Thursday, December 10, 2009

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 13- Nebraska's KRNU

There's been a burst of energy on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour, as I've begun pestering some of the stations who have been on my interview wish list for awhile. As you might recall, I'm making my way through all 50 states in order to highlight some of the amazing radio stations that might not be familiar to people who live in other parts of the country.

This virtual tour of radio stations has so far included stops in 12 states, including Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana and California.

Next up, I'm happy to share with you a virtual trip to Nebraska, to learn more about University of Nebraska (Lincoln) station KRNU. Thanks so much to KRNU Music Director Casey Welsch for taking the time to answer some questions over email. You might remember that I recently posted a piece about a column that Casey wrote for his campus paper about his favorite college radio stations.

Radio history goes as far back as 1922 at University of Nebraska, with various radio experiments and stations along the way. KRNU has been in existence since 1970 and will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. The current alternative music format has been a staple of the station for 20 years, as it began in 1989.

I was very interested to learn more about the current state of things at KRNU as they went through some programming changes and added a web channel in August 2009. According to an August 2009 press release quoting General Manager Rick Alloway,

"'This fine-tuning of the 90.3 KRNU format will create a modernized training experience for students while focusing more attention on the alternative/indie music interests of the 18-24 year-old listening audience. At the same time, the creation of the second web channel will allow the continuation of the innovative and eclectic programming the college has always produced.'"

With this shift in programming, many specialty shows, sports and talk were moved to a web channel known as Studio 201. The main station, KRNU, is now a more tightly formatted indie station.

In his interview with me, Music Director Casey Welsch explains the changes at KRNU and talks about the station's role in the broader music community of Lincoln, Nebraska.

KRNU Music Director Casey Welsch
Photo courtesy KRNU

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

Casey Welsch: I started working at KRNU one month after I arrived at UNL. I was a music snob and kind of a no-it-all about all things music, and I had always liked the station whenever I heard it going through Lincoln, so I jumped right on. I've been here over two years now and started working as a music director last May. I've been loving the job ever since.

Spinning Indie: How is college radio in 2009 different from when you first began at KRNU?

Casey: In general, there is a lot more research to be done on the internet. It seems that all the big tastemakers right now are music blogs and such. We still try to play more than what the blogs recommend, since internet music often sounds the same as everything else and is driven by hype, but we monitor the net a lot more now.

For KRNU specifically, we split into two separate playlists just this summer. A tighter, more unified playlist now dominates KRNU, and a more twitchy, experimental, freeform playlist is now on our web station, Studio 201. That's made music directing a lot tougher, but it gives us a wider medium to play music on as well.

Photo Courtesy KRNU

Spinning Indie: It's amazing that radio dates back to 1922 at University of Nebraska. Can you tell me a bit about the history of KRNU?

Casey: KRNU has gone through a lot of changes and moved around quite a bit over its history. In the beginning, it was just news and classical music for most of the day, and didn't broadcast 24/7. As it got older and older, the music started to change with the changing times, and it eventually became a pop station. It has always carried Cornhusker sports, though.

The current format started in 1989 and it has been an indie/alternative station ever since. We now broadcast 24/7 over the air and with two channels on the web at KRNU has been in its current studio since 2001 when the college of Journalism and Mass Communications moved to its new current building.

DJ Cole
Photo Courtesy KRNU

Spinning Indie: Do you have any music or artifacts from the early years of the station? Tell me about what you have and if DJs continue to play any of the old records.

Casey: There are actually hundreds of old TV, Radio and Newspaper artifacts on display all over our college. Our former dean was a huge collector of old journalism paraphernalia, and he donated his entire collection to the college when it moved to its current location, and old federal building. There are simply too many pieces to describe, it's like a museum.

Spinning Indie: Explain the new station format and how it's different from prior years.

Casey: KRNU has gone a bit more chart-conscious with its music in an effort to attract new listeners. This is a new development and we are yet unsure how well it's working. KRNU as it used to be is now online only and was renamed Studio 201 (the room it broadcasts out of). There are more people in the crew that manages KRNU, as we have become a bigger operation, so it can get a bit crowded as far as management goes, but it still runs smoothly.

Spinning Indie: Why did the overall programming philosophy change and what kind of response are you getting to the new format?

Casey: The programming changed at the request of the University, who wanted to see the station bring in more money. They hired a group of radio consultants who came in and kind of made us make the station a bit more mainstream. There was initially a huge public outcry against what we were doing with the station, and many of us here did not like what was happening at all. We have wrestled control back from the consultants now, however, and are trying to stay true to our incredibly devoted audience here in Lincoln. More changes are to come. We're still evolving.

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?

Casey: The one rule about music on KRNU is that it has to be GOOD. It has to be truly good. We don't care how well something is charting or how much blog buzz it has, because if it sucks, we aren't playing it. Admittedly, we have had to be a bit more chart-conscious as of late, but we try to have foresight and pick out the artists who we know are only going to chart for a week or so on buzz alone. We pay them no mind.

DJ Kate in one of KRNU's 4 production studios (note the reel-to-reel behind her!)
Photo Courtesy of KRNU

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

Casey: We use a very old system to automate our station that requires uploading everything directly from CD format. KRNU has made the switch to all .WAV files for our music, and Studio 201 still uses mostly CDs.

Spinning Indie: What's the music scene like in Lincoln and what role does KRNU play?

Casey: Lincoln is a small city that has a music scene the size of a much bigger one. There are so many great bands in Lincoln that span all genres. Some of the most popular acts in Lincoln include a soul singer called Son of 76, a hard psych/krautrock band called Gold Lions, a one-man freakshow called The Show is the Rainbow and an accoustic Bluegrass band called Triggertown.

And of course there's UUVVWWZ and Eagle Seagull. We're very proud of how well they both have been doing. As for KRNU's role in the community, we have a very good local show called Lost & Found that has been going for several years now. The hosts like to have lots of live performances on the show and they do a great job of getting new music to the people of Lincoln.

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

Casey: Our longest running show is actually our metal show Heresy. It has been on the air since 1989 and has changed with every new movement in metal. When it started it was a hair/glam show and is currently a loud rock/death/grind show. It has seen more hosts come and go than anything else on the air.

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

Casey: All of the DJs on KRNU are students. It is a policy of ours. Any UNL student can be a DJ and any CoJMC [College of Journalism and Mass Communications] student can have a specialty show. No one can be on the station without being currently enrolled. There are actually classes at CoJMC that require a shift on KRNU, so we like to keep it student-exclusive.

Spinning Indie: What specific specialty shows are you airing on KRNU and on Studio 201?

Casey: They vary. One of the changes on KRNU was that we took all of the sports and talk shows and stuck them on Studio 201. On KRNU right now we have two hip-hop shows, two electronic shows, a metal show, an industrial show, the local show, an alt country/folk show and a funk/soul show that I have been hosting for over a year now. On Studio 201 we have a ska/reggae show, two sports shows and a general talk show, as well as hourly news updates and bi-hourly sports updates that are engineered by students in broadcast news classes.

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

Casey: I listen to many other stations. But you already knew that.

Spinning Indie: Anything else you want to share about KRNU?

Casey: To all who doubted us through the changes, we're still with you, and we're doing everything we can to bring things all back home. Have faith and patience, and we'll make KRNU the people's station once again.

Stay up on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: a station from Idaho.

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