“You want to see the Weird Al memorial?” Jimm Cushing asks. “I’ll show you.” Jimm Cushing has too many titles to list most recently, he’s San Luis Obispo’s Poet Laureate, but they call him the dirty old hippie at KCPR, where he has two radio shows. They mean it in the best way. Cushing leads the way from the third floor of Cal Poly’s graphic communication building, home of the journalism department and the student-run radio station, to the “memorial” on the second floor. It’s in a men’s restroom with pink tiled walls and a line of urinals, just an arm’s length from a row of stalls.
Cushing makes sure the bathroom is empty, and then, standing with his back against the wall, he launches into a flailing version of “My Bologna,” Weird Al’s spoof on “My Sharona.” There is no plaque to commemorate the event, but the tiny restroom with great acoustics is where Weird Al, a former KCPR DJ, recorded the song that launched his career. It’s just across the hall from the old studio.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FLOOR TO CEILING WITH VINYL : Veteran DJs are still mourning the old studio, which had character—not like this place.
Last summer, the station moved up to a new studio, with real sunlight coming through a window. In some ways it was a big improvement from the hole in the wall where Cal Poly’s student-run radio station broadcast 24 hours a day for 39 years. The new station is not yet cluttered, and has state-of-of-the-art equipment, a few posters from contemporary bands on the white walls—girl rockers Le Tigre, some homegrown acts, like Mariee Sioux—and a few weathered bills that made the move from the old studio. It marks another turning point for the station, which has always evolved in response to the mainstream media. Still, some of the old-timers bemoan the loss of the old studio. The new one is sterile and doesn’t reflect the character of the station: not yet, at least.
In November, KCPR 91.3 FM turned 40. It’s completely student-run and arguably one of the best radio stations in the county, playing a diverse range of music and sometimes noise. The station has seen several ideological shifts since its debut in 1968 it has transitioned with varying grace from Top 40 to mostly smaller and independent artists, and from a breeding ground for radio careers to a club where music—and only music—matters. Even the audience has changed from solely students to all of SLO County. The only constant is the sense that for many students, it’s been the best part of their college years.
“It’s pretty much what got me through Cal Poly,” Jim Dee said. Dee is the owner of the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo, which like KCPR brings art to SLO that might otherwise never be experienced here foreign films, low-budget gems, and thoughtful ballads all grace the Palm’s screens. Dee started at KCPR in 1968, when he was still a high-school student. Later, he enrolled at Cal Poly and stayed on the air until he graduated. Four decades later, many students echo Dee’s sentiment about their times at the station.
As KCPR’s current music director, Jack LaPorte, said, “I probably would have left Cal Poly, if I hadn’t found KCPR.”
What the hell happened?
In 1968, Frank Calabrese got his start at the station, making public service announcements in a Bullwinkle voice. The official story, as told by Calabrese, is that the first words uttered on air were something like “Christ, are we on the air?” And that a student, Allan Holmes, and the station’s first advisor, Glen Martin, started KCPR. They got help from a lot of students to raise money for some crude equipment, and they got a two-watt transmitter donated from UCSB. Martin died just before the station went on air.
KCPR didn’t have the library of music that they do now, so students would bring in their own records to play—Top 40, rock, disco, whatever. Students played for two or three hours at a time, and because of the weak transmitter, the station could only be heard clearly on campus.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF JERRY PEEK
- 1979 : Franklin Thomas in the old KCPR studio. Is that an 8-track player?
“We had a budget of zero dollars,” Calabrese said. “Occasionally, we’d get some money from the journalism department, but KCPR was just started by a bunch of people who really got a kick out of it. It made college more fun than I could have imagined.”
By the early Šs KCPR had really established itself as a place to learn about radio. The station was gathering a collection of vinyl, which the station still has, and special format shows emerged. The time slots for shows became more rigid, and there was a shift toward professionalism, which would wax and wane throughout the decade. The station played popular music, with an emphasis on sounding like a real station. Many alumni from that era did launch professional careers in broadcasting, based on their experience at the station.
“It’s moved from being a place where kids just played records,” Calabrese said, pointing out that today there are program directors, new releases that must be played, and an expectation that certain music (mainstream Top 40) will not be played. But while the student management staff has a tighter rein on the music than ever, the “professionalism,” on air and off, has slipped away.
That shift can be traced to two main events. There was a decline of radio in general, as it moved toward more syndicated shows produced by a few large media companies. That shift has meant fewer jobs in radio, especially well-paying jobs, so why learn about the trade? Concurrently, there was a push from inside KCPR to do something different.
Neal Losey, who is the music director for the local public radio station, KCBX, and a longtime DJ for both stations, has taken an informal role as KCPR historian. He started in the late Šs, and still has a jazz show on KCPR. He said that around 1984 two conflicting camps emerged, born out of the Reagan era of conservatism and the corresponding rise of the punk scene. On the right were those who wanted to take KCPR to a new level of professionalism, and on the left were a group who wanted to focus on the music.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF KCPRALUMNI.ORG
- NOTHING BUT THE HITS : A playlist from 1981is full of well-known classics
“Toi came along,” Losey said. “And she just took it to a whole new level. Back then the slogan was ‘KCPR. Deal with it.’”
By many accounts, back in the Šs, Toi Phillips was responsible for changing the station from Top 40 to what it is now. She doesn’t take so much credit for the shift, or mention the green Mohawk that her peers remember.
“I don’t remember the specifics of that transition,” she said, “I know it was a difficult transition.”
Others have called it a coup.
“A few of us,” Phillips began, “we each put ourselves up for positions on the executive staff with the understanding that if we won, we would change the format.”
What Phillips brought back to the station was an attitude that people should play music that excites them, even if that was punk, or industrial, or Dionne Warwick.
“I don’t recall being too out there,” Phillips said. “I wasn’t advocating for an hour of swearing or anything. We were pretty much behind the curve as far as what other college radio stations were doing. When it happened, there were a lot of different ideas about what turning alternative would mean.”
John Thawley was on the other side of the fence.
“Toi was extremely motivated by music,” Thawley said. “That was her position. And I was interested in making the station successful. I was a young, preppy, pain in the ass.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- 40TH ANNIVERSARY AUCTION : (left to right) Geoffrey Delano, Katie Boyer, Graham Culbertson, and Jesse Bo Widmark help auction off loot to raise money for the station. They raked in about two grand during the recent auction.
Thawley defended his conservative push, because he said the school administration was pressuring the station to clean up if KCPR wanted their financial support. One example of their overreaching, Thawley said, was when officials wanted a song with vulgar lyrics removed from the playlists. That song was Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
“That’s kind of what we were up against, as far as trying to get the school to support us in any public way,” Thawley said.
Still, Phillips said the clash over music was coming from the inside.
“There was a music director who removed 10,000 Maniacs, because they thought it was too punk, based on the name.”
Phillips was eventually ousted by another group of managers and kept off the air for a while, but the station never really went back to Top 40.
“I remember that I was trying to scrounge around for music for the new format,” Phillips said “And we had this old cupboard, where we stored records that were not in the rotation. There was this one box in particular, which said ‘garbage’ so I’m digging through it and I find the first Violent Femmes record. I pulled it out and was able to get it played on the air. That was sort of a big triumph.”
The new KCPR
Megan Martin is a business director for KCPR. She has a special format show that plays dance music. Martin considers her work there almost a public service.
“I think we have a lot of responsibility to play smaller artists,” she said. “Our station is not like anything else in the nation. We really pride ourselves on that.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SLAYTANIC CARNAGE : Dylan Wordeman plays metal late night on Wednesdays. His show is not exactly easy listening, and as one DJ put it: “We’re always afraid he’s going to get us kicked off the air.”
In the face of the flagging music industry, which produces its fresh batch of homogenized pap each season, KCPR has morphed again.
Cushing has been a DJ at both KCPR and KCBX for the last two decades, and it’s given him plenty of time to wax poetic about the role of college radio in general, and Cal Poly’s. And he, too, thinks KCPR’s role is more important than merely spinning records. He thinks KCPR’s role in the community is “to provide people with a blend of music that they will not find on any other station. To remind people that the musical culture belongs to them, that the musical transaction is not some glamorous MTV production.”
Cushing does an hour-long show of only Bob Dylan’s work, as well as a jazz show, Miles (as in Davis) Ahead. Following Miles Ahead, there’s a show dedicated to sexy, soulful grooves, and then one of KCPR’s most widely listened-to shows: Urban Landscapes, which is produced by Cal Poly alumnus Velanche Stewart.
Stewart calls his show “a jazzy soulful club-culture.” Urban Landscapes has roots in jazz and soul, but it’s updated, club-ready, with bass and synthesizer. His show, which is recorded weekly, edited, and then podcasted to thousands of listeners, has gained Stewart fans all over the world, and even afforded him the opportunity to travel and play his music.
“It’s funny that people in Europe have caught on and listen to the show,” Stewart said. “I still can’t believe that a lot of the kind of music I play is not being played on major labels.”
Stewart is not a typical DJ: He’s part of an older crew of alumni and faculty who still have their special format shows. Cushing, Losey, and Charlie Blair, who plays an Americana show, are all part of that club.
“I get along well with the students,” Losey said. “At least I think they like me. I respect their position as far as it being student-run. So if I make comments about maybe ‘This is the way we used to do something,’ they are open to hear my suggestions. At least I hope they’re not just being nice to the old guy.”
Andrew LaGraff is more the archetypal KCPR student. He has a regular format show, a beard, fashionably geeky glasses. He moved deftly around the studio in a plain T-shirt and cutoffs, pulling out CDs and mixing music with public service announcements and his own, off-the-cuff commentary.
“I don’t really plan what I’m going to play,” he said. “It’s just whatever I feel like playing. That’s the great thing, we have the freedom to play pretty much whatever we want.”
LaGraff said it’s not always clear what’s too mainstream for the station. There’s no list of banned songs, but there is an expectation that regular format shows are playing songs from a list of new music and if you can hear it somewhere else, it probably doesn’t belong on KCPR.
“It’s funny,” LaGraff said, “because a lot of the stuff we play are bands that end up becoming very successful and very mainstream. That’s the art of the college radio business: It’s promoting independent bands and a lot of the time they go on to be very successful.”
That’s one of the great ironies of an independent station. When a band “makes it” or gets picked up by a major label, they lose their appeal at a station that prides itself on being different.
“The other rad thing about KCPR,” LaGraff said, “is that we’re all good friends. We’re a really close group.”
KCPR DJs have been called elitists, and exclusive, and music snobs. They seem aware of the stigma, but Cushing explains it a little differently: they are a group whose job is to know what’s fresh, what’s last week’s meal, and what’s on the horizon musically. Anytime you get a group of people with some esoteric knowledge, he said, there’s going to be a little exclusivity, but that’s maybe not the point. There’s a reason KCPR attracts certain people.
“KCPR is a kind of place where you can be human: human beings being human, instead of human beings trying to be homework machines,” Cushing said
Outside the studio, there are a small couch, a round table with sample CDs and records scattered on top, and a radio, so students can listen to what’s being played next door. There are a few computers at a desk, and a constant flow of student throughout the day. By all indications, it’s been about that way forever.
LEARN ABOUT THE STATION
KCPR broadcasts 24 hours a day at 91.3 FM. Get schedules and read about upcoming shows at kcpr.org. KCPR alumni can swap stories, post pictures, and get in touch with former DJs at www.kcpralumni.org.
Staff writer Kylie Mendonca likes the sound of silence. Give her an earful at firstname.lastname@example.org. She thanks Neal Losey and all the alumni who contributed to this article.