Radio’s Not Dead

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Illustration by Celia Fong

Long gone are the days when an aspiring artist can freak out over hearing their song played on the radio. The once intimate and sentimental relationship between the listener and the radio has been betrayed. Commercial radio is inundated with top 40 hits, where the cycle of airplay is dictated by the 100 most popular songs of that week, as compiled by Billboard.

While most stations repeat the same songs, KZSC — UC Santa Cruz’s own non-commercial radio station — plays content selected by students for students. The station grew its roots in 1967 as KRUZ with a small group of listeners in the Stevenson dorms, and eventually moved its way to its current home, a decked out cabin. It stands behind Crown College, complete with history and records, run by more than 114 staff and volunteers.

“A lot of students put a lot of effort into their shows,” said KZSC DJ Gabe Lopez. “With KZSC, every hour will introduce you to 30 or 40 songs you did not know about. That’s the best feeling as a DJ — a new piece of art, a new expression of self.”

Lopez, who goes by DJ Null, hosts “Nara Dreamland” from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. every Friday. He got the idea for the title from an abandoned theme park in Japan he’s been obsessed with since his teenage years and developed an ever-evolving series of weekly concepts for his program.

“[It’s] this imaginary theme park that’s abandoned, and exists in people’s minds and dreams — every show is a different conceptual piece,” Lopez said. “Tonight’s show is called ‘A Love Letter to Adolescents,’ it’s about weird things you think about as a teenager that don’t make a lot of sense but you feel ‘em.”

Lopez emphasizes that at KZSC all the shows — hosted by students and community members — aren’t preprogrammed through major labels cutting deals with radio stations, but reflect people’s ideas, tastes and concepts.

With a collection of 45,000 CDs and 30,000 LPs, DJs are bound to discover new material each week, including “music and air news coverage that wouldn’t fly at a commercial radio station,” said broadcast advisor Keith Rozendal. Rozendal encourages students to look into the non-commercial value of the station from a career perspective.

“It’s the only opportunity to get the door open for training in mass media, without being part of a degree program,” Rozendal said of KZSC. “You don’t have to qualify for it to be your job, you can start from zero with us.”

The reality of non-commercial radio succeeding in today’s swamp of commercially-owned stations boils down to funding. The station receives funding from two annual fundraisers, underwriting, tenant space on the radio tower and student fees from Measure 7. Though the university does not fund KZSC directly, the UC Regents hold the station’s broadcasting license and UCOP lawyers provide services to keep it active.

“It’s a community. They are moving cultures and it’s human connection. It’s money versus community, that’s the modern moment we are fighting right now,” Lopez said.

Kai Killion, founder of local indie-soul band Getaway Dogs, appeared last spring on KZSC’s “Local Brew,” a program highlighting local bands. Killion feels UCSC students are invested in the alternative indie scene, and after appearing on the show, Getaway Dogs gained likes and messages from listeners on Facebook.

“UCSC is where you find the strongest amount of people who could be your potential fans, and who are really going to listen,” Killion said.

At another Santa Cruz community-supported radio station, KUSP, dedicated broadcaster and UCSC alumnus Bobby Bishop has been spinning jazz, soul and love songs at the station for 27 years.

He remembers DJing for the first time at 19 years old — “You have so many turntables, cassette players, it makes you think, how many mistakes can I minimize? That’s what it was like back then.”

But with more than $700,000 of debt in the month of September due to a constant deficit,  KUSP has been forced to renovate its content and programming. Instead of the NPR news-based content that tangled them with competition, the station plans to return to the music, along with a hefty amount of fundraising for its future.

“We are in a flux, where we are trying to identify who is our listening audience,” Bishop said.

He used to play pop and lighter jazz, but Bishop’s sets have changed along with audience’s tastes. “Jazz is now in the hands of the youth. Jazz purists are up in arms,” Bishop said with a chuckle. “But, there is jazz in new hip-hop, spoken word and people are worried that it’s not jazz, but everything changes.”

The torch lies with students like KZSC DJ Gabe Lopez, and alumni like Bishop and Killion to promote an ever-evolving concept of new and niche music.

“As a broadcaster, who you are, your words and your persona are the only thing you have,” Lopez said. “You’re in a studio speaking into a microphone out to a million people, your words, your thoughts are what counts, so if you sell those out, you’re not that great of a broadcaster in my opinion.”

Tune into KZCS at 88.1 FM or kzsc.org.