Saturday, February 28, 2009

Industry Noise Conference Recap

Awaiting the Panelists at Industry Noise
February 27, 2009

Yesterday I attended the first Industry Noise conference in San Francisco. Put on by the folks at Noise Pop along with the Bandwidth Music Technology Conference, it was a full-day event full of keynotes and panel discussions about the music business.

Although this was billed as the first "Industry Noise," event, Noise Pop has been holding educational sessions under a variety of names, with a range of themes and sponsors since 2000, when they debuted the Noise Pop Educational Series. The inaugural 2000 event featured a really cool line-up of free panels at the Make-Out Room on a Saturday afternoon, with artists like John Darnielle, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields and John Vanderslice along with folks from the business side of the music industry. Panels have taken place every year since, except for a break in 2005. I've been most years, and every year it's been exciting to see musician and journalist heroes (John Doe, Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, Smog's Bill Callahan, Ann Powers, Greil Marcus, etc.) chat about music. Last year I covered the 2008 event.

What makes this year different, is that it was a much longer day of panels at a weekday event. Some panels were concurrent with others, so there were many more discussions to check out this time around. Also, for the second time ever (In 2006 it was $20 for a weekend of panels), there was a fee for the sessions ($150 for industry types, $50 for students).

For most of the day radio and the music industry got a bad rap. Especially in light of the current economic times, there was a lot of gloom and doom about how the industry will never be the same. Yet, at the same time there were artists throughout the day who emphasized that what really matters is the passion behind the music and clearly many of them are still very devoted to their craft.

Keynote with Fat Mike of NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords

Fat Mike's Keynote Conversation

The day began with a keynote conversation with Fat Mike, of punk band NOFX and record label Fat Wreck Chords. As an owner of an indie label, he gave some perspective about how he thinks indies are positioned to survive in the future. He admitted that "it's tough to sell records now...especially to kids," but argued that he thinks that independent labels "...are going to survive a lot easier than the majors." Mike went on to discuss what it's like to be an artist in an era when there's so much information online about everyone and everything. He said that he didn't think that people should know bands as well as they know them today, and said that he missed the "mystique" surrounding artists before the Internet came along. This theme was echoed throughout the day, as many panelists wondered about the negative side effects of having every detail of one's life documented online.

Fat Mike said that his label still produces vinyl, but lamented the cost of producing vinyl records and the fact that it's getting harder to sell it again. He said that he was a fan of independent record stores and reminisced about discovering new bands at Rhino Records when he was young. He also said that in his youth he discovered new music on radio, citing commercial station KROQ. Yet, when asked about college radio he said, "I haven't listened to college radio in 25 years." When asked why he stopped listening, he said that the stations often didn't say what they were playing. He admitted his love for now-gone Radio Free Hawaii.

Mike ending his keynote talking about the importance of staying true to oneself as an artist. He said that doesn't focus on an image or what his fans want, but instead thinks that musicians should work to be "really good...and touch people." He argued, "You don't want to know whta fans want. Fuck the fans...Knowing what your audience wants? You're dead...We're not doing commissions here...." He continued, saying that they are putting out the art that they want to put out. He didn't discount fans entirely, saying, "I appreciate them."

Next Big Thing Panel on Future of Record Labels

David Krinsky (Rhapsody), Jordan Kurland (Zeitgeist Artist Mgmt.),
Aaron Axelsen (Live 105),
Greg Werckman (Ipecac), and Cheryl Kovalchik (RCA)

The second panel was moderated by commercial radio DJ and Music Director Aaron Axelsen of Live 105 (who was also on a Noise Pop panel last year) and focused mainly on the role of record labels and commercial radio. There were representatives from both indie and major labels on the panel and a theme that they raised was that the distinction between major and indie is of little interest to most people. Greg of indie label Ipecac Recordings said, "I don't like using the term independent and major," arguing that there's so much cross-over and that "real people don't care" what label something is on. Jordan Kurland of Zeitgeist Artist Management (and Noise Pop) agreed, saying that a "small community of people care" about the label that something is on and that the difference between indies and majors is really just the role of the artist and what the artist wants from their label.

Aaron talked a bit about his role as Music Director at Live 105, saying that he gets sent 500 CDs a week. Although he has indie roots (from working in college radio, indie record stores, and at an indie label), he is responsible for programming a mass audience of 600,000 to 700,000 listeners. He said that he relies on audience research and has learned that, "Most people are afraid of new music." Despite that, he does try to introduce new music on his station and likened it to "getting a 4 year old to eat broccoli" by putting cheese on it and surrounding it by familiar things like Red Hot Chili Peppers. He said that it's a "...precarious balance" to "cater to the masses" while also introducing new bands into the mix.

Jordan talked about how 10 years ago people heard about new bands from friends, local papers, and from local college radio stations like KALX and KUSF, but that now something as simple as " in Pitchfork...can change everything."

Cheryl Kovalchik from RCA mentioned that one of their current acts, Audrye Sessions, was signed in large part because of radio play on a local music show on Live 105. Greg Werckman of indie label Ipecac Recordings, however, had a much more jaded view of radio, saying, "to play the game in press and radio you have to have money." Others disagreed, with Aaron saying that radio play alone won't break an artist and that labels need to also work to market their artists.

What Happens in Vegas... Panel about Image Management

Lawyer Owen Seitel, Vanessa Burt (Mutiny PR/Fat Wreck Chords),
Michele Flannery (You Tube), and David Downs (writer)

After lunch (during which time people could sign up for mentoring sessions) there was a panel about how to control and manage an artist's image in an online world. Panelists shared tips about tracking and managing one's press and image online, such as signing up for Google Alerts and creating your own artist channel and musician account on You Tube. Lawyer Owen Seitel said that artists need to understand "what's being said about you" and acknowledged that people are leading increasingly "transparent lives" with Twitter, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, etc.

If Techies Rules the World/If Artists Ruled the World

Corey Denis, Greg Sandoval (CNET), Bryan Kehoe (Kehoe Nation), Goh Nakamura (singer songwriter), and David Hyman (Mog)

On this panel, artists and music technology folks shared their perspectives on the intersection of the digital world and music. David Hyman of Mog argued that there's "almost too much" music on the web and wondered how people sift through it all. Reapandsow's Corey Denis pointed out that people need filters and that "music fans are the best filters now." She said that profiles on social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Mog can be effective "filters for music." Corey was a champion for technology, arguing that all bands should bring in a digital person to help create and maintain the band's online presence. She said she didn't see much value in radio promotion anymore, saying, "traditional radio [is] pretty much dying" and that she wouldn't spend money to promote a band to radio, adding, "maybe college radio...Maybe."

Keynote Conversation with Lou Barlow and Bob Mould

Celia Hirschman interviews Bob Mould and Lou Barlow

The coolest part of the day was the closing keynote featuring two indie music idols: Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Folk Implosion) and Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar). They chatted with moderator Celia Hirschman about their careers in music and how they are currently using technology to connect with fans. Lou Barlow talked a lot about how his approach to creating his website LooBieCore was similar to the DIY ethos of his early days in the hardcore music community. He said that he thinks hyperlinks an amazing way to share favorite bands and likened it to the kinds of conversations that used to happen a hardcore shows, when people found out about music by word of mouth.

Bob Mould started his blog in 2004 and said that before that he was a "pretty private person," but that the blog got him to start writing again and got him back into writing music, which was a "lifesaver." Lou Barlow agreed that his website had a similar effect, saying, "I was at a real low...wasn't really writing songs," but that the website actually motivated him to write songs so that he could post them to the site. He said that like cassette culture, "the immediacy is there." Bob concurred, saying that the excitement he gets when hitting "publish" on his blog "is like that old feeling."

When asked about the term "indie," Bob said, "it's a word that became marketable." He also argued that in the 1980s the music was really bad and that "there wasa real reason to rebel." Kids worked hard against that, creating smaller scenes and booking their own shows to hear the music they loved. He said that by 1991 with the success of Kurt Cobain it felt like "we won...there's your indie rock."

Both Bob and Lou said that they love new music. Lou pointed out, "A lot of people just complain about new music... [and] fetishize...early '90s stuff," but he argued that "New music is good." Bob added that when you "hear new music...[you] get refreshed...for the creative soul that's important."

They also returned to the theme of the vast amount of music available online. Bob said that now one can find so much music and if you don't want it, you just "drag [an] icon into the trash." He said that kind of "shows the value attached to it" today, that it's disposable. He compared it to the past when "there was a physicality to it," such that it was a big deal to move into a new place and haul all of your records. Today, he said, "you move your phone."

All in all, an interesting day of panels with some provocative discussions about the intersection between art and commerce. As always, the most inspiring points were made by musicians pointing out their love for the art and their optimism that music will continue to play an important role in peoples' lives, even if the industry is going through tough times right now.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Noise Pop Begins with Sold Out Shows and Wine Pairings

Mountain Goats (solo) at Swedish American Hall, San Francisco
February 25, 2008

Noise Pop 2009 launched in San Francisco on Tuesday, with a crazy number of shows, films, and related events. Festivities began for me last night at the sold-out solo Mountain Goats show (aka John Darnielle) at the Swedish American Hall. It was such a civilized way to start off my 2009 Noise Pop experience as it was an early (7:30pm) seated show in an intimate venue.

John Darnielle's peformance last night was amazing. He's a charming and witty entertainer, singing intense songs and sharing both heart-breaking and hilarious tales from his childhood throughout the show. I've been a fan for years (and perhaps was even in the audience at the Thirsty Swede during the first San Francisco Mountain Goats show ever, which Darnielle referenced last night), and it finally struck me last night that what sets Mountain Goats apart from the singer-songwriter masses is Darnielle's biting lyrical content and his powerful vocal delivery, which at times verges on yelling. He's simply captivating and it was a treat to be in the audience last night and hear his lovely songs.

In addition to the music, at the show folks from Wente Vineyards were on hand in the bar area, sharing tales about their project "Discover the Wine, Discover the Music." Their winemaker is about to embark on travels around the country chatting up his indie rock/wine pairings, with trips to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and South by Southwest. Noise Pop was sort of their launch event. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole concept, but it's definitely an intriguing idea. After listening to Mountain Goats, winemaker Karl Wente chose 2 wines to pair with the music. A news blurb on the Noise Pop website says, "John Darnielle is like your favorite cashmere sweater-- the one that has a few holes, but you love & wear it no matter-- classic, yet 100% one-of-a-kind. Our Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon and Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc are both classic varietals of the Bordeaux..."

Wow. Sipping wine at Noise Pop. What a change from the early Noise Pop days of beers and free afternoon BBQ at Bottom of the Hill! What do you think about pairing wine with music? Do you associate particular beverages with certain bands or songs? What would you drink while listening to Mountain Goats? A brooding Pinot Noir? A funky Cab blend? Or maybe a cheap beer and a shot of whiskey?

Tomorrow I'm heading to the full-day "Industry Noise" event to hear all about the role of indie rock and indie performers in the changing music industry. Recap to follow.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Recession Hits Indie Label Touch & Go

I'm reading some mixed accounts today about changes taking place at prominent independent record label Touch & Go. They're reducing staff, cutting off their production and distribution deals with indie labels, and will stop releasing new music (for the time being). According to a CMJ piece today:

"Following online rumors, long-time indie mainstay Touch & Go has confirmed that it will cease releasing new albums and become a catalog only label. The Chicago label that that has produced seminal albums from Slint, the Jesus Lizard, Big Black, TV On The Radio, Shellac and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and later garnering fame for its losing copyright lawsuit over a "handshake" deal with the Butthole Surfers, has met its demise after nearly 30 years. The label, who's recent roster includes Ted Leo, the Uglysuit and All The Saints had seen financial trouble amidst a difficult economy and a decline in record sales.

Promotion for new acts such as Sholi and Mi Ami, who both released their debut albums today, will be kept up for a short time as not to leave the new bands without a paddle. The label is expected to go catalog-only, however, the distribution side has been shut down and the label will not produce new music. An unspecified number of layoffs will occur."

An article on Pitchfork clarifies that Touch & Go is actually hoping to release new music again in the future and also will still produce some projects already in the works. The article states:

"It's a very, very sad day for indie rock. One of America's foremost independent record labels, Touch and Go Records, has announced that they will no longer release new music.

They have also shuttered their distribution arm, which manufactured and brought to market releases for labels like Merge, Kill Rock Stars, Drag City, Suicide Squeeze, Flameshovel, Jade Tree, and Post Present Medium.

From Big Black and Shellac to Butthole Surfers and the Jesus Lizard, from Dirty Three and Pinback to Ted Leo and TV on the Radio, from Calexico to the Mekons to Slint, Touch and Go nurtured the careers of so many bands that served as backbones for indie rock. They even boasted a promising crop of new bands, with recent releases from Crystal Antlers, Mi Ami, All the Saints, and Sholi.

Crystal Antlers' Tentacles, slated for release on April 7, will still come out. They also plan to go through with a series of Jesus Lizard reissues in August, as well as a Jesus Lizard 7" box set release for Record Store Day..."

I'm sure the ramifications of this announcement will be huge and I hope that the indie labels that Touch & Go works will be OK. It's pretty scary to see the economy taking its toll on indie culture, so please do what you can to help support these bands and labels.

Noise Pop Next Week in San Francisco

As a long-time attendee, I'm pretty excited to be hitting this year's Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco next week. Since its humble beginnings (it began with one $5 show at the Kennel Club in 1993), Noise Pop has expanded in length and scale over the years. I first went in 1994, when it cost $15 for an all-access pass to 3 nights of shows at Bottom of the Hill. The 2009 edition (February 24th to March 1st) is much more elaborate with a variety of music-related events, including shows, lectures, films, art and panel discussions taking place all over San Francisco.

Over the years, I've been to a bunch of cool panel discussions during Noise Pop. These daytime conversations typically happened at music venues or bars like Noe Valley Ministry, the Makeout Room, and 12 Galaxies. This year the day-long session, Industry Noise, is a bit more formalized than in prior years, focusing on indie music, technology and the changing music industry. It happens on Friday, February 27th at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco. Keynote speakers and panelists include Fat Mike from NOFX and Fat Wrek Chords, Lou Barlow, Bob Mould, Penelope Houston, and others. In terms of radio, Aaron Axelsen, Music Director of commercial radio station Live 105 will be moderating a panel about "The Next Big Thing," which will delve into the role of major labels in the music business today.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

CMJ Music Marathon Discounts For Serious Planners

So if you know for sure that you're going to hit the CMJ Music Marathon in October, then you should take a look at some of the discounts they're offering up until February 17th. If you buy a badge by next Tuesday they'll also guarantee admission to a show or film of your choosing at the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival 2009. Cool idea. I know from my experience last year that there are many shows that sell out and admission isn't guaranteed. So, it's a nice perk to be able to pick one hot show that you don't have to worry about lining up for hours in advance.

Student badges are now $110 and badges for regular folks are $325. Also, if your station has a big crowd going (say 10 or more of you), you'll get comped some free badges too.

Radio Innovations

On the blog 10,000 Words, Mark S. Luckie wrote a great piece this week called "Radio: Innovative ways to follow the aging medium" in which he outlines some creative uses of radio and technology. The article covers online radio, website features like the KEXP Music Explorer, mobile applications, and Twitter. He also mentions a site that lists radio stations on Twitter and I was surprised to see that it was a fairly short list.

In terms of college radio, the piece talks about a new iPhone application called College Radio Tuner that pulls together radio broadcasts from a number of college radio stations who are members of the IBS network.

In his post he also mentions some other websites doing radio commentary that weren't on my radar before. One of the sites, Radio 2020 ("A Guide for Broadcast Industry Professionals on the Future of Radio"), has an interesting post this week about public radio station WBUR's embrace of social media like Flickr, Twitter, and blog tools. By the way, according to their affiliated website RadioCreativeLand, "Radio 2020 is a cooperative effort between the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and the HD Digital Radio Alliance. The goal of the group is to guide radio into a bright, new digital and creative future."

It's no surprise that the commercially-driven parties in radio are starting to figure out that they need to innovate in order to attract and maintain audiences. They should really take a look at college radio stations, who I think have been the real technology pioneers in radio. Many college stations utilized online tools well before most commercial stations. Online playlists, live internet streams, podcasts, song downloads, live video, blogs, and IM have been typical features of many college radio websites for a long time. And, I would guess that college radio has a much bigger presence on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter than commercial radio.

Is your station making the best use of technology and social media? What sorts of creative projects are you proud of at your station?

Friday, February 6, 2009

College Radio Airing on Campus?

When I was in college, the main place where our college radio station was heard was in the dining hall during mealtime. As a carrier current station, we didn't have a much range and only students living on campus in dorms could pick it up on their radios, so the dining hall broadcasts were crucial.

An opinion piece in Exponent Online makes the pitch for University of Wisconsin - Platteville campus station WSUP to be played in the Student Center in place of the satellite radio music that's currently being played. The author (also a staff member at WSUP) writes:

"I was walking through the Pioneer Student Center before my early class the other day and I stopped to grab a cup of coffee. I noticed that the PSC was playing slow jazz. While I am all for slow jazz, I do not appreciate it in the morning or in my student center. Again later that day while walking back through to grab some lunch I noticed they were playing lame 90’s pop music that sucked when it came out and still sucks today. That then caused me to ask the question, 'Why isn’t the student center playing the student radio station WSUP?'

As a member of the WSUP executive staff for the past three semesters, this especially annoys me. WSUP is the oldest college radio station in the UW system, and one of the few that is completely student run. What kind of message does it send, especially to prospective students, when our own PSC does not play a high caliber college radio station such as WSUP? Additionally, the students do help fund our operation so it should only be simple logic that we are played in the center for the students."

When I visited Stanford station KZSU recently, I was told that their station is not played on campus either. The GM pointed out that it would be great to have the station played in campus buildings and common areas because it would help to increase students' awareness and appreciation for the station.

Is your station played on campus? If not, why not?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Former XMU PD Billy Zero Lands at WTMD

After the merger of XM and Sirius satellite radio, there were various shifts in personnel and station line-ups. A station that I wrote a lot about was the college-themed XMU (which is now known as Sirius XMU and has a blend of programming from the old XMU and the former Sirius station "Left of Center"). They did a nice job of featuring indie artists AND playlists from college radio stations from all over the country. Every weekend they did the "Student Exchange" program, which presented music and mic breaks from a different college radio station.

Billy Zero was Program Director of XMU and he left the station last fall. Thanks to an article in the Towerlight this week, I now know where he's landed. The piece profiles Billy Zero (real name Billy Gallagher), as he begins his time as Program Director of public radio station WTMD (aka "Radio for Music People") at Towson University. It also delves into some of the details surrounding changes at XM radio and why it was such an inspiring place to work initially. According to the article:

"Joining the XM staff in the company's early days was liberating for Gallagher.

'It was like a playground,' he said. 'We came to XM to do what we couldn't do in terrestrial radio, which was to do specials - hour long, two hours long - and play a wide base of music, not just 300 or 400-song play lists.'

Gallagher was eventually promoted to program director of XMU, a station aimed at college students. However, by 2004, the corporate culture he left at WHFS came back to haunt him.

'They started bringing in radio guys that were trimming play lists and telling you what to play and by 2006 it had taken a drastic turn and we knew things were changing,' he said."

He goes on to discuss the format of WTMD and his goals for the station, including a desire to expand the playlist, saying:

"The move to WTMD's adult-alternative format was a refreshing return to the freedom he had in the early days of XM.

'It's like taking eight, nine, ten satellite stations, genres and merging them into one amazing format,' he said. 'We're playing a little bit of everything.'

He said he also enjoys working with other people who know a lot about the music.

'When I worked at XM, I thought the people there that I worked with were some of the most knowledgeable people in music I'd ever met and now that I'm here, I'm realizing that the people here are just the same,' he said...

For now, Gallagher plans to change WTMD by exploring the 'little nuances of widening our playlist.' He stresses what commercial radio stations do wrong with how they present music.

I'm all for broadening the playlist, so I hope that Billy is able to accomplish that noble goal.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF

It's great fun to be able to visit some of the college radio stations that I listen to regularly, including today's tour of a station in my very own city of San Francisco. On Friday, January 30th, 2009 I took a trip to see the University of San Francisco station KUSF. Thanks so much to Co-Music Director Irwin Swirnoff, as well as the staff and DJs of KUSF for allowing me to tour the station and quiz them about its past and present.

Like me, Irwin is a college radio veteran, having worked at 3 different college radio stations, including one of my radio alma mater's: KSPC at Pomona College. It was fun comparing notes with him about our college radio experiences and it was also inspiring to see so many folks at KUSF who are passionate about music and college radio.

KUSF has been around at University of San Francisco (a private Jesuit university) since 1977 as an FM station, but began as an AM station in 1963. Following their move to FM, the AM station continued on campus and still exists as student-run Internet-only station KDNZ.

KUSF is located in the basement of Phelan Hall on the USF campus in San Francisco. Nearby is a bookstore, dorms, and campus ministry. I was told that their location has meant that they have to be careful about having live performances at the station, since sound might bleed over into classrooms and dorms that are above the station. Despite all of that, Irwin told me that they've had a lot of cool bands come in (Matmos, Kronos Quartet, indie rock bands, etc.), often doing more stripped down performances.

DJ "Stereo Steve" On the Air at KUSF

When I visited the station on a Monday morning, Irwin was on the air interviewing and spinning records with a few of the organizers of the Disposable Film Festival. As I waited for Irwin to finish his show, I was able to chat with a number of KUSF staff members and DJs who were hanging around, including General Manager Steve Runyon, who has been at KUSF since the very early days of the station (beginning as Student GM in 1970).

It was fun chatting a bit with Steve Runyon, as he gave me some great perspective about why so many college radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area are still going strong after decades on the air. He pointed out that KUSF, KALX (UC Berkeley) and KFJC (Foothill College, where I DJ) all have long-time station supervisors/GMs overseeing their stations. I'd never really thought about that; but having a consistent leader (especially one connected with the faculty and administration) is a huge benefit for college radio stations, which often have ever-changing staffs. In addition to a long-time GM, KUSF also has many long-running shows and DJs that have been on the air from 5 to 30 years.

The KUSF program schedule is broken down into 2 categories: New Music and Cultural programming. On weekdays, new music programming airs from midnight to 6pm, with cultural programs from 6pm until midnight. The weekends are entirely devoted to cultural programming.

New music shows focus on the latest releases being added to the KUSF library; with DJs being required to play at least 50% new music adds (aka "currents") during their shows. Irwin said the goal is for the station to be "diverse" and to "play amazing music that you don't hear elsewhere" across a range of genres.

In order to be eligible to apply for a shift as a New Music DJ, volunteers must first complete a training program that begins with "ride-a-longs" (sitting in on a DJ's show), followed by a month-long training slot (where there's some supervision), and then about 6 months of graveyard (3-6am) shifts. Each quarter the schedule changes, with DJs being asked to fill out an application for their requested time slots along with details about their involvement and contributions to the station. Irwin told me that if you are doing a lot of work for the station, then you are more likely to get an air shift (or keep your shift if you already have a show).

Cultural programming on KUSF features a broad mix of shows that are meant to "serve and represent San Francisco," according to Program Director Trista Bernasconi. Each of these programs is supported by and required to bring in a specific amount of underwriting for KUSF.

Trista told me that she "tries to have a program for every community in San Francisco." Shows include niche community-oriented programs like "Chinese Star Radio," "Radio Goethe," "So Da Brasil!", and "Hamazkayin Armenian Hour." Additionally, some specialty music programs are also featured in the "cultural" block of programming. One such show, "Rampage Radio," at 2am Sundays, has been playing heavy sounds for 28 years and according to Irwin is one of the longest-running metal shows in the country. "In the Soul Kitchen" (also around for 25+ years) features soul, funk, reggae, and world music. "Jukebox" is another music show and it features a different former KUSF DJ hosting every week. Following "Jukebox" is the "Local Music Program." The longest running cultural show is "Podium," which spotlights lectures recorded at USF.

Like most college radio stations, KUSF is pretty low budget, keeping themselves afloat with a small amount of funding from USF, underwriting, donations, and proceeds from benefit shows (they had a big one for their 30th anniversary featuring Yo La Tengo) and their several-times-a-year record fair aka Rock 'n Swap. Irwin told me that recently they expanded their fundraising repertoire by doing their first on-air "quiet drive."

In addition to raising more money (something all stations struggle with), Irwin told me that they've been working really hard to increase student involvement at the station. DJs are a mix of students and community volunteers, with the ratio fluctuating over the years. Irwin said that the number of students at the station is on the rise, which pleases him greatly. He told me that he guessed that the current staff was probably 40% students (vs. maybe 20% four years ago). Irwin said that the station's connection to the college is really important and that "Some of the biggest fans of the station are professors here." He added that some professors have been guest DJs, including one who came on the station to talk about the history of disco. Similarly, Irwin said that they've heard that some students chose to attend USF in part because KUSF is there.

CD Storage at KUSF on Rolling Shelves

Irwin and I talked a lot about the music at KUSF and the process for adding and reviewing new releases. He's part of a team of Music Directors and he told me that they listen to every piece of music sent to the station in order to "give everybody a chance." To accomplish this, they get a lot of help from staff in terms of checking out new music. Every other week they have Music Meetings, which are open to all DJs. At the meetings they'll preview "borderline" material that's been sent to the station and get a group vote on whether or not the music should get added to the library. After DJs attend 3 music meetings they are eligible to take home a stack of music to review. For these initial reviews, DJs fill in their feedback in a review database which can be referenced when speaking with label representatives. More formal reviews, and "fuck patrol" (checking for obscenities) happen next. If a piece of music gets the thumbs up, then it's added to "currents" for 3 months.

KUSF's Irwin Swirnoff in the Record Library

Irwin told me that vinyl still plays a big role at KUSF and said that they regularly add vinyl LPs and 7" singles. He also mentioned that often, when given the choice, they'll add a vinyl version of an album rather than the CD version. He said that there are certain DJs who do primarily vinyl shows, but that the newer DJs often need the most help in terms of learning how to handle vinyl records. He added, "We try to encourage newer utilize vinyl."

7" Vinyl Storage at KUSF

KUSF doesn't add digital releases. In a follow-up converstation Irwin said, "We still believe in the beauty, work & passion that goes into making a record/cd and having all that info, artwork, etc is such a vital part of the listening experience. I'm sure down the line we will have to give in a bit but we believe vinyl for sure will never die!"

When I asked him whether or not DJs were allowed to play material from iPods, he told me that it was discouraged, saying, "We don't supply equipment for people to use an iPod." He added that KUSF has records in their library that "you won't find anywhere else." He said they have vinyl dating back to the early days of the station, including probably every piece of vinyl ever released by Sonic Youth.

Reel-to-Reel Player in KUSF Broadcast Studio

In response to my question about whether or not they add cassette releases, Irwin agreed that there was a "re-emergence of cassette culture," but admitted that KUSF doesn't have a cassette player in their studio or add cassettes to their library. He mentioned that there are DJs playing material off cassettes on their shows and they end up bringing in a boombox and mic'ing it for broadcast. KUSF does, however, have a reel-to-reel machine, which at least one DJ uses regularly during his shift.

Every week KUSF not only tallies their top plays (to report to labels and CMJ), but also does a "Top 10" show, where they count down the weekly top 10. On New Year's Day they also play the top 90.3 of the year (here's the list for 2008). Although they have a database that they use for charting purposes, DJs still keep track of their set lists by using paper playlists. Recently KUSF began podcasting and archiving their shows online and many DJs are also posting their playlists.

Irwin summed up his take on college radio, saying that "college radio is...[one of the] last reminders of what the medium at its best represents." He talked about the importance of community and how KUSF helps to build and support the community of San Francisco by highlighting local artists, filmmakers, activists, and musicians.

Thanks again to Irwin and everyone else at KUSF for a fun visit! In the coming weeks I'll be continuing my tour of some other San Francisco Bay Area college radio stations.

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
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU