Off-air, online and in-tune
KSSU, Sac State’s scrappy student run station, celebrates 25 years of giving the campus a voiceStreaming as survival
It’s just before 6 p.m. on a Monday in early March, and Andrew “DJames” Garcia is setting up for his hourlong Left of Center show for KSSU, Sac State’s student-run online radio station. Garcia sifts through the thousands of CDs stored on the racks that are packed into the cramped studio before picking some albums seemingly at random.
The final song of the previous metal show is nearing an end, so Garcia grabs two CDs, loads them into the player and faces one of the room’s two microphones. As the song ends, he pushes up a slider on the soundboard, and pulls down another.
“Good evening, everyone. I’m your host for the hour, DJames, and this is Left of Center.”
Garcia, the station’s manager, is one of 37 student DJs at KSSU, the radio station that has, despite numerous struggles to stay afloat, managed to stick around for 25 years—an accomplishment the station is celebrating April 15 with an event that’s been billed as an “alumni takeover.”
The station, which originally used the call letters KEDG, has maintained a scrappy persona since its inception in 1991, fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain relevancy on the university’s campus.
The station got its start when Jim Bolt and Chris Prosio, two Sac State students who met in a TV production class, decided the campus was lacking a radio station that would allow students an educational option.
“We believed once the students were given the opportunity to have that voice, it would last,” Prosio says.
University administration disagreed. Between the early ’60s and late ’70s, the campus had the student-run KERS, a licensed station that broadcast locally at 88.9 on the AM dial.
However, some listeners weren’t too fond of the programming, according to Bolt. Student DJs played alternative music and ran politically themed programs about the Vietnam War and Black Power movement. Constant pressure from the community, plus budget constraints, didn’t bode well for the station.
Eventually, in 1979, KERS was licensed to National Public Radio and became KXPR, a station with a more highbrow feel. It was part of a larger trend, Prosio said.
“At this time, many college stations were becoming NPR-like stations,” he says.
Gone were the days of the college station that played rock and featured deejays talking about provocative politics. Instead, the station now played classical and carried some of NPR’s news programming.
Years later, university administration had students, led by Bolt and Prosio, fighting for the chance to have their voices heard on campus.
Bolt and Prosio formed the Associated Broadcasting Club in 1989, got the backing of a faculty adviser in 1990, and received more than 1,200 signatures of support. They further proved to administration how serious they were, Bolt said, when they brought forth an annual budget and drafted station bylaws with the help from students at KDVS, UC Davis’ college station.
“[The station] was our baby,” Bolt explained. “At some point, it was a source of obligation. All of the pieces were there—we just needed the execution.”
Administration let up, and eventually granted $100,000 from the university in 1991 to start up the station. A short time later, after originally broadcasting through Access Sacramento, they secured two almost closet-sized rooms in the back of the school’s library and began broadcasting on campus on the 530 AM band.
Fast-forward 25 years, and the station is still pumping out music on campus. It’s still housed in a cramped space, but instead of the library, it’s front and center on the first floor of the University Union with the other Associated Student auxiliaries. And it’s still run by the students, but instead of broadcasting on the airwaves, it’s heard via the Internet.
After the first four songs of his set end, Garcia hops back on the mic to discuss his song choices for the day. Although his hour usually consists of playing random music that even he admits to occasionally having never heard before, the process for choosing this particular set was methodical.
Most of the songs from the set are reminiscent of his trip with KSSU to SXSW just a week before. Up next are some tracks from bands he heard at the annual music festival, bands who sound like those bands, and some, like Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, that he just threw in because he thought they’d fit in well on the playlist.
“With the name Left of Center, you kind of want it to be a little out there,” Garcia said.
In addition to his show, and being in charge of “not burning things down,” Garcia also helps to manage the station’s website.
KSSU started streaming in 2005, while still running on the low-frequency 1580 AM station that reached just to the edge of campus. It was a move that faculty adviser Susie Kuo says would ultimately become integral to the station’s survival.
Like many things in the mid-2000s, the internet was then becoming the place where seemingly everything could be found, watched or listened to. But with the station functioning off the university’s carrier current and powered by a lowly three watts, not many were able to actually hear it. At least not beyond the campus boundaries.
So, to adapt to what was becoming a web-based world, the station added live streaming to its arsenal, which Kuo said has helped keep the station connected to students on campus who could now pull out their phones and tune in. It’s also grabbed the attention of nonstudents, including Prosio and Bolt, who admit they still listen in from time to time.
“Part of me, mostly because of my age, will always miss the radio station, but these days, being able to listen in on the phone, plane, car… it’s revolutionary,” Prosio said.
Despite some early setbacks and budget constraints, the second coming of Sac State’s student-run radio station has proven to be more than just a flash in the pan.
Instead, Garcia says KEDG-turned-KSSU-turned-kssu.com has been essential in student education and development. And they’ve been recognized for it, too, winning several College Music Journal awards and even being named as a top-10 college radio station by MTVU in 2010. Like many of the DJs before him, Garcia, who’s a film major graduating this May, doesn’t see KSSU as just a place to get radio experience.
In fact, many of the station’s current volunteer DJs have no desire to go into radio as a career. Instead, Garcia says, joining is about forging bonds with people and experiencing something that can give students a “sense of belonging” at what is typically considered a commuter school.
“Looking back at some of the historical things, like changing from KEDG to KSSU, or going from AM to web-only, it seems like people experienced similar sorts of things,” Garcia explained. “Like, it’s a change and different structure over time, but it’s still the same soul … if you want to get gooey about it.”
As David Bowie’s “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell” finishes up the final song of this day’s Left of Center, Garcia stands up to the microphone and closes out his show like he has for the last three years.
“See you all next week. Same time, same place. Only on kssu.com.”