Keepin’ the wire alive
Campus radio station KCSC celebrates its 50th anniversary with a blowout party and new compilation CD
November marks the 50th anniversary of a local outlet that has continuously (for the most part) catered to those seeking the cutting edge of the music scene. It’s hard to believe that Chico State University’s student-run KCSC, one of Chico’s oldest radio stations, is also its most adventurous, but 50 years of living dangerously fosters adaptability and the ability to survive.
Needless to say, perhaps, it’s been an eventful half-century, one that’s seen a revolution in musical tastes and other cultural values. In Chico, KCSC has always been on the front lines of that revolution. Here’s a short history:
1951: “720 on your AM dial, KCSC…”
The little radio station that would activated with its first non-commercial wireless presentation from a small room off of the campus’ Little Theatre, in Ayres Hall, on March 11, 1951. Essentially nothing more than a classroom project, KCSC (the “CSC” is short for Chico State College, as the university was known at the time) closed operations in 1953 due to lack of staffing and equipment, but through dedicated energies by students started up again, sputtering off and on through the rest of the ‘50s.
It was in November of 1961 that students such as John Rivers became convinced that KCSC could be much more than a just a campus lab.
“We were taking a broadcasting class, and we were producing programs in a little studio that was located in the Little Theatre on campus,” recalls Rivers, who would become the station’s first general manager. “You could make tapes of yourself, but that was about it. I got the idea that in order to get some really good experience, what we needed to do was broadcast to the students.”
Rivers and his cohorts asked permission to construct a small studio—"It was essentially a broadcast booth,” he explains—in the student union, which was then located in what is now Trinity Hall, beneath the bell tower.
The Associated Students put up some money and the students got to work. Starting with no music library, a limited-range hand-made transmitter and supposedly only $12.87 in funds, the station could be heard only in the Campus Activities Center and dining room.
“The quality of the sound was so bad that the students, in protest, wanted to shut it down,” Rivers says. “We were able to get some technical assistance to at least smooth out the sound.”
As the station established itself, listeners began to gather. As Rivers tells it:
“We had a cadre of people who actually come in and produced shows, including one of the professors on campus, Hal Peterson, who was then a professor in the Physical Education Department. He had a show called ‘Rock With Doc.’ That was one of the more popular shows because the students would sit outside the booth and watch him spin records and act all crazy.”
After leaving KCSC, Rivers went on to work professionally at an Oroville station, where he produced the first rhythm-and-blues program in the area. After that, he moved on to a tenure at the hip San Francisco station KSAN before being drafted into the armed forces.
Rivers retired as VP of Student Affairs at Cal State Hayward and now runs a management firm in Palo Alto.
Back at KCSC, equipment was added, expanding the station’s reach by allowing it to broadcast into the dorms. By 1965 the station was included in the Associated Students budget, and by 1969 it was an entirely student-run concern answerable only to the A.S.
The A.S. little realized what sorts of grief lay ahead. Joining freely in the ‘60s’ burgeoning spirit of anarchy, the station soon received attention for such stunts as broadcasting live from the Titan missile site north of Chico and reprogramming the bell tower pipes to play “Louie Louie” one April Fool’s afternoon.
“I was up there in the bell tower, yeah,” admits Ron Woodward, who cut his deejaying teeth at KCSC and went on to co-found KFMF. He’s currently operations manager for Results Radio and program director and creator of Thunder 100.7. “I did not do that, but I’m very aware that it took place. It was a cool thing. That’s also where the FBI agents used to hang out to film the students during the Vietnam War.”
And with attitude, so went the music. Woodward, who was program director of the station, helped KCSC find its true voice.
“We were playing rock and roll! We actually played vinyl back then … everything from John Mayall’s Blues Breakers to the Beatles’ White Album. We were playing what was termed ‘underground rock music’ at the time, and you could actually pick it up on the Chico cable system—and we had quite a lot of listeners!”
Promotionally, the station set up such events as the controversial Battle of the Bands and the infamous “Heart-On Ball,” a renegade dance party thrown every Valentine’s Day through the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s.
1971: “You’re listening to the Livewire, 95.5 FM cable…”
In February 1971, KCSC went cable, an idea pioneered by Woodward and negotiated with State TV Cable, then the local cable provider. The launch date was Sept. 14, and KCSC went live with a new moniker: The Livewire.
“I think we were the second college radio station in the nation to go to cable,” Woodward says.
However, just because things had stabilized over the air didn’t mean that KCSC’s status on the ground wasn’t in a state of flux. The station still found itself being shuttled back and forth from buildings to sheds, rooms to broom closets, and at one point even sharing facilities with some renegade campus rag called the Wildcat (whatever happened to that endeavor?). It wouldn’t be until 1981 that the station would finally settle in the Stiles Warehouse on the corner of Second and Cherry, where it has crouched in the shadow of CAVE ever since.
The ‘80s found KCSC at both its public height and also at its most embattled. Employing a stable of on-air personalities that drew from not only students but also non-student community volunteers, KCSC had built its rep as a pretty solid college radio station, its playlist being published in industry rag the College Music Journal, alongside those of such college radio stations such as San Francisco’s legendary KUSF.
On the other hand, the station had also solidified its on-campus reputation as an expensive music club for kids lookin’ to party. The relationship between the A.S. and KCSC grew thornier, as the “suits” demanded more Huey Lewis and the “punks” retaliated with more Dead Kennedys.
In 1986, on the heels of KCSC’s being named best college radio station in the country by SPIN magazine, the A.S. pulled the plug on the station, a move deemed necessary by A.S. squares in the wake of allegations of disc jockeys bringing in friends after hours and “partying” while on the air. After much negotiation and proper penance, the station reopened a few months later—with a vengeance.
Working with such mythic (i.e., defunct) venues as the Burro Room, KCSC took an active role in bringing such soon-to-be-famous bands as Nirvana and Primus to play alongside local legends such as The Downsiders and Vomit Launch (hometown favorites with a national following who could get airplay in Chico only on KCSC).
2001: “KCSC, http://www.asbookstore.com/kcsc/listen.html…”
Fifty years later, and there are new faces and new ways to get the message out at KCSC. It’s good-bye cable, hello Internet.
The music industry is split on the value of Internet as a radio transmitter, explains current Senior Music Director Heather Logsdon. Half think it’s going nowhere, and the rest believe that “in two years or so we’d have Internet radio in our cars.”
Count KCSC in the latter group. “It’s not going by the wayside—it’s happening,” exults Logsdon. “And we were one of the first to be Internet radio only in college radio. We’re making it happen; we’re making it work.”
“We’re definitely experiencing growth,” agrees General Manager Mike Witherow. “There are more listeners than there were last year, and when you log on there is always someone listening. I think people are finally figuring out that we’re on the Net.”
Two weekends ago saw KCSC’s big 50th anniversary blowout at the Senator Theatre, an all-night affair marked by the release of KCSC’s first compilation CD of local bands (an effort spearheaded by former station manager Robin Clewell), many of which played that night.
“It’s a compilation of 16 local bands,” Logsdon elaborates, “so that people will know what we play, to let people know that there’s an alternative out there.”
“We’re the only place in town where you can go to hear a lot of local bands that aren’t being played on [stations like] Z-Rock.” says Sean Proctor, KCSC’s production director. “I know that when I was in a band, there was no local station that would play local bands, and here we’re supportive of that.”
Adds Logsdon, “Since we report to the College Music Journal, we’re seen in there, and everyone sends us their music, everything to Aesop Rock to Spiritualized to Beulah to The Moldy Peaches. We have world, swing, psycho-billy. … We play categories of music that people don’t know about but should know about.”
And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what KCSC has been doing for 50 years.