To the big-time and back
KCSC success stories acknowledge the roots of their careers
Shortly after graduating from Chico State in 1985, Stephanie Swengel was in the thick of the Los Angeles music scene—nights at the Whiskey A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip, all-access passes to shows like the Rolling Stones and Madonna, backstage encounters with overblown rock stars. She was often accompanied by her friend Anita Rivas Gisborne, another Chico State grad who was enthralled with their immediate success.
“We felt like rulers,” she said.
Both women jump-started successful careers in the entertainment industry at Chico State’s student radio station, KCSC. They, along with eight other former station hands, returned to Chico Nov. 12 for an on-campus panel discussion as part of KCSC’s 60th anniversary celebration.
Impressive résumés abounded. Roland West has served as Island Def Jam’s promotion and marketing manager in the Pacific Northwest since 1998. Mike Cloward toured as a musician with 28th Day before founding Devil in the Woods Records, which has issued more than 100 releases since 1983. Record producer Sylvia Massey has worked with artists like Tool, System of a Down, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. and Johnny Cash.
No matter how big they became, they all got their start working red-eye shifts at KCSC, wired on coffee, spinning their favorite albums. The station launched in March 1951, when the campus was known as Chico State College—thus the CSC of KCSC—and since then has been on the cutting edge of various broadcast formats and musical movements. KCSC was on the forefront of rock ’n’ roll and the musical revolution of the 1960s, so it was fitting that during the fall semester of 1981, KCSC was riding the New Wave with up-and-coming bands like the B-52s, the Buzzcocks, Devo and U2.
That was also the first semester of college for Swengel, then an 18-year-old from San Diego who had aspirations to pursue a theater major. She was eager to jump right into the college experience, and was sourly disappointed to discover theater parts were typically awarded only to juniors and seniors.
“I started to see the theater thing just wasn’t for me,” said Swengel, now a Fox movie producer, during a recent interview. “Then I found out they had a radio station where I could start immediately.”
She started as the traffic director, responsible for scheduling commercials, promotions, PSAs and anything else that made it on-air. It was an eye-opening experience for Swengel, and she began to immerse herself in KCSC culture.
“There were plenty of people hanging out on the social fringe associated with the station, because it was this kind of community,” she said. “I loved the music, the whole thing.”
Through the KCSC clique, Swengel was introduced to Gisborne, a firecracker-type personality who began attending Chico State when she was 15. The two hit it off, sharing a passion and enthusiasm for local music.
Gisborne, now a music-industry attorney, recalled the fickle nature of the station’s social scene.
“When I first got there, everybody was into the [Grateful] Dead,” she said. “Then everyone got into the Buzzcocks. Then it got to be where if you didn’t dye your hair black and cut it off in clumps you weren’t cool and they didn’t like you. Eventually, I caved in and cut all my hair off.”
Swengel stayed in Chico over the summer following her freshman year to gain experience with the station and ensure herself a future DJ shift. The work paid off, as she was rewarded with a 2-6 a.m. time slot.
Apparently unaffected by sleep deprivation, Swengel also began producing and promoting local concerts. She started the New Wave Wipeout at the Graduate, the first club night in town to cater to the New Wave crowd. She often found herself collaborating with Gisborne, who worked for the Associated Students and subsequently had access to a much bigger budget than was available through KCSC.
By their senior years, the two had developed into full-on music fanatics. They made at least one trip each month to see a band in the Bay Area, and followed the Clash’s tour of California. Swengel began taking the music into her own hands, and managed fellow station hand Mike Cloward’s band 28th Day by personally driving them to gigs in a Volkswagen bus and setting up shows through her KCSC connections. The group seemed poised for major success, but broke up when the stress of touring became too great.
Upon graduation in 1985, Swengel sold her belongings and left Chico for a year-long adventure in Europe. She wouldn’t come back for more than 25 years.
Following her European pilgrimage, Swengel was picked up as the director of advertising for Avalon Attractions, an L.A.-based concert promoter that hosted huge arena acts like Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, Madonna and David Bowie. She has since made the shift from music to movies and is currently vice president of Lori Forte Productions, a subsidiary of Fox overseeing the Ice Age franchise.
Gisborne extracted herself from the alt-rock scene in the Bay Area long enough to attend law school at UCLA, where she got her start as a music attorney. She now specializes in licensing music for television and movies and guiding artists through the business side of the music industry.
Swengel credits her success to the skill set she developed through advertising and promotion with KCSC. Likewise, Gisborne said she feels she would never have been admitted into law school without her references with KCSC and the Associated Students.
“You’ve got to want it pretty bad, do everything in your power, take advantage of every opportunity,” Gisborne said. “Don’t squander those opportunities, and learn from every experience.”
More than anything, Gisborne stressed the importance of establishing human connections.
“Those people in your classes, that’s who you need to be networking with because you might know them later,” she said. “Look at me and Stephanie.”