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Off the Charts

June 10, 2011
by Jaan Uhelszki
shelves of vinyl records

How the forced eclecticism of KALX has forged a culture

KALX, Berkeley’s campus radio station, broadcasts from a subterranean redoubt in the basement of Barrows Hall, in what used to be the business school’s career counseling center. These days, there is no number on the door, just a sentry window and a keypad on the wall. The security protects a cache of some 90,000 CDs, vinyl albums, audiocassettes, and more than 500 priceless reel-to-reel tapes, including recordings of campus performances by such famous bands as Talking Heads, R.E.M., and Green Day. In the DJ booth, surveillance cameras project grainy black-and-white images from every corner and cranny of the 2,900-square-foot space. The security, combined with a certain rock ‘n’ roll ambiance, make the place feel like some weird amalgam of covert think-tank and after-hours nightclub.

Certainly the station has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1962 as Radio KAL. Back then, according to the Full and Unabridged History presented on the KALX website, the station was broadcast to the dorms from Ehrman Hall via wires that stretched across campus. The mixing board was built from a Jose Escalante & Co. cigar box, and the format was strictly classical.

Since 1967, KALX has been found at 90.7 on the FM dial. Now broadcasting at 500 watts, on rainy days the signal can be received as far south as the Dumbarton Bridge and as far north as Petaluma. But the impact of the station goes far beyond its modest signal. Over the years, KALX has influenced many thousands of listeners, some of whom have gone on to become prominent artists and media figures. Indeed, there was a time in the early ’90s when, on any given day, you might find Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong asleep on the studio couch, or future Rolling Stone executive editor Jason Fine ’88, M.J. ’91, opening and stacking CD cases in the mailroom. And though the current listenership is estimated at a meager 35,000 (albeit respectable by college radio standards), KALX has mattered enough that artists as diverse as folk-punk princess Ani DiFranco and hip-hop Baryshnikov MC Hammer have personally dropped by the station in bids for airplay.

And yet for all the big names, station manager Sandra Wasson thinks KALX’s most profound accomplishment may be in the positive effects it has on the people who keep the place running. “There’s not a single person who walks through these doors that isn’t changed by their time at KALX,” says Wasson, who oversees a nearly all-volunteer staff of more than 250. A fixture at KALX since 1989, she looks more like a breezy graduate student than anyone’s boss.

Former operations manager Mo Herms describes the disc jockey experience at KALX as “almost like being a superhero”—the DJ with the cult following by night is, by day, the “weird, nerdy guy that works in a coffee shop.” That could make for some insufferable egos around the station, but for many, she says, the “fantasy existence” also served as a launching pad to a career. David Katznelson ’91 is one example. The Birdman Records founder and former DJ credits KALX with giving him a profound musical education and making him not just an appreciator of music, but a kind of music “junkie.”

Former KALX DJ Drew Daniel ’93, Ph.D. ’06, is now an assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins and a member of Matmos, an outré electronica duo he formed after starting at the station in the late ’80s. For him, he says, the station served as a kind of community center and meeting place. “I’m attached to the model of what college radio can do, what it can let you experience when you’re 18 and displaced and you’re looking to find your people,” says Daniel.

Listeners, too, can find their tribe at KALX. Long before he was a National Book Critics Circle Award–winner, novelist Jonathan Lethem worked at various Berkeley bookshops—Moe’s, Pegasus, and Pendragon—and scribbled stories by night. “I was living in my garret, my hovel, … and listening to KALX all the time,” Lethem remembers. “I was working split schedules, so sometimes I was up at insane hours. I knew every DJ from KALX, and they were like my friends, especially in those wee small hours of the morning. That was my culture; I was living the culture of the station vicariously.”

Lethem later immortalized the station in his best-selling novel, The Fortress of Solitude:

The best thing for miles around was the campus radio station, KALX. The gang of DJs there had been freed by the station’s open format to obsess in any direction they liked, and the results were splendidly motley. Many DJs had been allowed to keep their slots for years past graduation—it was this exception to the usual rule which gave KALX its special depth, the depth of an anarchic family, the members all with nicknames to distinguish their shows: Marshall Stax, Gale Warning, Commander Chris, and Sex For Teens were a few of my favorites. Their charismatic, caustic, and homely voices punctuated the seasonless Berkeley days and nights. In my dorm room, on the twelfth floor of an ugly high-rise, above the sightline of the palm trees which dotted a path to the bay, their voices were my only regular company.

Lethem was correct that KALX freed its DJs to “obsess in any direction they liked.” Perhaps more importantly, though, it forbade them to obsess in only one. The policy dates back to 1975, when general manager Andy Reimer ’76, frustrated by ethnic shows that played only one kind of music, instituted what has come to be known as the Grandmother Rule. It stipulates that each DJ must play songs from at least three genres—styles so distinct that even a tone-deaf geriatric could tell them apart. The rule doesn’t tell anyone what to play; rather, it’s an open-ended directive to go forth and forge new musical territory.

Drew Daniel says that policy of not being allowed to “wallow in one genre was hugely important” to the music he makes with Matmos: “very weird electronic music that veers all over the place stylistically.”

Listeners, too, have been shaped by the eclectic format and the willingness to play music outside the mainstream. Eric Din, guitarist for the acclaimed ska band The Uptones, started listening to KALX in his early teens. “The very first thing I heard was the Dead Kennedys,” recalls Din. “I had never heard anything like that in my life, and it was like … hearing my own future—well, the future I wanted for myself. I used to leave the station on all night and wake up to it.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Din’s band would eventually become a hit with KALX DJs. “One night I went to bed being a KALX fan, and the next morning I woke up being Number One on their playlist.”

Operation Ivy singer Jesse Michaels, son of the late novelist and Berkeley English Professor Leonard Michaels, had a similar musical awakening. “I probably started listening to [KALX] around age 11 or 12. When I was getting into punk in the very early ’80s, there was a lot less of it on the radio, so anything you could hear was a big deal.… I would listen religiously through layers of static, trying to make stuff out.”

KALX would eventually play a role in Operation Ivy’s modest commercial success as well—thanks in no small part to the entrepreneurial skills of the band’s guitarist, Tim Armstrong. “He was extremely ambitious,” remembers Michaels, “and he took our record over to the station within a week of coming out” and made sure they played it. Now a member of the band Rancid, Armstrong (then known by the nom de punk, Lint) used to dash over from his job at Blondie’s Pizza on Telegraph and try to finagle interviews.

“Yeah, sometimes he would even bring pizza,” remembers DJ Jessie Luscious, himself something of a legend in the local punk scene. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong told NPR host Terry Gross that the first time he took LSD, he was playing with Luscious’s band, Blatz. “They were basically like the B-52s on acid,” Armstrong recalled. “There were two female singers, and there was one male singer. The male singer—this guy Jesse Luscious—always ended up naked on stage. It was a very memorable experience.”

Luscious, whose real name is Jesse Townley, now serves on the Berkeley Rent Board, yet still looks every inch the rock star in a tight-fitting black leather jacket, black jeans, and creepers. A messy curl falls across his forehead as he adjusts his headphones. For the record, Townley, who trains aspiring DJs at KALX, eschews both on-air nakedness and drugs. “What I pass on to people I train is that you have to be comfortable on the air. So you do what it takes to be comfortable. That can either mean in how you prep for a show, the music you play, if you need to DJ in your bare feet, if you DJ standing up, sitting down, wear a security blanket wrapped around you or wear a funny hat. You just do what you have to do. Because a listener can hear if you’re nervous. Or on drugs.”

Of course, not everyone who turns out for KALX’s triannual volunteer meetings wants to be a disc jockey. There are ten other departments besides DJ-ing to which an enterprising volunteer can apply, including news and promotion. In fact, one of the station’s breakout moments came from the sports department. For one month in 1978, KALX became the official radio station for the Oakland A’s. The contract lasted all of 16 games, but it was still a major coup for a campus radio station that, at the time, was broadcasting at a mere 10 watts. The individual responsible for the deal was a young political science major named Larry Baer ’80, now a co-owner of the San Francisco Giants.

“If you want to work here, there’s a place for you,” says station manager Wasson. “You just have to find it.” Volunteering at KALX is as rigorous as a hardcore Pilates class—which, incidentally, is one of the perks of the job; twice a week, staff members repair to a deserted hallway in Dwinelle for an hour-long guided workout. Recruits must first volunteer at the station 12 hours a month, doing tasks ranging from sorting mail to reviewing records. But that’s only the beginning. After a month (three months for community recruits), volunteers become eligible for DJ training. In four weekly classes, the would-be radio voices are instructed in the nuts and bolts of broadcasting: how to run the board, how to navigate the station’s prodigious music library, how not to run afoul of the FCC. They even learn the best way to get a celebrity to do a station ID. (Repeat after me: “I’m Bono from U2 and you’re listening to KALX Berkeley.”)

When that’s done, it’s off to do “Show Zero,” which is sort of like the radio equivalent of driver’s ed; there’s a seasoned DJ on hand just in case things start to veer off the road. Then, after passing a written test, DJs-in-training are unleashed on the airwaves to do around seven solo shifts during the unholy hours from 3:30 a.m. to 6 a.m., when, as DJ trainer Jaymie Massoletti ’11 puts it, “fewer people are up to hear them screw up.” Finally, supplicants must submit their third and seventh shows to a Program Review Committee, which decides whether a trainee is ready to apply for a show of their own. “The critiques are intense,” says Massoletti. “They aren’t looking for whether you have good or bad taste in music, but how deep you’re digging in the library.”

That extra spur to creativity often inspires KALX DJs to find uncanny connections between songs, whether it’s matching beats or instrumentation, or mining the material for other, more subtle connections. Brittney Stanley ’10, who completed her English degree at Berkeley last year, spins under the DJ name Chelsea Girl.

“This is me being semi-creative,” she says impishly as she runs down her play­list. “I’m playing King Khan & the Shrines doing a song called ‘Le Fils de Jacques Dutronc.’ Then I’m playing a Jacques Dutronc song, ‘A La Queue Les Yvelines,’ and then a song by his wife Françoise Hardy, ‘Il Est Trop Loin,’ then one by his son, Thomas Dutronc, ‘J’aime Plus Paris.’ A little family connection going on,” Stanley explains as she smoothes the short, jade-green retro sheath she’s wearing—clothing of roughly the same vintage as her song picks.

KALX is one of the few Bay Area radio stations that has a direct line into the booth, and most DJs have fairly regular callers, a few of whom are on a decidedly different wavelength. “This guy called me and said he was making dinner … and told me I was infusing the couscous with sonic beauty,” Stanley remembers, shaking her platinum-haired head.

In February 1985, an emissary of Charles Manson called the station to arrange an interview. His one stipulation: He only wanted to talk about music. Reporters Arnold Woods ’84 and Kevin Kennedy taped the convicted serial killer at the state medical facility in Vacaville, and for a brief time afterward you could tune in to the station and hear, “Hi, I’m Charlie Manson and you’re listening to KALX in Berkeley.” The interview aired despite protests, but the spots were pulled after a week.

As much as college radio may tweak listeners’ sensibilities, it also has a way of making their tastes—and launching careers in the process. “In the early ’90s, KALX was such an influential station,” recalls Christopher Appelgren, co-owner of Lookout! Records, the early home of Berkeley-based punk stars Green Day, Operation Ivy, and Mr. T Experience. “If one of our records got into [KALX’s] playlist, it would impact sales tremendously.… It was at a time we were doing very little promotion, sending out maybe only 100 copies. But since KALX was so close, we’d drop them off there on skateboard.”

Rolling Stone‘s Fine worked at KALX before graduating from Berkeley with a B.A. in history. “There was so much amazing music happening in this country that you couldn’t hear anywhere,” he remembers. “There was no Internet yet [and] it certainly wasn’t getting on [mainstream] radio.” According to Fine, college stations “played a huge role in everything that led up eventually to Nirvana breaking,” and “helped give birth to alternative rock.” Not just Nirvana—R.E.M., Los Lobos, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and dozens more all got a boost from campus stations at a time when commercial radio was largely ignoring them.

The power of college stations isn’t lost on the artists. KALX has a pile of gold records from bands as diverse as De La Soul, Cowboy Junkies, and Public Enemy—acknowledgments of the debt they owed the station. Primus’s Les Claypool calls college radio “the savior of American contemporary music” and singles out KALX as having “always been at the forefront.” And Flaming Lips majordomo Wayne Coyne attests, “If it weren’t for college radio’s support and especially [KALX] DJ David Katznelson, we would never have gotten signed by Warner Brothers.”

Of course, with the advent and increasing popularity of online music services such as Pandora and Rhapsody, which employ sophisticated algorithms to match individual listeners’ tastes, many observers wonder about the relevance of college radio going forward. Appelgren is decidedly optimistic; he calls Pandora’s scientific approach to song selection “wholly unsatisfying” and believes that people “want to have a more curated experience.”

For his part, Drew Daniel, the Hopkins professor, says, “I think the bottom line is that people care more about specialty than they ever have. They care about passion, about expertise, and about individuality. That’s what stands out.… If you drive into a new city and you don’t know anything about it, you turn on your radio and you know at the bottom of that dial there’s going to be something weird and interesting, as long as there are college radio stations.”

Jason Fine agrees. “If you want to get in the car and discover new music, college radio is still the place to do it. If you tune in to KALX, you’re going to hear stuff that you’ve never heard, whatever the DJ’s mood is or their idiosyncrasies, and that’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Jaan Uhelszki was one of the dream team of editors that made Detroit’s Creem magazine legendary in the ’70s. Since that time her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, MOJO, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relx, Guitar World, and the Braille Musician’s Guide. She is the only journalist ever to have performed in full makeup with Kiss. Fortunately she only had to put on Nar’s eyeliner to cover KALX.
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