Sunday, April 20, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 51 - KCEA at Menlo-Atherton High School

Radio at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
For many years I've been intrigued by the mysterious big band station KCEA 89.1 FM. Located at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, California, the station airs a non-stop stream of nostalgic big band music from days gone by.

Friends who grew up in the area have told me that the station charmed them decades ago with its nighttime broadcasts of ocean sounds ("sounds of the sea, thus the call letters KCEA"). A fellow DJ at KFJC recounted that when he was in high school he would study to the soothing wave sounds. Craig Roberts, who toured me around KCEA, told me that rumor has it that a local insane asylum would pipe the nighttime ocean sounds through its buildings for the patients.

Reference Materials (some from the days of KMAH) at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)

Back in October, 1982, news of the station's night-time broadcasts reached all the way across the country, with the Albany Student Press running a blurb about the Menlo-Atherton station (at the time called KMAH) and its popular ocean sounds. According to the article, back in 1982 from 10pm until 7:30am, KMAH aired,

"nothing but the sound of seagulls, foghorns, and the surf crashing on the shore. The idea was born of economic necessity, says Frank Spinetta, who manages the station...When funds ran short a few months ago, he just put on the roar of the ocean for a few days -- and the calls and letters starting coming in. Now it's a nightly feature, appealing mainly to students and insomniacs. The only problem was the sea lions. 'We had to take out the sea lions,' Spinetta says. 'They sounded like pigs.'"

Apart from this article, I haven't tracked down much KCEA history. The FCC-licensed version of the station began in 1979, but public details about the station prior to that are sketchy. Last year an article in InMenlo gave a bit more about the back story of KCEA, referencing humble beginnings as a lunch-time AV Club operation in 1967, but it would be fascinating to dig into the station's history a bit more. I'm sure that yearbooks and old student newspapers would be a rich source for details about the early days of the station and school radio club back in the 1960s.

Records at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
Although KCEA's FM signal doesn't reach my place in San Francisco, I started listening to KCEA more and more when I received an Internet radio for my birthday. After I programmed various non-commercial stations into the radio's presets, my daughter instantly gravitated to KCEA. She would tune in to the station every night at bedtime, falling asleep to the sounds of music from my grandparents' era.

On August 19, 2013, I ventured to KCEA for my visit. It happened to be the night prior to the first day of school, so a few people were on campus getting ready for the new year. Hidden behind a non-descript door at Menlo-Atherton High School, KCEA is a magical trip down memory lane. Filled with vintage records and equipment, the station also has an entire wall plastered with classic radio station stickers. Since I grew up in the area, it was mind-blowing to see many of the stickers that I remembered so vividly from my youth (KOME, KQAK, KSJO, and KMEL in their rocker days) preserved on the station's wall. There are also numerous stickers from Bay Area college radio stations (KUSF, KSCU, KFJC), high school radio stations (KVHS), as well as some from out of the area (KSDT at UC San Diego, WBRU in Providence , RI).

Sticker Wall at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)

Although the station is mostly run on automation, I stopped by KCEA during one of its live programs. Host, engineer, and long-time Bay Area radio guy Craig Roberts graciously toured me around the station and answered questions while he did his weekly show. The phones rang non-stop and it was clear to me that he not only has a strong following of listeners, but that he has built close connections with them as well. Listeners called from Chicago, Boston, and Santa Clara during my visit. Many listeners tune in online, while a fair amount listen locally over FM. Although I have a hard time getting the station in San Francisco, the station's coverage is good on the San Francisco peninsula and into the east bay.

Craig Roberts at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
While on the air, Roberts shared his encyclopedic knowledge of big band music and prided himself on playing some unexpected cuts for listeners. He's a long-time collector (for 35 years!) of music in that genre and plays music from his own massive music library on his show. He's been digitizing his collection and runs his show from his own music archive. At the same time, he's in touch with new music and will also pepper his sets with tracks by modern big band practitioners and will break from his planned playlist in order to play listener requests. He told me that listeners run the gamut from old-timers who remember the music of their youth to young folks in their 20s who are "discovering it for the first time."

It was obvious that Roberts is steeped in the big band culture and he was clearly pleased that big band music has a "whole new audience" today. In describing the culture of big band, he told me about a popular jitterbug contest in San Francisco frequented by people in their 20s and also explained the many events put on by the Art Deco Society, including the annual "Gatsby Summer Afternoon" picnic which is attended by hundreds of Bay Area residents. Roberts has been a regular MC at Art Deco Society events for around 6 years.

Craig Roberts in the Studio at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
Roberts has been a fan of big band music since he was quite young. He explained to me that growing up he spent a lot of time at his grandparents' house where his father's old room still contained a record player and 78rpm records. He told me that he "grew up on Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller" and others.  Coincidentally, when Roberts first started in radio, he connected with a friend who had a big band show on KBOO in Portland. While still in high school, Roberts ended up taking over the last half hour of his friend's big band show in 1977. He continued to volunteer at KBOO for another 4-5 years and then eventually ended up working in radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the past 29 years, Roberts has worked at KFAX (where he is Chief Engineer and also a show host) and he is also the Program Director at KDOW. He's been at KCEA for around 7 years, after initially just helping out a bit with engineering.

As a talk radio host at other stations, Roberts acknowledged that he wasn't a trained DJ. He told me that talk radio was more his forte and that with his music show at KCEA, it's "more about the music telling the story."

A friend at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
Roberts said that the shows that he does at KCEA have "become kind of therapy for me." In addition to collecting and playing big band music, Roberts is also a fan of old-time radio shows. That passion led him to develop an old-time radio show for KCEA, which airs immediately following his music show. Comprised of old-time radio dramas and comedies, "Yesteryear" airs material from the "golden age of radio." When I visited, he had just aired his 256th episode of the old time radio show, "Yesteryear." It's truly a labor of love, as Roberts works behind the scenes to restore and edit (largely removing the commercials) old time radio show recordings prior to airplay. He said that part of what he loves about KCEA is that it gives him "full freedom of expression."

Sign at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
As we talked about KCEA's location on a high school campus (and Roberts' own beginnings as a DJ while still in high school), Roberts said that he'd love to mentor an aspiring big band DJ. He said that he believes in "passing the torch," and that he'd like to help inspire a high school or college student who has a passion for big band sounds. He said that although the KCEA show started as a "lark," it's been "just a joy" for him. Interestingly, Roberts revealed that despite his passion for old-time music, vintage radios, and Art Deco culture, he's got broad taste in music. In addition to listening to big band music, he likes classical, techno, jazz, opera, and even pop music (having watched the Katy Perry movie the night before).

It was amazing talking to Roberts, as he's such a fan of radio and of radio history. He's also been collecting recordings of old radio remote broadcasts and sometimes will do specials featuring those programs. One such special included snippets from various New Year's Eve live remote broadcasts from across the time zones.

Although KCEA does have a library of vinyl, 78s, and CDs, not all of the DJs utilize the station's library. Roberts said that currently there are around 5000 to 6000 songs in rotation at the station.

Plaque at KCEA (photo: J. Waits)
In addition to its music programming, KCEA also has a weekly sports show which features students from Menlo-Atherton High School. When I visited the station in August, sports programming hadn't begun yet for the semester, but I was told that in the past the station had covered a range of Menlo-Atherton home and away games, including basketball, football, and baseball. In October, 2013, KCEA aired its 500th live sports broadcast since 1999. Students engineer and are live on the air conducting interviews during the station's live remote sports broadcasts.

Thanks so much to Craig Roberts for a wonderful visit to KCEA. I'm pleased to finally get this piece written just in time for High School Radio Day.

Here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips. Come back to see more tours from stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pennsylvania, the D.C. area, and beyond.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Cool! I started listening to KCEA over FM in the early 90s from Hayward and have been curious about the behind the scenes stuff for years. Thanks for this!