Radio Saviors

Vintage KCPR t-shirt wave designTwo college radio Music Directors trudge through endless CDRs, sleazy promoters, and an indifferent student body to deliver one of the last, best radio stations in America.

Reduced to cold statistics, Mark MacEwan and Carina Zercher initially seem indistinguishable from the rest of the Prozac Nation youth. Mark, 22, studies computer engineering and philosophy at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, and embodies total punk rock rebellion in his attire, musical preferences, and everything but his irrepressible smile. Carina, 24, is a philosophy and film double major at nearby Cuesta College, a self-described Anglophile who traveled through Europe in the great quest to find herself come hell or hackneyed cliché. They are outgoing, intelligent, and enthusiastic for the future.

They also answer to their on-air handles, Mark Uranus from Planet Slitoris and DJ Red, at Cal Poly’s celebrated independent radio station, KCPR (91.3 fm). There, they raze the airwaves as volunteer DJs, two among the loyal legion of university students able to drop Fugazi bon mots and bicker on-air about frozen chicken prices. They also serve as the exclusive music directors; the presiding eyes and ears to the world of underground music for San Luis Obispo’s 45,000 residents. Their weekly director duties consume upwards of 15 hours and involve sifting through 150-200 received CDs to select less than 20 for addition to the station airwaves, running new-music meetings for fellow DJs, running the popular New Releases show, charting played albums, and dealing with record promoters with varying degrees of patience and outrage. They juggle their studies with the godlike power/eternal headaches of their roles – and while adults, students, and prison inmates appreciate their work, they still don’t get paid.


“This is a part-time job while in college,” Mark says. “I’m slowly convincing my parents that this is a big deal.”

The “big deal” extends not only to the pair’s duties but also to the pressure they face in maintaining the prestige of the station. As one of the top 50 college radio stations in the country (as denoted in the College Music Journal, which also publishes their weekly playlists), KCPR’s musical additions count approximately four times more than most other stations’ for overall rankings, a status earned by a long history as a reliable independent station. Both music directors assert that if KCPR was located in a more urban setting with a larger listening audience (and with suitably better equipment than their 2,000-watt transmitter and its paltry 50-mile radius), the station would easily achieve a Top Ten rating. Still, while they transmit from the frenetic kaleidoscope of the KCPR station in Cal Poly’s journalism department, they garner an estimated 1,000-2,000 listeners per hour – a success reflected in the attention the station receives from both the Davids and the Goliaths of the music industry.

“KCPR is known for playing what you don’t hear on other stations, but we’re offered everything from Good Charlotte on major label to unknowns on burned CDs,” Mark explains, “and we get everyone along with it. There are some really slimy, bad people who tell us how to do our jobs, like our opinions don’t matter. Promoters are really the only part of my job I dislike; I can see where they’re coming from and why they have attitude, but it sucks that it’s over something I’m so passionate about.”

Carina agrees. “I’ve met some cool people in promotions, people who care about their music and make the job fun, but then there are the other type. There’s this one who’d say anything to get his stuff added, such a total pig – he’ll ask female music directors what they’re wearing and make them cry. I said, ‘This stops here, and this stops now.'” She refers with open revulsion to the infamous station legend Lenny, a major-label promoter who promised Mark that he’d become a vegetarian if KCPR added a certain CD. Cattle everywhere mourned the music director’s decision.

“I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not going to add an album based on your food preferences,'” he recalls, rolling his eyes.

“Some larger corporations try to bribe us – I’ve been offered DVD players – but we don’t take bribes or bow down. Sometimes they send cool little promotional trinkets, though, and that’s a fun little perk.” He illustrates his point by unveiling a minuscule, likely antique bottle of whiskey and a plastic pig that, when squeezed, cheerfully excretes brown rubber. Some promoter’s metaphor for the station, perhaps?

***

On a beautiful California Sunday, Mark and Carina are slouched inside the tiny confines of their KCPR office, dwarfed by the stickers and posters plastered on every inch of wall space. Mark wrestles impatiently with a shrink-wrapped jewel case, occasionally mumbling splintered threats and swears. “That’s a pet peeve of mine ‘cuz I have no nails,” he explains once he pops the hard-won disc into a nearby stereo.

Carina sits Indian-style on the floor and stares intently at the CD artwork in her lap. She silently leans closer to it, squinting on her approach. Mark pauses his computer work to glance at her curiously, as her air of pensive appraisal suggests a brilliant cultural revelation on the cusp of formation.

“Why is her face a different color from her body?” she asks finally looking at the cover of the CD.

Carina and Mark’s irreverent and boisterous humor, amplified and encouraged when combined, is a prevalent force in their jobs. “I swear, the minute I get into this office, I go crazy – I get cabin fever,” Carina announces. “There is no way we could do all this work if we didn’t really love it like we do.”

One of their main responsibilities is maintaining KCPR’s extensive music input system. The brown envelopes littering the cramped music director office floor are methodically opened and all CDs and vinyl are evaluated for approximately five minutes apiece. They are then logged in album entry forms on the main computer, where the artist, title, release year, format, and length are specified regardless if they are added to the station shelves or not. The CDs are organized in shallow shelves by label and listening status and mass e-mails are sent out to promoters with decisions. Adds and Top 50 playlists are posted on the station door and published on the station website.

“People appreciate that we take the time to key in everything,” says Mark. “It’s not too common anymore, but promoters can call us and ask why their stuff wasn’t added and we have a real answer to give them.” The elaborate spreadsheet on their computer contains thousands of entries – everything received since KCPR started the system four years ago. The comments columns contain apparently equal amounts of insightful musical critique and exhausted, semi-lucid rants.

“One of the hardest parts of our job is choosing music that would be good for the station and the people, not just ourselves,” explains Carina. “That can suck – there are a lot of indie sad-rock bastards here. A lot.”

***

At one of the many weekly music meetings, in which the music directors play recently added material and give background information for other DJs, Carina shimmies in her chair along with new inductee The Talk.

“Guess what the album’s called?” she gleefully questions the room.

Mark stops his side commentary on Sting, Dolly Parton, and Atom and His Package to obediently ask, “What?”

“No, YOU Shut Up!” she crows, revealing both the album title and the multipurpose phrase she will repeat with escalating enthusiasm throughout the meeting.

KCPR buttonKCPR’s black-sheep-on-ecstasy reputation among the tony, predominantly white student body of Cal Poly shows no signs of reversing – but let it be known, the station is more interesting than the restroom across the hall.

“A lot of people think we play crazy, unbearable music – that’s how campus tour guides describe us,” complains Mark. “Sometimes they pass us over entirely, saying, ‘There’s the psycho radio place,’ and tell the damn Weird Al [Yankovic] story about the bathroom.” The poodle-haired comic, Cal Poly’s most infamous graduate, recorded his first song in the nearby men’s bathroom, supposedly while on a break from his DJ duties across the hall. To the general public, the story has taken precedence over the station and its events, from bringing the Strokes in to hosting the annual Earthfest festival (Grandaddy headlined last year).

“The bathroom is more popular than us,” sighs Mark. “We don’t play really insane stuff – it’s just different. We try not to repeat bands more than twice a day so everyone can find something they like and we sponsor more shows in town than anyone else. We’re in Abercrombie and Fitch land, but it’s important that a place like this has us.”

Most of KCPR’s listeners are not Cal Poly students. Most student call-ins are other DJs, and the generally preppy congregation of Cal Poly makes identifying them simple.

“It can be easy to tell who we are,” says Carina. “We’re just not them.”

Both Carina and Mark seriously date fellow DJs and when asked about their social lives, reply the same: “This is my social life.” KCPR DJs are a tight-knit group; they spend off-hours in the station, throw wildly themed parties (past ideas include Cowboys and Indians-from-India and Come As Your Favorite Addiction), and plan trips together.

“When I got to school at Cuesta [College], I kinda made the decision that I was not there to make friends,” remembers Carina. “Then I got shoved into this situation at KCPR and I met all these people so similar to me – it was like, ‘sweet, friends!’ It was nice to meet people who were the same.” During high school, she tried unsuccessfully to form a campus radio club, her hypothesized show name “Hang the DJ.” She now hosts that British-themed show on KCPR.

Carina even made one fan she didn’t plan on through her work – an inmate at the nearby California Men’s Colony. Her overzealous suitor wrote her weekly letters for almost two years, proposed marriage three times, and accused her boyfriend of being “jealous of their relationship” when he heard them both on-air. Her brief responses discouraged him from further correspondence and he eventually “did the mature thing,” as she sarcastically dubs it, and dumped her in one of his final letters.

Mark even owes his alter-ego titular surname, Uranus from the Planet Slitoris, to fan mail sent by an especially creative inmate. The letter contained over 100 pseudonyms for Mark, several of similar celestial perversion.

“It’s cool to hear from inmates,” he enthuses, a sentiment Carina echoes less strongly. “Who doesn’t like fans?”

***

Mark offers these tips to get an album added: “Show me you’re into the music. Put some effort into it by taking time for a track listing, a cover, or a one-page bio. Most of what we get sounds the same. Show us something different; a new idea, a new way to express an old one. Oh, and don’t ever send your photo – usually they just get pinned up and made fun of.” The final tip is exemplified by tacked-up glossies all around the station; popular ones include a sullen, masked ‘Wolfmaster’ and Bill Parker and His Motherscratchers dancing joyously around an inexplicably boulder-sized cheeseburger.

Mark and Carina have the rest of the Cal Poly academic year as music directors before they pass the torch to a new duo. They’re already looking to a much different future; neither one plans to continue their work as a career.

“Being music director is a great experience but not a profession I’d want because it’s different outside college radio; it’s not pure. I’ve learned to respect this job but also keep perspective – this is something fun, and it helps me keep learning,” Mark concludes.

“I wouldn’t mind maybe being a DJ in the future,” muses Carina. “It won’t compare to this, though. This is probably the best experience I’ve ever had. Maybe having kids won’t compare to this – but at least they’ll get to say, ‘Mommy was a music director!'”

16 thoughts on “Radio Saviors”

  1. Great article, Stacey! It’s good to know that the spirit of college radio is still kicking. Clear Channel be damned!

  2. Really great article, Stacey! Makes me all nostalgic. And I totally can relate to their decision to not make this their life’s work. When you’re at a college station, you’re doing it for the love of the craft, the love of the music (not for the fat paychecks!!). When you bring it out to the real world, you have to look at spreadsheets, Radio & Records, etc., and it loses ALL of its joy. Not only does it become “just another job”, it’s a perversion of the fun you had in college radio.

    I wish that I could pick up college radio where I live (in a far-ish suburb of Chicago). I miss it. High school radio just doesn’t compare.

  3. i liked it stacey. you did a great job taking about both the ups and downs ( the no, you shut up! part made me smile with rememberence!)

  4. I’m sorry; I know that LK’s motivations are pure, but I can’t help thinking of Will Ferrell squawking “We’re going streaking!!” in Old School when I read LK’s shout out.

    While I was listening to KCPR online, they actually played something from the Talk, from the album “No, YOU Shut Up!”, and name-dropped GloNo in the process. Not bad…

  5. KCPR could become the best college radio station EVER if they would just allow their DJs to be completely free form. Like the now dead KOTR from SLO the shows would blow peoples minds. All it would take would be for the people in charge to let go……

  6. Hayesbass, don’t you think completely free form radio is bound to be annoying? You’d really have to do a careful job of screening your potential DJs before you let them on the air to make sure you only hire people who really know a lot about good music.

    A little structure gives some definition. Right?

  7. No I don’t think completely free form radio is annoying. When KOTR was like that it was great. A little struture is good, a very little. I am just not of the opinion that one or two people should be deciding what an entire community of folks should be listening to. And yes I know Djs are free to bring in records, as long as it fits their specialty show, but what happens when the punk show guy discovers alt.country? It is better then alot of what is out there but I stand by my idea that the most constructive thing a music director/program ddirector could do is to let their DJs have freedom.

  8. I have to agree with Jake, to a point. One of the college stations here is very free form, and they do block programming. There are a lot of DJ’s I won’t listen to because I’m not into the same music that they are, but the DJ’s I connect with are phenomenal and put on what I consider to be the best shows in the Bay Area. It’s a trade off… you’re going to lose some listeners who aren’t into your thang, but the payoff is great when you find that DJ who is promoting stuff you really love.

  9. Well, as program director at KCPR, I have to say our DJ’s have ultimate freedom. Our specialty programs are completely run by the hosts themselves with absolutely no control by me. When the punk guy discovers alt.country, he plays it, if he wants to on his punk show. Over the past four years I’ve noticed that specialty dj’s tend to stick to their style simply because it provides a more cohesive specialty show. As far as our regular formats, we only insist that they rotate new music into the shows. We don’t say, “You MUST play THIS album/track/style, etc.” It’s all up to the dj. The reason we ask them not to bring in their own music is that they listen to it at home, probably all the time. They are not exposing themselves to the over 6000 albums we have in the station. Our first goal is for the dj to be more knowledgable about as much music as possible, then to share it with the community. Continuing to focus on limited types of music denies the listener access to a broader knowledge. The dj does have some recourse in bringing in his/her own music – by suggesting it to the md’s and our stacks director, and also applying for his/her own special format program. Generally, the dj’s who want to bring in their own music apply for special programs and those programs are phenomanal. We just ask that, because most of dj’s are fresh out of high school, they expose themselves to as much music as they can, in order to decide what they really want to focus on. Personally, when I started at KCPR, I only knew about classic rock, oldies, and swing (aside from what had turned me away from comm stations). A year later, I was all about garage rock, musique concrete, and space rock. This year it’s proto punk, post punk, and lounge. I think if I was allowed to play only my cd’s, I would have never explored these other options. I continue to do special programs, but I always try to do a regular format as well, just for the variety. Our style of programming, which has been around for quite some time, is a happy medium – a balance of free choice and expanded selection. Ultimately I think it allows a well-rounded sound and a more educated audience.

    By the way, Stacey, this article is amazing – and I don’t mean the subject matter.

  10. Music so good…hey, y’all can check out our version of musical salvation right here: http://www.ktcu.tcu.edu This is the station @ Texas Christian University where I just started DJing, so yeah, just thought I’d spread the word in case anyone else is a college-station-aholic like me. AND I TOTALLY KNEW STACEY IN H.S.

    P.S. No, we don’t play Jars of Clay and DJ Talk and all that. I promise.

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