Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 12- California's KSCR

Welcome back to the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour, in which I investigate stations from all over the United States.

This virtual tour of radio stations has so far included stops in 11 states, including Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Montana.

As you can see by the list, for the most part I've been taking my Spinning Indie 50 State Tour to smaller towns outside of the media glare of big cities and the coasts. But, since I'm attempting to virtually travel to all 50 states, it was only a matter of time before I made it to a big coastal city. As a Californian, I was a bit daunted by the prospect of selecting one station from this massive state to profile for the "tour," but was intrigued by the tale of the University of Southern California (USC) station KSCR, so decided to take the trek a bit closer to home.

When I was at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City this October, I got to also meet a bunch of folks from KSCR (you can read their take on the CMJ fest on their blog); so was even more excited to feature the station.

KSCR "Family Band" at CMJ Artist Lounge, October 2009

KSCR is a student-run radio station in Los Angeles that began as a carrier current station at USC in 1975 and eventually had stints on cable and on FM. By 1998 they were webcasting, which continues today along with an AM broadcast over 1560 AM in Los Angeles. The station is devoted to independent music, billing itself as "revolutionary radio."

Thanks so much to KSCR's Public Relations Director Kat B., Music Director Emilie Brailey, and General Manager Zak Wolf for taking the time to fill me in about their station. On to the interview:

Spinning Indie: I understand that KSCR will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2010. Can you tell me a little bit about the station's history?

Zak Wolf, General Manager: KSCR can trace its roots back to 1946 when USC decided that a radio station would provide the University and its students with an unprecedented media format for that period in history. By the mid-1970s, however, that radio station, KUSC, had switched to an all-classical format and students were only permitted to be interns.

In 1975, 13 dedicated and diverse undergrads decided to start their own radio station. Since then, the face of KSCR changed frequently. We've had all sorts of formats and many different means of broadcasting, from AM 530, to a public access cable TV channel to a pirated FM signal at 104.7.

In 1998 the FCC began to crack down on unauthorized radio signals. While driving up the I-110 en-route to shut down a Silverlake radio station that happened to use the same frequency as KSCR, the FCC happened caught us broadcasting on the 104.7 stream and shut it down. KSCR thus adopted a webcasting signal, one of the first stations to do so, and switched to 1560 AM.

Since then, we've struggled to get funding both externally via sponsorships and PSAs, and internally from the University Student Government. This hasn't stopped us from being a strong radio presence among the USC student body and the Los Angeles area. We broadcast 24 hrs a day at 160 kbps stream and locally at 1560 am, dedicated at least 12 hours each day to live DJs, Newscasters or Sports talk shows.

Every Friday we bring a band in to play a set live over the air and we hold an interview afterwards. We continue to release our annual publication "Bandwidth" and we put on some of the best free concerts around. We plan to build on KSCR's history of amazing in-studio performances and concert performances, which include (in reverse order of appearance): Tom
Brosseau, Crystal Antlers, Mika Miko, Happy Hollows, Avi Buffalo, Daedelus, Busdriver, Gangi, Army Navy, The Dodos, Thee Oh Sees, Abe Vigoda, No Age, Mirah, Ghostland Observatory, My Chemical Romance, Minus the Bear, and (in the early nineties) No Doubt, Biggie Smalls, Gang Starr, DJ Shadow, J5, WuTang Clan, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, and Common.

On October 17th we look[ed] to build on this list with our first show of the fall semester featuring Nosaj Thing, Rainbow Arabia, and Ras G.

Spinning Indie: How will you celebrate the station's anniversary? What do you guys do to preserve the station's history?

Zak Wolf: In 2010 KSCR will commemorate its 35 year anniversary with the move to the new Campus Center. This will be a turning point for KSCR, as the station will have state of the art equipment and a central location on campus, exponentially raising awareness of KSCR among the student body.

We've established an Alumni association called KSCRfriends, who have pledged to raise $1 million for KSCR. They hold monthly conference calls, accept donations year round and meet annually every homecoming to reinvigorate the efforts and meet the fresh faces of the KSCR staff, which, as KSCR is completely student run, change significantly each year.

Every so often KSCR will update its DJ manual and its online wiki or "documentation project" with the new history of the station. There will be a new update before the move to the campus center.

KSCR was up for the 2009 mtvU College Radio Woodie
Image courtesy KSCR Facebook Page

Spinning Indie: You're on AM and online right now, but KSCR used to be carrier current and low power FM. How powerful is your over-the-air signal (how far away can it be heard) and do you think many of your listeners are tuning in via AM radio?

Kat B., Public Relations Director: I’ll be frank here — our AM signal sucks. It's supposed to cover all of campus, but it doesn't. We’re working on reclaiming our FM presence, though. (Fingers crossed.)

Zak Wolf: KSCR's bread and butter is our online stream, but our AM broadcast reaches approximately 1 mile around campus. KSCR 1560 AM goes out via a 10 watt signal, which, if turned up, would be vulnerable to FCC restrictions and licensing. Right now, because we are located at an educational institution and do not broadcast outside our range, we do not need an FCC license.

My guess is that very few listen through the radio waves in comparison to our online broadcast simply due to issues of fidelity and range. We hope to garner enough listeners and support from our student body and the USC administration to apply for an FM signal; however, in Los Angeles this is an expensive and exhausting task, currently beyond the capabilities of an all-volunteer undergraduate staff with a relatively small bank account.

Spinning Indie: You must be thrilled about your new studio space in the campus center (coming in 2010). How did all of that come about?

Zak: We are supremely excited. Student Activities and Campus Affairs, with the help of our alumni network, previous KSCR staffs, and the amazing Brandon Operchuck, our faculty adviser and director of performance venues at USC, have joined forces and funds to build us our new facility. Michael L. Jackson, Vice President of Student Affairs, has been a strong supporter of KSCR as well, and has helped with the inclusion of KSCR in this amazing new Campus Center. We fall under the umbrella of a much larger project, and we're enjoying the shade.

Kat: It’s really hard for me to be excited about the new studio since this is my last year at USC! I’m so jealous of all the underclassmen involved with KSCR; they really don’t know what’s coming to them. The space is going to be absolutely amazing. I’ll have to visit — a lot.

2009-2010 KSCR Staff Photo
Courtesy KSCR

Spinning Indie: I know that various alums have helped to set up a group (Friends of KSCR) charged with raising funds in order to ensure the station's future. I'm not sure I've heard of similar efforts at college radio stations. Why do you think station alums are so passionate about preserving KSCR?

Zak: KSCR is unique because it was started as 100% student-run and has remained that way. USC initially didn't want to give students their own station, but the efforts of the original 13 set the bar for the next 35 years of KSCR staffers.

Everyone at KSCR has the opportunity to become part of a family. We're all volunteering our time to make something that we believe has the potential to truly be great. We feed off each others' excitement daily. Our motivation is entirely our own. Our facilities are entirely our own. It's a feeling of belonging and commitment so above and beyond any cynical critique or monetary consideration that no one ever wants to leave.

Every member of KSCR puts so much of their time, efforts and self into the station that the rewards are ineffably satisfying. Plus, our programming is totally original, our music is amazing and unique, we put on the best events, and we give students unprecedented opportunities and experiences in broadcast journalism, music industry, and even leadership. Who wouldn't want to see a place like that continue?

Spinning Indie: Can you tell me about your online music database. Is it primarily for DJs to use?

Zak: Our online database essentially keeps track of all the music that KSCR has. It's used by DJs to create playlists and log their tracks. The logging of songs played is mandatory as we report our charts to CMJ and are required to keep track of every song we play on the air. It also allows us to send song information to the front page of our website and through the m3u stream. Our music department uses reviews, recommended tracks and RIYLs to expose DJs to music they might not have encountered before, and in that sense it’s a very informative tool.

Emilie Brailey, Music Director: The online music database is open to everyone. I think it was started in order to feed the robot but now it’s a handy back up system in case albums go missing (like the fucker who stole the Shins… you can’t keep us down mother fucker, you can’t keep us down!)

Spinning Indie: What is the revolutionary robot?

Emilie: The revolutionary robot is our mascot. He’s a big friendly dancing machine! In reality, the robot is our iTunes, it’s what makes KSCR a 24 hr programming station. When there isn’t a show, the iTunes is playing, stocked with music that only staff or select DJs have added that is of KSCR quality.

Zak: The revolutionary robot is the KSCR mascot. It got its name from our slogan "Revolutionary Radio," meant to highlight our unique programming and alternative music. We have a robot costume we like to bring out at promotional events, and we use robot imagery on a lot of our promotional materials.

"Revolutionary Robot" also references a program that we are looking to re-instate on our new server, which was called "the robot" and operated like a high-tech iTunes shuffle and sent track information to the kscr.org front page mimicking a DJ's logged tracks. Now, we have our music department hand pick a huge amount of cohesive music for our "Studio A" iTunes, which we place on party shuffle. We then use KungTunes to send that information out over our stream. The new robot that we're looking to program on our recently purchased server will hopefully be able to do the same as the old with maybe a few more updates.

Flyer from Recent KSCR event
Image courtesy KSCR Facebook Page

Spinning Indie: Are most students aware of KSCR? Do you have to be a student to be a DJ? What role does it play on campus?

Zak: We're always looking to raise the profile of KSCR amongst our students. We flyer, and table often, in addition to giving out our information at USC's orientation sessions and constant online promotion.

Only USC students can be a DJ. We provide a service you really can't get anywhere on our off campus. Anyone can have their own show, anyone can listen. It's awesome.

Kat: KSCR’s presence at USC has increased tremendously since I started here in the fall of 2006. Now, when we have informational meetings for our station interns, the room is often packed to the brim with students eager to become a part of the station. I think our increased visibility has a lot to do with our recent focus on effective marketing and promotion; we recently got a Twitter account, redid our other social networking sites and are currently in the process of redesigning the KSCR website — all very significant methods that can increase awareness of a campus radio station.

We recently changed our constitution so that USC alumni — mainly alumni of KSCR — could come back and have a timeslot for a show. It’s been really awesome to see some familiar faces back in the studio. Otherwise, the rest of our DJs are USC students, and we’d really like to keep it that way.

While USC has its own Concert Committee to bring live shows to campus, KSCR has really filled the niche in bringing independent music to USC; our concerts — and the music we play — really don't cater to the majority of students who will camp out on the quad to see someone like the Fray perform. That being said, we’ve had the opportunity to expose many students to the wide variety of artists in the local independent scenes.

We did our first outdoor music festival on campus this past spring and has bands such as Mika Miko, Crystal Antlers, Avi Buffalo and the Happy Hollows perform — it was a huge success. We’ve also brought No Age into the studio for interviews, had KSCR alum Daedelus do a benefit show for the station and we’re working on sponsoring our first off-campus show for the end of the year. If there’s something we’re really good at, it’s live events.

Julianna Barwick live at KSCR
Photo Courtesy KSCR Facebook Page

Spinning Indie: I know that Los Angeles is a huge market with lots of college radio stations. How does KSCR play a role in the broader community and music scene surrounding the campus?

Zak: KSCR is all about its content. Our DJs are dedicated to their shows. Our sports department is relentless about theirs and the USC games. We make sure we have the best non-top 40, independent music around. We distribute our magazine all around LA. We have a whole section of our "New Wall" of CDs devoted to LA artists and bands. Our Live Show brings in a different local act each week to play in Studio B over the airwaves. And, of course, our free concerts on the USC campus bring in the best local talent for USC students and anyone in Los Angeles who wants to attend.

Emilie: Up until now KSCR has not been huge outside of USC, but I think that it has been blossoming in the last few years. I think every year the staff becomes more and more aware of the potential and our fan base has really grown. I know of many people all around the monstrous LA area who are not only familiar with KSCR now, but also come to shows we put on. I’m not sure about other college radio stations and we don’t seem to be competing with them yet (if we are I am unaware).

Spinning Indie: What's the overall music philosophy of the station?

Emilie: Music philosophy: this is college radio. “College Radio” has almost become a genre in itself. My philosophy is that KSCR should have only the best; no-crap policy. Although we give some bands a chance that may not have had one otherwise, we really stick to what we think is the best quality.

Zak: We love any genre of music, except we won't play top 40 artists. Our goal is to provide music that you won't hear on mainstream radio especially since KCRW is NPR most of the time, KXLU doesn't have the strongest of signals and Indie 103.1 is all but dead.

KSCR is original programming 100% of the time. We spin mostly indie/alternative, but we also have parts of our library devoted to electronica, hip hop, jazz, world music, punk and loud rock.

Photo courtesy KSCR Facebook Page

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?

Emilie: There are indeed some rules to adding. KSCR is truly college radio, so we do not add nor are DJs supposed to play anything that is Top 40 or overtly popular. Sometimes DJs play older popular music (Beatles, Bob Marley) and we still add stuff that’s considered pretty popular (the new Neil Young album, for example) but for the most part it’s an indie sound on all levels.

Nothing of bad sound quality, obviously, is added, and nothing that sounds too pop (even it’s an obscure band) is added too often.

Of course, the new stuff added is usually a blanket style, but the intricacies change depending on the music director. I’m really into indie singer songwriter mystical spacey shit (Bon Iver makes me jazz in my pants) so I add a lot more of those kind of bands than a music director who is more into other styles.

As stated, DJs are not allowed to play popular music/Top 40. With that said, our DJs are really free to play mostly whatever they want. They usually become a college radio DJ because they are into college radio music, so there aren’t many issues. They are required to play four new adds per hour (I add on average 7-15 albums a week) while supplementing their show with one
‘other’ genre per hour (a genre they don’t normally play). This allows new music to always be on the airwaves and keeps all shows pretty eclectic.

Zak: ...we encourage DJs to use our music library and database, and to play music that isn't popular now and was never popular before. In other words, if you're a KSCR DJ and you want to play the Beatles, play a B-side from the white album or an obscure version of one of their hits.

Kat: Absolutely not! The great thing about KSCR is that it brings together so many students with the broadest of music tastes; we add and play just about everything from your general college indie rock to world music to metal to jazz. If it sounds good and we like it, chances are it’ll get added. (Having cool cover art doesn’t hurt, either!)

There’s just one rule — and I think we may have upset some interns at our most recent KSCR information meeting by saying this — but KSCR’s primary goal is to function as an alternative to the slush of Los Angeles FM radio, and as such, we try not to play anything you’d find on a Top 40 station.

We try to encourage DJs to go for the deep cuts, the unreleased material, the tiny little band trying to make it big...

Spinning Indie: Do you add and play vinyl? mp3s? cassettes?

Emilie: We play vinyl, mp3s, CDs, any kind of aux you can muster (computer, iPod, iPod-esque creatures), but so far no cassettes that I know of and adds are mostly in the form of physical CD.

[But in my opinion it’s okay. I may be desecrating generations and skinny jean wearing hipsters, but cassettes were short lived and unnecessary. The sound quality is not like that of other mediums. So go KSCR for not having them!]

Zak: We have an old closet of hip hop and electronica vinyl, and we occasionally get vinyl submissions, but KSCR is a mostly CD based radio station. We do, however, encourage DJs to bring their own vinyl. We have a turntable in our main studio and two turntables with a mixer that is hooked up to our board in what we call "studio b." MP3s are usually burned to disc and we can play cassette, but we don't have it in our library.

Kat: I remember there used to be a cassette player when I first started at KSCR! I wonder where that went…

Most of our database is made up of CDs, but DJs often bring in their iPods or their own vinyl to play over the air, too. I think, before I graduate this spring, I need to do an all-vinyl show; I’m long overdue.

Spinnining Indie: Is there anything else you want to share about KSCR or college radio in general?

Zak: College radio knows what's up. Listen to us online at kscr.org!

Kat: Independent radio rules! I’ve met some wonderful people during my time at KSCR and made some lifelong friends in the process. I’m truly going to miss the station when I graduate this year.