Friday, May 13, 2011

Radio Station Field Trip 26 - KSFS at San Francisco State University

View from KSFS Production Studio into Station Lobby
(Photo by J. Waits)

After the events of January 18, I kind of went into an obsessive spiral, fixating on every last detail of the unfortunate situation at University of San Francisco's college radio station KUSF. I find it tragic that the only terrestrial college radio station in San Francisco's city limits was yanked from the air by the university in order to beef up its cash reserves. Yet, I also tried to remind people that KUSF was actually not the ONLY college radio station in San Francisco. San Francisco State University has a long tradition of college radio, which continues to this day with its online-only station KSFS.

On November 19, 2010, I accepted an invitation to sit it on a friend's show at KSFS and was excited to get a chance to check out the station. A few weeks later I sat down with KSFS advisor Jeff Jacoby to learn more about the station and also chatted by phone with former KSFS advisor Rick Houlberg. After touring the station and attempting to research its history, I became frustrated by the lack of information about the 50+ year old station and then got distracted by reporting on the KUSF saga.

So, here is my much belated field trip report from KSFS, along with a plea for an interested broadcasting historian to take up the challenge to compile a proper history of the station, as I'm sure it's fascinating.

KSFS DJ Nick Carpenter

Before visiting KSFS, all that I really knew of the station was that music journalist and radio fan Ben Fong-Torres had been a DJ there back in the 1960s and that Real World Seattle alum Irene McGee got some attention for her radio show there around 2005. But the station's history goes back much further. From what I've been able to ascertain from my limited research, the Radio Department was founded at San Francisco State College around 1946 and it's possible that a campus radio station began in the late 1940s or early 1950s. According to Rick Houlberg (who joined the station as its advisor in 1982), in the early days of the station, then known as KRTG (for "radio television guild"), broadcasts were from a pre-fab Quonset hut structure utilizing 2 loudspeakers. By the early 1960s the Creative Arts building was constructed on campus and the Radio Department and station were given a permanent home.

Lobby of KSFS
(Photo: J. Waits)

Ben Fong-Torres remembers being at KRTG around 1965 or so. He told me that at the time the station switched formats from being a mix of jazz, folk, spoken word, and educational material to a Top 40 music station. He said that there were basically no listeners, although the station was piped in to the dorms. Ben described a phone receiver-like device that was in each dorm room and told me that one had to dial it to 880 to listen to the station over 880 AM.

Radio Sign on Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University
(Photo: J. Waits)

Today, KSFS is still housed in the basement of the Creative Arts building. Although KSFS was never a licensed station, it did broadcast into dorms and campus buildings through a carrier current system (as described by Ben). Eventually it got hooked into the campus cable system before going online-only. Rick told me that there's a rumor that in the late 1960s or early 1970s KSFS had a chance to obtain an FCC license after a commercial radio station offered to sell its entire station, from microphones to transmitter, to San Francisco State for $1. San Francisco State turned down the offer, apparently fearful of giving the students a larger broadcast platform.

Rick told me that KSFS eventually had a small transmitter (less than 1 watt) and an antenna on top of the library. A line was run from the antenna to KSFS in the Creative Arts Building. The transmission on campus was so weak, that one could only hear it within the line of sight of the antenna at 88.1 FM. Because of fears of complaints about interference from local stations (namely public radio station KQED) and local residents, the station was never able to get more powerful than 1 watt.  One of the main ways that students on campus used to listen to KSFS was through the university's television cable system. Additionally, KSFS had its signal broadcast within San Francisco over cable television.

KSFS Studio
(Photo J. Waits)

One of the most interesting stories that I came across was in a history of San Francisco State written by Meredith Eliassen. She recounts a story that took place in 1966 involving Ken Kesey,

"Kesey, flanked with bodyguards from the Hells Angels, performed an 'acid test' in the studios of the campus radio station KRTG. The event aired to listeners in the Commons, in the Redwood Room, outside through speakers, and to the KRTG audience in the dormitories."

Rick told me that he'd never heard this story, but that it was "entirely possible" and said that at the time the university thought the station was "subversive" and that the school "did not want people to know that students had a voice."

Window to KSFS Studio
(Photo J. Waits)

Eventually, due to a number of factors, including construction on campus and lack of listeners, the low power FM broadcasts ceased after the antenna was removed from the library in 2008. A 2004 student newspaper account described the station's lack of a signal:

"The only way you could pick up a clear signal of the station's low broadcasting range is if your radio was no further than the sidewalk surrounding or steps leading up to the library."

Around the same time, though, KSFS was being broadcast in The Depot in the Student Center and was also broadcasting online.

KSFS Studio
(Photo: J. Waits)

Rick said that the station has functioned for more than 60 years as a "laboratory" for students interested in careers in broadcasting. In order to get on the air, one is required to be enrolled in a radio class at San Francisco State or be an alum.Having a live radio show is actually a requirement for the advanced radio class. Typically there are between 75 and 100 people involved with the station in a given semester and KSFS still seems to function as a training ground for radio and music industry hopefuls.

When I stopped by in December 2010, I chatted with the station's General Manager Tiffany Lintner. In addition to doing her show "Special Sundays" at KSFS, she was also working at commercial radio station KMEL as both an on-air host and a member of the promotions department. Her hip hop show at KSFS had over 900 followers on Twitter and she told me that she did have aspirations to be a commercial radio DJ. Last fall the KSFS Music Directors were also involved with commercial radio stations and labels.

Last fall the KSFS schedule featured live DJs from 8am to 11pm on weekdays and from 9am to 5pm on the weekends, with an automated loop of material filling in the slots without a live DJ. I was told that KSFS had just finished a project to digitize all of their CDs and that they were planning to get rid of the CDs. The station planned to hang on to its "large library" of vinyl records, however.

KSFS Vinyl Library
(Photo J. Waits)

Today, KSFS invites listeners to "Embrace the Chaos" as it broadcasts a mix of music and public affairs shows across its schedule. The current mission statement for KSFS reads:

"We provide cutting-edge, free-form radio with varied programming, including music, theater, talk, art, & information. The shows we stream seek to push the boundaries of what radio can be but are always focused on our listeners. KSFS serves as a training laboratory for students and as a radio station for the university, the City of San Francisco, and our worldwide Internet audience. We intend to be an integral part of the ongoing media (r)evolution and the myriad communities we serve and to offer a dynamic educational experience for the students of San Francisco State University."

Thanks to everyone at KSFS for sharing your station with me and for your patience in waiting for this report!

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
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco
Radio Station Field Trip 18 - Flirt FM in Galway, Ireland
Radio Station Field Trip 19 - RXP 101.9 FM in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 20- WGBK at Glenbrook South High School
Radio Station Field Trip 21 - KPDO in Pescadero, California 
Radio Station Field Trip 22 - KZYX in Philo, California 
Radio Station Field Trip 23 - San Francisco's Pirate Cat Radio
Radio Station Field Trip 10.5 - KSCU's New Digs at Santa Clara University (2010)
Radio Station Field Trip 24 - Radio Valencia in San Francisco


Unknown said...

The source for the Ken Kesey anecdote during the 1966 campus event is from Phil Garlington (City Editor) "Whatever it was... it was," The Daily Gater (student newspaper) 94:14 (5 October 1966) 1, 4-5. The photo essay included photographs from Bub Hirschfeld of the San Francisco Mime Troupe performing on the Quad and family activities outside (there were lots of kids) and a sot of Hill Hamm's light show equipment and dancing.

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks for passing along the source for that Ken Kesey story. Amazing stuff! I'm hoping someone will dig through the Daily Gater archives for more about the history of radio at San Francisco State.