Keeping Alternative Radio Alive
By Andi Rusk
The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” launched the beginning of Music Television in 1981. The implication at that time was that music videos were going to steal the success of radio stars. That isn’t quite what ended up happening. Fast forward roughly 15-20 years, and one could argue that the internet killed radio, period.
In the last twenty years, the way we listen to radio, and music in general, has shifted. An entire generation of people are now coming of age who may have never even listened to live radio. People stream music on the internet and smartphone apps. When they do listen to radio, the choices have been narrowed down to commercial stations who have a pre-programmed set list that essentially plays on a loop. The DJs on such stations might as well be as automated as the playlists. They have no say in what music gets played.
Luckily, Bay Area listeners are blessed by the radio gods with an eclectic choice of non-commercial stations to listen to. KALX, University of California, Berkeley’s radio station, is one of them.
KALX was founded in 1962, broadcasting its first shows using a transmitter crafted from a cigar box. Over the following decades the station went from AM to FM, basement to bigger basement, and eventually settled into Barrows Hall in 1995 where it has been broadcasting to Berkeley, Oakland and the greater Bay Area ever since. KALX also has a live streaming feed and an app for smartphones, giving it international reach. Additionally, it is one of the only college radio stations that broadcasts 24/7. Fifty-five years after its humble beginnings, the station still works hard everyday to maintain diverse and quality programming.
KALX manages this largely by its staff of over 200 volunteers. Not only UC Berkeley students are welcome to join as volunteers, but community members are also invited to work there. As a free-form, alternative radio station, such diversity of members is reflected in its programming.
Justin Gorneau, a current senior at UC Berkeley, came to KALX because he grew up idolizing his local college radio station. “I dismissed commercial radio stations as always playing the same thing,” Gorneau explained. “When I came to Berkeley I saw my chance to get involved with an organization that exists only for itself and its listeners. Being at KALX has given me the opportunity to receive free training in multiple fields I’d have no chance to receive anywhere else.” Gorneau is referring to the many departments which volunteers can choose to explore at KALX. In addition to the wide range of music that gets played, KALX produces news, sports, arts and entertainment, and public affairs programming. Volunteers can choose to work in as many departments as they have time for. They can also learn how to become DJs with no prior experience.
KALX runs on not only dedicated volunteers, but also on a small, passionate staff that oversees the general operation of running a radio station. Lena Ghazarian, a UC Berkeley graduate, came to KALX while she was a student. Since graduating five years ago she has been KALX’s Operations Manager. Ghazarian believes that the lasting success of a station like KALX is because “Our DJs are your neighbors, peers and coworkers … the listening experience and relationship built between KALX and its audience is very personal. Algorithms and internet radio cannot localize anywhere near as well as a local, community-focused station like KALX.”
A strong 55 years and a hugely successful annual pledge drive speaks to how highly listeners value a station like KALX. While other local offerings such as KPFA and KALW definitely hold an important place in Bay Area independent radio, they are not necessarily competing for the same demographic as KALX. People who want a station that will both surprise and comfort, with DJs who feel like old friends, return to KALX time and time again. This is part of the reason that nearly two decades after the arrival of internet radio, KALX continues to be successful.
Ghazarian summed up how alternative radio stays relevant in the modern age, “As more and more of our experiences throughout our day are becoming automated, people crave and appreciate the humanness that radio provides. It feels very personal and leaves the listener feeling like they are in a conversation with the DJ/programmer.” Additionally, radio still remains a practical and reliable form of communication. Ghazarian explains, “In a major natural or political disaster, I’d put my money on radio over all the others when it comes to surviving the odds. … Radio will always prevail when our technological infrastructure crumbles. Radio will survive the literal or metaphorical storm.”
Whether you love music, news, or just like to have a radio on as background noise, KALX is a solid choice for local programming. It’s a great way to stay connected to community issues and events while also discovering music you will not hear on any other stations. KALX has something for everyone, a reason it has managed to become and remain a Bay Area institution.
If you are interested in finding out more about how to volunteer at KALX you can visit their website at kalx.berkeley.edu. Three volunteer recruitments are held per year, one of which is open to non-students. To listen to KALX you can tune in to 90.7 on your FM dial or stream on the internet via their website. There is also an app for KALX you can use on your smartphone.
At the top – The KALX library contains over 100,000 records and CDs. Photo: Andi Rusk