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


Cicero said...

Great Stuff here,
I just wanted to tell you about my alma mater's (Texas Tech) radio woes. Our Station KTXT was shut down this semester without warning or in-depth explanation. Students and alumni alike are joining together to bring the station back. Go by our Facebook group page for more info:

DoriZori said...

Thanks to Samuel for the mention of our station, 91.7 WMSE (Milwaukee School of Engineering), and for this awesome blog entry. Public radio, keep fighting the good fight!

G. E. Light said...

I look forwaard to reading more deeply in your blog. I too started radio in 1986 at URY, the UK's oldest independent radio station while on a Rotary Post-graduate fellowship. Then the self-same Yo "trained" me in 1987 at KZSU AKA sent in my FCC license form. I was at KZSU until June 1996 when I moved to MS and was Chief Announcer an General Manager. Thanks for the memories and cool to ses images of my compadres Byrd and Kevvy Kev!

Jennifer Waits said...

G.E., that's so crazy that Yo trained you too! I don't remember much else about him, but would be curious to find out if he still does college radio. I think his real name was Johann.

G. E. Light said...

No idea he was a one and done when I knew him (aka A senior or co-term). The sationr eally started changing then as we got more serous about competing with KFJC over the quality of our programming and also got far more community input volunteer-wise. rad gard students and older Bay Area music fans AKA engineers, geeks, freaks, et cetera.

Derek Hoyle said...

Wow, thanks for the 'tour', I always wanted to see the inside of 'the zoo' but never made it down there.

I listened to KZSU from about 1980 until I left the Bay Area in '92, and have many fond memories of several of their DJ's.

I'm soon to digitize some old cassettes I recorded off-air of a few KZSU show's, so I'll be wanting to share those somewhere when I'm finished, any suggestions?

Jennifer Waits said...

Hi Derek,
I'm sure that KZSU would be interested in your cassettes. I'm not sure where else you should post, but I'd be curious to hear what cassettes you have. Thanks for the note!