear me live on the radio.

Studio at KZSU

23 years later it was fun to step back into KZSU. Thanks to outgoing (2008) General Manager Samuel Franco for touring me around the station's basement digs last Monday, January 12th on a gorgeous 70+ degree day.

KZSU's 2008 General Manager Samuel Franco

KZSU began as an AM carrier current station in 1947 (originally called KSU) and received their FM license in 1964. To celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2007 they had a 60-hour music marathon, featured alumni DJs, and broadcast old airchecks.

KZSU Hallway with Clippings about the Station

As you might imagine, since radio has had such a lengthy history at Stanford, KZSU has a massive music library, reportedly over 80,000 CDs and also a huge amount of vinyl. I saw a lot of it first-hand, but some of it is stored away underground. You can also scan through the library by searching their online Zookeeper database. One part of the collection that is lovingly displayed and quite accessible in the station hallway is the 7" single library. KZSU actually has a Music Director devoted entirely to 7"s who oversees that section. I was happy to hear that KZSU still actively adds vinyl, although according to Samuel it comprises about 5 to 10 percent of the new additions to the library.

Samuel shows me the 7" vinyl collection at KZSU

Other things that KZSU is known for include a long-running (apparently the longest continuously airing), well-regarded hip hop show "The Drum." Host Kevvy Kev has been on the air since 1984, but "The Drum" has been on KZSU much longer, with different hosts and formats. In 1988 Kevvy Kev helped organize the Bay Area Hip Hop Coalition with college and community radio DJs from KALX and KPOO. For more on the Kevvy Kev and the history of "The Drum," see the recent interview on the Amoeba blog and the lengthy 2004 profile in Metroactive.

DJ Byrd of Paradise on KZSU

An interesting thing about KZSU is that the majority of its current DJ staff are not students at Stanford, but instead music and radio enthusiasts from all of the SF Bay Area. Many of these community DJs have been on the air for decades or more, including the Blues Director "Byrd of Paradise," who has been at the station since 1991 and the Chief Engineer who's been at the station since the 1960s. Samuel also told me that "The Big Love Show" has been on for years (since 1997) playing house music and that the DJs behind it were "original ravers" at Stanford in the early 1990s and still throw parties. Their live music show "Wednesday Night Live" also has a long history of bringing a wide range of performers to the station every week.

"Wednesday Night Live" Schedule of Live Performances at KZSU

I asked Samuel (a Stanford senior) how it felt to be at a station with so few students and he told me that it was actually refreshing because it's a way to "break out of the bubble" of Stanford University. He acknowledged that most students have no idea where the station is on campus and that part of the challenge is that KZSU is not played in any of the common areas at Stanford (bookstore, coffee shops, dining halls, etc.). Although in many ways the station seems distanced from the university, it is also a major part of it, airing sports programming and featuring public affairs shows with regular guests from Stanford. Samuel told me that live sports broadcasts get tons of listeners and that their all-time record for number of webstream listeners was for a baseball world series.

KZSU's "Zero Tolerance" Graffiti Policy

Another challenge that we talked about was funding, as KZSU recently lost a major funding source from Stanford. According to Samuel, "We lost special funding from the school via an election last year where we did not win the support of the graduate students." He told me that they are hoping to again get funding from the university, but that there will be some hurdles to get there. In the meantime, the station is surviving on existing funds. Samuel said, "We've been drawing from capital reserves to get through this year, as well as going harder for money from the athletic department, alumni donations and underwriting, but so far none of these have provided a sustainable solution." Like many college radio stations, KZSU is run entirely by volunteers, except for the one paid position of Chief Engineer.

Samuel has been a fan of college radio for years, even volunteering at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City when he was in high school. He's been at KZSU since his freshman year and spoke highly of the station's focus on obscure music. He told me, "We get the best experimental music here...[from]...classical....[to]...noise." He added, "It's a testament to the last two music directors." Throughout our visit he pointed out interesting pieces of vinyl and hard-to-find CDs to me, including music on a small Croatian label Slusaj Najglasnije that has attracted a cult following at KZSU.

He also mentioned various shows at KZSU that play edgy sounds, including "out there free jazz," "heavy stuff," and "brutal metal." In fact, Samuel said his favorite show name at KZSU was the metal show "Bloodstains Across Atherton" (which has also been on the air for at least a decade). He pointed out, however, that programming overall is diverse, including the above-mentioned genres as well as psych, "sugary indie pop" and hip hop.

Music Awaiting DJ Review on the "Review Shelf"

When I asked how music selections were made, Samuel told me that it was a combination of the music directors and the DJs. He said that everyone is part of the review process and showed me the shelf where new, ready-to-be-reviewed music is placed for DJs after it's been screened by the Music Director or genre directors. DJs can then check the music out from the station and write a review for it before it gets added to the station library.

Obscenity and Indecency Guidelines Posted on KZSU Studio Door

In terms of DJ requirements, staff members go through a 10 week training class. They mainly learn about FCC rules and the course culminates with a 20 question test about the station and with the students sitting in on a DJ's show. DJs then submit demo tapes in order for gain approval to be on the air. To earn preferred time slots, DJs are expected to volunteer at the station, although there are no specific requirements as to the number of hours. During shifts most DJs are asked to play 5 cuts an hour from current rotation, which KZSU calls their "A-file." Alternately, they can play songs from the "Re-Animated" section, which contains "old classics" that the station is featuring again.

Samuel admires some LP Cover Art

Samuel told me that KZSU adds between 20 to 50 CDs a week to the station library. They do add vinyl, mostly 7-inches. As he grabbed an LP from the shelves, Samuel opined, "CDs have no soul, man...You don't have a big giant picture of Grover Washington...staring at you when you play a CD."


KZSU does not add digital releases. Samuel said that material being added needs to be a "tangible" CD or record. When I asked him if they added cassettes, he laughed, but added, "vinyl's still going." He admitted that he's a fan of traditional music media, saying, "I hate the iPod." Although DJs are allowed to play MP3s over the air, Samuel said that he was not a fan of doing radio that way.

When I asked Samuel about other college radio stations, he mentioned some from New York that he likes, including Barnard's WBAR, saying they play some "pretty gritty music." He also mentioned Fordham's public radio station WFUV and public station WBGO in Newark (for its jazz programming and "outstanding radio documentaries"). He said he's also streamed stations like Radio De Paul and the Milwaukee School of Engineering station. In terms of SF Bay Area stations, Samuel also listens to KALX (UC Berkeley) and KUSF (University of San Francisco). He said that he was happy to hear "more guys playing weird noise" during daytime hours on KUSF after some scheduling changes.

Vinyl at KZSU

KZSU has monthly staff meetings and has also done some station get-togethers like a trip to see the San Jose Giants. Samuel said that some of the challenges they face as a station are getting enough money and getting enough volunteer hours from station staff. I'm sure most stations can relate to that.

Thanks so much to Samuel and everyone I met at KZSU for taking the time to tour me around the station and chat about college radio. In the weeks to come I hope to visit more San Francisco Bay Area radio stations.

Classic KZSU Equipment

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

Monday, January 19, 2009

College Radio's Role in '90s SF Music Scene

College radio stations are often inextricably linked the music scenes of their surrounding communities. It's pretty cool to see that acknowledged in a San Francisco Bay Guardian article from 2003. It just got on my radar today, as the blog Squirrel Antics posted a quote from that piece about the SF music scene centered around the Mission District. In the article, author Josh Wilson (as mentioned below, a KUSF DJ) gives credit to San Francisco Bay Area college radio stations for their role in supporting indie music. The Bay Guardian piece states:

"Though the '90s-era Mission was home to a thriving community, it did not occur in a vacuum. Tangential happenings and institutions flourished, part of a confluence of and infrastructure for homegrown, urban, do-it-yourself creativity. KFJC, KALX, KZSU, and KUSF (where this writer DJs) delivered the emerging soundtrack of the era to Bay Area listeners starved for adventurous music. Burning Man was still a lawless punk-pyro and machine-art utopia, and San Francisco Art Institute superheroine Warrior Girl's 24-Hour Community Spacewalk orchestrated a colossal, simultaneous display of interactive, round-the-clock art, music, and performance on dozens of street corners in the Mission and South of Market for two years running. Nowhere, however, were things as concentrated as in the Mission."

For any of you who lived in San Francisco in the 1990s, the Bay Guardian article is a nice bit of nostalgia; with its mentions of seminal bands and classic clubs. I certainly have fond memories of shows at Komotion, Kilowatt, and the Chameleon and a sense of pride for the amazing bands coming out of SF at the time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

College Radio Concerns about Proposal for Stringent Record-Keeping Requirements for Webcasters

You may have missed the news (as I did), since it came out on December 30th, but there's a new proposal by the Copyright Royalty Board that will require webcasters (including college radio stations) to report every single song that they play to SoundExchange. According to PC Magazine:

"CRB wants any entity that pays royalties under sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act, including Internet radio, satellite radio, digital cable radio, and any other radio-like services delivered by digital means to report every single song they play on the air to SoundExchange, which governs the music industry's royalty rates. Under current rules established in 2004, they are only required to report their playlists for two weeks every quarter."

Yesterday CBI (College Broadcasters, Inc.) and Harvard station WHRB issued a press release expressing concern about the Copyright Royalty Board's (CRB) timing in releasing proposed changes to webcasting record-keeping and reporting requirements. CBI and WHRB are asking the CRB for additional time "to collect data and submit comments" about the proposed changes, which will have a big impact on college radio stations.

According to the CBI/WHRB
press release:

"Without warning, on December 30, 2008, while most college students were on break, the CRB issued a proposal to change the current rules that apply to all webcasters that use copyrighted recordings. While the proceedings have been underway for six years, the officials only allowed 30 days for the submission of comments from interested parties before making a final ruling which could stand for several decades.

Furthermore, for many of the student stations most affected by the new rules, students would be away on break for most of the 30 day comment window.
Warren Kozireski, president of CBI and general manager of WBSU 89.1 The Point, at SUNY Brockport, said 'The proposal contains rule changes that would adversely affect hundreds of student stations across the nation, yet the CRB issued the proposal during winter break and provided us with only 30 days to respond. That is simply not enough time to gather information from stations and provide the CRB with ample information to make informed decisions.'"

The nature of college radio programming (huge playlists, vinyl catalogs, obscure recordings, DJ controlled playlists) will no doubt make record-keeping and tracking even more cumbersome. In quoting Michael Papish, legal and policy advisor for WHRB, the press release states:

"'For many stations like WHRB which have deep catalogs and feature programming by DJs that still rely heavily on vinyl media, these new regulations could prove extremely difficult...'"

An article on CBI's website provides more information about these proposed changes. According to the piece:

...The proposed rules would require stations to submit reports of every song played (that is not exempt) for each day of the year. This is known as 'census reporting'. The current requirement is to keep data for only 14 days per calendar quarter.

...The proposed rules would require reports of use be submitted on or before the 45th day following the close of each calendar month...the current rules do not include a deadline for the submission of a report of use.

...The proposed rules would require stations to report 'actual performances' of each song instead of ATH [aggregate tuning hours]. In other words, for each song played, stations would need to report the total number of devices connected to the server for each and every song played, regardless of duration..."

Well, my head is certainly swimming as I try to figure out how college radio stations will tally this information. CBI is encouraging college radio station to take a close look at these proposed regulations. They are hoping that the Copyright Review Board will extend the comment period beyond January 30th, so that stations have more time to digest all of this information and respond accordingly. Additionally, CBI encourages college radio stations to submit feedback and comments for the Copyright Review Board through CBI in order to create a stronger, more unified case. CBI writes:

"...we encourage stations to submit comments before the CRB, but we are asking stations to hold off on sending rash responses that would either hurt our position or be legally impermissable. In order to aid stations in making legally permissable responses to the request for comments, CBI will work with stations in crafting comments. In addition, CBI will likely include station submissions in their own comments. This offer of assistance is available to all college stations, whether or not they are currently members of CBI or currently webcasting. We are particularly interested in helping stations that are not webcasting due to the recordkeeping obligations."

Stations planning to send comments to the Copyright Review Board, can get assistance from CBI by emailing

College Radio Tidbits - WRVU Profile, WTBU Honors Old Radio Tower, Budget Cuts for Conference Travel

Here are a few recent tidbits about college radio in the news:

Vanderbilt Station WRVU Profile (Nashville Scene Blog)
There's a nice piece, "College Radio is Better: How to Listen to WRVU," about Vanderbilt University station WRVU on the Nashville Scene blog. In the article, Emily Bartlett Hines talks a bit about the station's history (around since the 1950s), recent scandals (porn on a station computer), but more importantly about the range of programming on the station. She writes:

"If you're going to listen to any radio, I will opine that this is the station to be paying attention to. The DJs include some of Nashville's most interesting and dedicated music fans (many of them are community members, not undergraduates), so it's a great way to learn about different genres of music...the weekly schedule includes a total of 96 different shows, playing everything from Persian music to political chat..."

Boston University Station WTBU Debuts New Logo and WebsiteIn November, Boston University tore down an old, non-functioning radio tower, inspiring sadness by some folks. Well, according to an article in BU Today, now the tower lives on in the new logo for campus (and online) station WTBU.

Mt. Hood Community College Radio Station's Possible Budget Cuts
There's a blurb in the Mt. Hood Community College Advocate about funding cuts for various student organizations, including the student radio station The Quarry. The line item in question is related to the travel budget for a conference in New York (CMJ perhaps?). Especially in this economy, I'm sure similar budget discussions are taking place at college radio stations all over the country.

Friday, January 16, 2009

L.A.'s "Indie 103" Leaves FM

Photo by Indie 103 DJ Tedd Roman (via TwitPic)

I got the word on Idolator that Los Angeles commercial radio station "Indie 103" just announced yesterday that they will be leaving the FM airwaves for the web. Based on information gleaned from their Wikipedia page, "Indie 103" first went on the air in December 2003 and featured an eclectic mix of shows that included metal, Americana, punk, and electronic music. A number of DJs and hosts were famous musicians, including Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Joe Escalante of the Vandals, Dave Navarro and Henry Rollins.

In the station's official announcement they critique corporate radio and argue that commercial restraints had forced the station to compromise its original mission. And, apparently, in the last few months a number of the station's specialty shows had been cancelled or moved. The statement in part reads:

"Indie 103.1 will cease broadcasting over this frequency effective immediately. Because of changes in the radio industry and the way radio audiences are measured, stations in this market are being forced to play too much Britney, Puffy and alternative music that is neither new nor cutting edge. Due to these challenges, Indie 103.1 was recently faced with only one option --- to play the corporate radio game.

We have decided not to play that game any longer. Rather than changing the sound, spirit, and soul of what has made Indie 103.1 great Indie 103.1 will bid farewell to the terrestrial airwaves and take an alternative course.

This could only be done on the Internet, a place where rules do not apply and where new music thrives; be it grunge, punk, or alternative - simply put, only the best music.

For those of you with a computer at home or at work, log on to and listen to the new Indie 103.1 - which is really the old Indie 103.1, not the version of Indie 103.1 we are removing from the broadcast airwaves.

We thank our listeners and advertisers for their support of the greatest radio station ever conceived, and look forward to continuing to deliver the famed Indie 103.1 music and spirit over the Internet to passionate music listeners around the world."

Despite this optimistic announcement, apparently the new station won't even really be the "old" Indie 103. According to the Rolling Stone blog Rock & Roll Daily, the new web-only station will not feature any of the old "Indie 103" DJs. The piece states:

"Essentially, the DJ-less Internet radio station is just a really stacked iPod on shuffle."

Wow. That doesn't sound compelling, especially since "Indie 103" seemed to have some knowledgeable DJs. The same article also includes a link to one DJ's personal account via Twitter in the aftermath of the station closure:

" sure to check out former Indie 103 DJ Tedd Roman’s Twitter page, which has an almost minute-by-minute account of the chain of events following the station’s surprise announcement."

I agree that Tedd Roman's tweets are worth checking out, as well as some of his photos of the final hours of the station (including the one atop this post).

I'm not sure what the "old" Indie 103 playlist was like, or what it devolved into more recently. If you're a listener, I'd be curious to hear how the station compared to college radio, corporate radio, "modern rock" stations like KROQ, and LA radio in general.

Some of the listener comments that I've read online indicate that college radio station KXLU features more adventurous programming and may have even provided inspiration for Indie 103. Not surprising.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 9 - Kentucky's WRFL

I'm pleased to begin 2009 with another stop on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour. 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. Yes, college radio is still relevant and thriving!

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

For my 9th stop, I virtually ventured to Lexington, Kentucky to learn more about University of Kentucky station WRFL aka "Radio Free Lexington." While researching the station, I was both amazed and impressed by the tales of their beginnings in the 1980s. Due to the hard work and dedication of students, WRFL launched in 1988.

As I watched a recent documentary about the station on You Tube, I actually got a bit misty-eyed thinking about all of those enterprising folks who were so devoted to college radio that they pushed to get a station on campus. It's an amazing documentary and is even more fun to watch if you were involved in radio in the 1980s like I was. It's full of 1980s imagery, music, album covers, archival photos, and DJ interviews. From the looks of it, it must have been filmed during the station's recent 20th anniversary celebration; as there are scenes of original DJs coming back to the station and reminiscing about the early days. With all of the recent news of station closures, it's inspiring to look at this documentary to be reminded of why people have fought so hard for college radio over the years.

WRFL Documentary, Part 1

WRFL Documentary, Part 2

In addition to the documentary, on the WRFL website there are links to early issues of their music 'zine RiFLE. An edition from 1988 even has a piece recapping the 1987 CMJ conference (hey! I was there too!). They talk about seeing bands like Scrawl, Das Damen, Pere Ubu and Buckwheat Zydeco; as well attending an SST showcase and hearing a keynote by Abbie Hoffman and Billy Bragg about "Activism in the '80s." They mention that Hoffman yelled "Say no to a puppet president" while beating a Ronald Reagan mask with his fist. Ah yes. It was also cool to read that at CMJ they also bonded with and got inspiration from staff members from other stations, including WNUR, WSKB, and KCSU.

Cover of 1988 issue of RiFLE (source: WRFL)

Thanks to General Manager Chuck Clenney for taking the time to chat with me about WRFL. In his interview he talks a bit more about the early days of the station and their recent 20th anniversary celebration, highlights some of their unique programming, their connection with the Lexington local music community, and gives me the scoop on a Leonard Nimoy record lurking in their library.

Spinning Indie: What motivated you to get involved with college radio?

Chuck: Well, I've always appreciated independent radio; growing up near Cincinnati, I grew up on 97X, and, in 2004, when I enrolled at the University of Kentucky, I was pleased to find one of the best college radio stations in the nation nestled in the basement of the Student Center. I came into the station and former GM Michael Powell was DJing. We chatted about the latest Cure album, he complimented my 97X shirt, and had me fill out an application.

After doing a few 3-6am shifts and a midnight underground Hip-hop show, I took over as GM because I wanted to make the station as progressive as I could. What I appreciate most about college radio is that it gives its listeners the rare opportunity to taste from the grandiose buffet of records that mainstream corporate stations neglect to spin. Playing singles, making money from advertising, non-localized DJs, computer automation, and pacifying the masses satiates the airwaves in Lexington; Naturally, college radio rebels from the norm because corporate radio has sucked the creativity, the fun, and, literally, the DJ off of our airwaves; that is why I love it.

Spinning Indie: Can you tell me a bit about the history of Radio Free Lexington?

Chuck: First off, we've been broadcasting, with a live DJ in our studio, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year since 1988. Our programming is widely inclusive and covers almost every genre of music; every kind of Punk Rock, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Indian, World, Reggae, Metal, Americana, Noise, Dubstep, Bluegrass, and so on- lest we forget Democracy Now! and all the independent news programs that we produce with UK's school of Journalism.

WRFL started from a newspaper article written by WRFL DJ, now UK professor, Kakie Urch suggesting that UK needed a station to voice the sounds and opinions of artists that the homogenized mainstream didn't take interest in. Once the article ruffled enough feathers, the founders raised $25K, matched by the Lexington Mayor at the time as well as UK's former President, Otis Singletary, and WRFL hit the airwaves in March 1988.

I can say that we've been the nucleus of the Lexington Music scene and we've brought such progressive acts to town as Outkast, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Coup, Jolie Holland, Of Montreal, Mates of States, Wolf Eyes, Camper Van Beethoven, Apples in Stereo, KRS-One, and Times New Viking, just to name a few. We've been educating the bluegrass for 20 years and have had thousands of DJs come through the station. Ashley Judd even hosted our first women's music show under the alias Hollie Austin. The best part of it all, is that we're about to expand from 250 watts to 7900 watts, so, in the next year and a half, we'll be able to educate almost 32 times more Kentuckians with our extremely diverse, eclectic human-powered programming- which is very exciting!

Spinning Indie: How did WRFL celebrate the 20th anniversary this year?

Chuck: WRFL celebrated our 20th anniversary with the resurrection of Alternative Music Week building up to our first ever FreeKY Music and Arts Festival that went off crazy successful. Having a chance to share the FreeKY stage with over 50+ WRFL alums, who came together from all over the country, from the original crew who started the station and helped to get it started, as they asked the 7000+ Downtown Transit Center crowd to give what they had to help us upgrade was a magical moment for me and for the station.

Bringing together former DJs from the last 20 years was a great way to reflect upon all the good power that WRFL has brought to the airwaves and the Lexington community since it first hit the airwaves in March 1988. As WRFL reflected on all the wonderful events of its past and present over the decades, spanning from when Red Hot Chili Peppers ended the 1st Alternative Music Week in 1988 to when Apples in Stereo finished the night of the FreeKY Fest off to a packed crowd, it was clear that a new era of WRFL had begun.

We hosted a wide variety of shows throughout the week, including everything from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to bluegrass to noise to an all-DJ art show, and we even had local Lexingtonian, Zach Brock, take a break from touring with Stanley Clarke to fly back into town and play a show for his favorite radio station- a pretty amazing week, Lexington's mayor Jim Newberry even declared it WRFL Week. We finished off the 7 days of celebrations on Saturday with the FreeKY Fest, starting with a children's show and ending with Jolie Holland, The Coup, Apples in Stereo, Mahjongg, and some notable local acts, such as Big Fresh, Health and Happiness Family Gospel Band, and the Hair Police. We finished the week on Sunday with a community potluck concert featuring a lovely concert by Lake and Half-Handed Cloud- the perfect end to such a beautiful aurally-overloaded week .

Spinning Indie: I hear that you guys have a close ties to the noise music community in Lexington. Can you describe your local music scene and the station's connection to it?

Chuck: Well, Lexington has one of the most cohesive music scenes in America. It's very supportive and rich with talent and experimentation. WRFL has been home to members of the Hair Police, Wolf Eyes, Warmer Milks, Caboladies, and numerous other internationally recognized noise acts. Venues such as The Fact House, The Void Skateshop, Charles Mansion, Frowny Bear, provide venues for such experimental music. WRFL alums and DJs run and book shows at local concert venues, such as The Dame, Cultural Preservation Resources, and Al's Bar. Lexington is also home to famous music blogger,'s own Matt Jordan, as well as home to Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider. Needless to say, like I said before, WRFL is the nucleus of the Lexington music scene and our programming is the mitochondria (to stay with the metaphor).

Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour Poster (source: WRFL)

Spinning Indie: Tell me a little about some of the events that you put on, including the recent Elephant 6 show and the Halloween Skatefest.

Chuck: Well, the Elephant Six show was a real treat. The warm-hearted members of the Elephant 6 music collective, such bands as The Music Tapes, Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Nana Grizol, all came together to play each other's songs in a round barn located at the Red Mile Racetrack. This show saw an amazingly energetic reunion of Hilarie with Apples in Stereo, a rendezvous of fellow Lexingtonian, Robert Schneider, with his Elephant 6 pals, not to mention incredible and rare performances from Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, and Julian Koster's Music Tapes project as well as his film projects.

The amazing night ended with a breathtaking acoustic performance under the moonlight from Scott Spilane, Julian Koster on saw, and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel as they led the audience out of the venue to play "The Fool" together and finish the night off, under a Kentucky moon next to an empty horse track, with a solo acoustic performance of "Engine" by Jeff. It was the final date on the tour and tears and smiles ran amok; the E6 crew had to divide their vans up, The Music Tapes were headed to NYC to play the CMJ showcase and everyone else was heading home. Even later that night at my house, Julian found an issue of Paste Magazine in my bathroom with an article about Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, where he talks about living with him in Athens. It was one of the most memorable concerts of my life and something that only WRFL could have pulled off with such style and uniqueness.

Halloween Skatefest Poster (source: WRFL)

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?

Chuck: There aren't any specific rules, we have a playbox for local music, upcoming shows, Americana, metal, hip hop, blues, reggae, world, and jazz in addition to our general format playbox, which is pretty diverse in itself. Only general format shows are required to play from the playbox and they can play from any of the genre boxes. Since we are free-form, we have no boundaries to what kind of music can be played, it's always unpredictable and that element keeps our programming fresh and our audiences constantly inquiring. Of course, we don't play top 40 superficial garbage and other songs that you can hear on stations that choose profit over programming, that is really our only limit.

Spinning Indie: Do you add MP3s? vinyl? cassettes? What format of music gets played the most?

Chuck: We mostly add CDs, which get played the most, but occasionally we'll add some vinyl and mp3s. We do have DJs that spin records, cassettes, CDs, and some that mix music on their laptops or turntables live, so you never know what to expect. Our old school hip hop show DJ, Tommy Miller, is notorious for his 4 turntable sets full of scratching, freestylin, and all sorts of aural delights.

Spinning Indie: What's one of the weirdest records in your library?

Chuck: Oh gosh, where to begin? Our 7" collection has got some gems and goofy stuff in it and we get some pretty strange stuff all the time but if I had to pick one record, I'd have to go with a Leonard Nimoy record that I found, it's all music from "outer space"- totally wtf?

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

Chuck: Well, we have some DJs who have been on the air since the station began in 1988. Mick Jeffries, who hosts a trivia show, Trivial Thursdays from 6-9am on Thursdays, has been at the station since the beginning as well as bringer of all that is experimental-cutting-edge-punk-scaring-your-parents, Bill Widener, who hosts the Unca Bill show every Friday from 8-10pm. We've also had The World Beat and Music from India bringing Lexington music from all over the world for more than 15 years and Shareef Hakim's Black Fist Radio has been bringing the realist in new and old hip hop for more than 15 years- quite a feat considering all the DJs volunteer their time.

Spinning Indie: Are there any shows that stand out as being unique to WRFL?

Chuck: Oh for sure, we have shows that feature music that you can't hear on the radio anywhere else in Kentucky, and maybe the world. Our bluegrass shows, Blue Yodel #9 and The Hard Travellin' Revue, every Saturday morning are the perfect cure for a hangover and are the only place on Lexington's dial that you can listen to this music that our state has been making for hundreds of years. Tommy Miller's Old School Hip Hop Show, The Jazz Vault, Music from India, Thru Da Vibe (dance), El Tren Latino, The Psychadelicatessen, and The Black Fist are all shows that I think of when I think of WRFL's uniqueness.

Page from 1988 issue of RiFLE (source: WRFL)

Spinning Indie: I enjoyed looking at one of your first issues of your music magazine/program guide RiFLe. How have you guys managed to keep the magazine going for 20 years?

Chuck: Well, it's had all kinds of incarnations and formats, changing with the editors over the last 20 years. Since students always put it together, it's always evolving and, this last issue that we put out, included a complication CD of all local artists called "Know Your Own". It's just a collection random writings, artwork, reviews from DJs including everything that WRFL has done, will do, and all the gooey goodness in-between

Spinning Indie: Are the majority of your DJs students? What's the role of community DJs at the station?

Chuck: While the majority of our all-volunteer 100+ DJ staff are students, many of our longest running shows are the work of community members unaffiliated with the university or alumnus. Since UK student fees are where we get our funding, WRFL's primary commitment is to the university community, though we aspire to provide alternative music to a much broader audience and include close to 50/50 community members and students. We are a vehicle for education for all people interesting in learning about myriad varieties of music as well as how to operate broadcasting equipment. The station is also run by 12 part-time student employees including the General Manager and Programming Director positions.

Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations? Which stations do you love?

Chuck: Of course I do. I enjoy KVRX in Austin, they're similar to us and we always enjoy each other's hipness at the National College Media Conferences.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the next stop on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Rhode Island.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

College Radio Support for Shut-Down Station KTXT

I just did a guest blog post over on the newish WBGU blog talking about how important college radio was for me when I was living in small town Ohio. That experience makes me feel even more sympathetic to the plight of Lubbock, Texas station KTXT, which is trying desperately to galvanize support in order to keep the nearly 50-year-old college radio station on the air after it was shut down by Texas Tech in December without warning.

I'm happy to see on the Save KTXT Facebook page that a number of college radio stations have offered their support. Can you add your station to this list? We really are all in this together.

"Everyone at KTXT would like to thank all the following college radio stations for messages of support:

1. Bowling Green State University - WFAL "Falcon Radio" and WBGU 88.1 (Bowling Green, OH)

2. Indiana University - WIUX "Pure Student Radio" 99.1 FM (Bloomington, IN)

3. North Dakota State University - KNDS "Radio for Everyone" 105.9 FM (Fargo, ND)

4. University of Minnesota - KUOM "Radio K" 106.5 FM (Saint Louis Park, MN)

5. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute - WRPI 91.5 FM (Troy, NY)

6. Portland State University - KPSU 1450 AM "Portland's College Radio" (Portland, OR)

7. University of California - Davis - KDVS 90.3 FM (Davis, CA)

8. University of Central Oklahoma KCSC 90.1 HD-2 (Edmond, OK)

9. West Texas A&M University - KWTS 91.1 FM "The One" (Canyon, TX)

10. Rice University - KTRU 91.7 FM "Rice Radio" (Houston, TX)

11. Texas Christian University - KTCU 88.7 FM "The Choice" (Fort Worth, TX)"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dire Predictions about Radio

The majority of the time that the word "radio" is mentioned in any sort of media trend story it's in reference to commercial radio. I continue to be amazed that indie, community, college, pirate and non-commercial radio are not given their due. Of course every type of radio is facing challenges in 2009 in gaining listeners, volunteers, and funding. The mantra that I hear over and over again, though, is that for young people radio is no longer relevant.

This week, Radio Ink offers up radio expert Mark Hubbard's predictions about radio. He argues:

"Young people (those under 25) are no longer listening to radio with any loyalty or regularity. I do informal surveys with my college classes. It is rare when more that 20% have even listened to a radio in a given day..."

Another point that he makes is that radio itself isn't offering exciting content. He states:

"...The product on radio today isn’t very compelling (except for play-by-play sports for the person that can’t get to a television). The industry completely missed the media revolution and could have been at the hub of the wheel (if it hadn’t been asleep at it). Even personality radio is boring..."

Of course he's probably talking about commercial radio. But, I know that college radio stations are attracting young listeners. So there are radio fans out there below the age of 25. How do these arguments make you feel if you are a radio listener? Personally, I do think there is compelling, interesting, and entertaining stuff going on in college radio today. I continue to learn about new music, hear amazing live performances, and catch fascinating public affairs programming on college and community radio stations. But, I guess for the pundits, non-commercial radio has little relevance. Too bad.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pirate Cat Radio Profiled in SF Chronicle

It's always nice to see indie radio getting news coverage, but today I had tinges of jealousy as the San Francisco Chronicle hit a station that's been on my wish list for a local field trip. Pirate Cat Radio, located in San Francisco's Mission District, has been a source of intrigue for me lately as they seem to be getting more and more "above ground." They operate a cafe and can be heard on 87.9FM (currently with a crazy 1200 watts). Lately they've even been co-presenting some shows around town. What's surprised me is that even though they are an unlicensed station they are not shying away from publicity. Last year, I read Sue Carpenter's book about all of the cloak and dagger moments connected with running her pirate radio station in Los Angeles; so times certainly have changed.

According to Joel Selvin's piece in the Chronicle today, "Java-Sipping Pirates Reclaiming Airwaves," Pirate Cat Radio as a concept has moved from place for place (Los Gatos, Hollywood, SF) over the past 12 years with its owner Monkey. The station opened Pirate Cat Radio Cafe in San Francisco in March. In order to help keep the station afloat, DJs volunteer at the cafe and pay $30 a month in order to be on the air.

I know that having rules at a pirate station can be a challenge; but I'm impressed by Pirate Cat's approach. According to the article:

"Monkey makes three demands on his staff: each disc jockey must read the news during the first 10 minutes and do three public service announcements and one interview during every two-hour shift...

Most of the on-air interviews are conducted over the phone, but in-person interviews with San Francisco punk rock survivors from the Mabuhay Gardens era on Tuesday night's 'Neat Neat Noise' show has led to recent impromptu unplugged reunions by such punk luminaries as Flipper, Crime and the Avengers. Dead Kennedys raconteur Jello Biafra spent the morning after the presidential election sitting around the cafe, talking with morning show hosts and cafe customers alike."

It's definitely a cool endeavor that on the surface reminds me of some of the stuff going on at East Village Radio in New York City (which also had a pirate radio past). I can hardly wait to visit to learn more for myself.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Should Recycled Vinyl Record Art Make Me So Sad?

Necklace Crafted from Vinyl Record by Vling

Even though sales of vinyl records are up, and vinyl enthusiasts are still a force to be reckoned with; I've seen a counter-trend of the destruction of vinyl albums in the name of nostalgic art. Although the objects look really cool and probably appeal to record-loving hipsters and green consumers, I can't help but feel twinges of sadness about the vinyl destruction and loss of the music.

Vinylux Recycled Record Bowl

According to a description in the Uncommon Goods catalog, "Designer Jeff Davis brings vinyl back with decorative bowls and sealed coasters made from vintage LPs." One of the bowls shown was crafted from Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, so perhaps I shouldn't be so sad as there are probably thousands and thousands of surviving copies.

In the same catalog, there is recycled record jewelry. Necklaces and earrings shaped like cassette tapes, record inserts, and headphones are carved out of old vinyl records. Additionally, some handmade mixed material clocks by Minnesota artist Debra Dresler incorporate vinyl records into the design.

Paul Villinski's Vinyl Butterflies

Finally, a recent art piece in New York by Paul Villinski actually featured the destruction of the artist's own record collection. According to a review in the Wall Street Journal,

"Butterflies had been meticulously cut from vinyl records with a scroll saw, their colorful labels forming the body of the insect; they soared out of a vintage record player sitting on the floor, and fanned across the wall. It is breathtaking, at once whimsical and, oddly bittersweet. 'The soundtrack of my life,' as the artist described it, included records by Van Morrison, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Fleetwood Mac. He listened to each one last time before engineering its reincarnation; the piece has the resonance of a fairy tale."

Perhaps I shouldn't feel too sad. Vinylux is the artist/company that creates the vinyl bowls, coasters, etc. and on their website's FAQ section they explain why I should relax about all of this:

Q. Don’t you feel bad about ruining all of those records?

A. No, because once you start looking for lots and lots of records, you quickly find that there are lots and lots and lots and lots of records out there. Billions. And because we purchase our vinyl from dealers and collectors, most of the “good stuff” (i.e. valuable) has been picked out already. Most of the records we get are scratched, warped, or otherwise played-out.

I suppose if these records are just headed for the landfill anyway, then vinyl art is nothing for me to be getting all worked up about. Maybe I will get one of those 45rpm-covered spiral notebooks that I've been eying at my local bookstore after all....

Daniel Edlen's Original Painting on Vinyl

P.S. I had to add the above image to this post after hearing from Daniel Edlen about his Vinyl Art. He paints original portraits directly onto vinyl LPs and the results are quite haunting, especially since many of the subjects are dead (Johnny Cash, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon). His work also sort of reminds me of the old Tower Records calendar art (my 1980s Deborah Harry poster is a prized possession) that was so cool back in the day.

Sales of Digital and Vinyl Up in 2008

Happy New Year! I've been absorbed in the holidays the past few weeks, but plan to resume regular features (including the 50 State Tour) next week. One of the highlights of the season was catching WGN's Yule Log broadcast on Christmas Eve, complete with a soundtrack made up of classic radio dramas like It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. It was an awesome new take on the Yule Log genre and a fantastic homage to the early days of radio.

Speaking of classic sounds, today I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that sales of vinyl music were indeed up in 2008, along with sales of digital downloads. It's very interesting that while album sales were down overall, vinyl album sales were up 89% from 2007 and exploded to their highest level in 17 years. According to the same Nielsen report, more than two-thirds of vinyl sales were at independent record stores and the top selling vinyl album was Radiohead's In Rainbows. Digging deeper into the Nielsen SoundScan report, there are more fun tidbits about vinyl. Several of the top 10 vinyl albums of the year were reissues, including Abbey Road by the Beatles and Neutral Milk Hotel's amazing album In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

Did you buy any vinyl this year?