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Volume 41. No. 2.
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KSPC turns 50
Radio on the Left of the Dial

By David Scott

Pomona College student radio station KSPC entered the world setting itself apart from the mainstream.

   
David Escovitz '06 is one of the station's veteran deejays. Read the in-depth story of KSPC's first 50 years, only available online.
“We don’t feel that it is the purpose of KSPC to merely duplicate programming,” declared station manager Ron McDonald ’57 during the station’s Feb. 12, 1956, dedicatory broadcast, “but rather to provide … programming not readily available in this area.”
Fifty years on, a typical week’s programming runs the gamut from modern composition to underground rock, with smatterings of polka, the blues, jazz, classical, and kid’s records. The only thing you won’t hear is contemporary “commercial” music.

“The intention is not to end up sounding like every other radio station by playing the same hits,” says station director Erica Tyron, who joined the station as a deejay her freshman year at Scripps College and became the station’s full-time director in 1992. She coordinates the efforts of more than 100 on- and off-air staff members, including students from the five Claremont colleges and community volunteers, who keep KSPC broadcasting 24/7/365 at 88.7 on the FM dial and on the Web at www.kspc.org.

KSPC was an early pioneer in a tradition of college radio that began with the advent of FM radio. Pomona students were broadcasting in the early ’50s on KPCR, a low-wattage AM station that emanated from a storage closet in the student union. When the “in-house” station’s signal began to spill out past the college gates—a violation of FCC regulations—the College decided to start broadcasting to the community on an FM frequency. Terry Drinkwater ’58, Ron McDonald ’57, Ed Smith ’58, Charles F. Waite ’59 and Fred Wolf ’58 worked to obtain a broadcast license and the funds necessary to purchase a transmitter and basic equipment. They next converted Replica House (previously filled with old college academic records and, according to founding members, quite a few spiders) into a radio station.

Wolf recalls the group looked at “holes” in the broadcast schedules of other area stations to develop a niche for KSPC. “There were very few classical programming stations in the L.A. area in those days,” he notes, so the station’s early years were dedicated to symphonies and operas, with some jazz and spoken-word programming. Campus classrooms and lecture halls also provided fodder. A program guide from 1957 lists the broadcast of a classroom discussion on existentialism with Professor Fred Sontag.

Relegated to the lower bandwidths at the far left of the FM dial, small college stations created a culture of “underground” radio that focused on the avant-garde and esoteric, often providing a platform for points of view that ran counter to the McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia of the era. By the early ’60s, rock ’n’ roll and folk music had found a home at KSPC. Station manager Tracy Westen ’62 won national awards and raised a few eyebrows when he and his KSPC crew produced a documentary series on a national trend toward right-wing demagoguery—its centerpiece an exclusive interview with and exposé of American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell.

On May 4, 1970, KSPC interrupted its regular broadcast to announce: “The news tonight is of four students at Kent State University in Ohio who have been killed by the National Guard. The students … were taking part in a protest against U.S. presence in Cambodia. In the face of these murders, we cannot remain silent. ...”

The era of student unrest had reached its peak, and the turbulence was reflected in America’s music and media. “As everyone knows—it’s cliché but true and important—music was an intimate, integral part of the anti-war scene,” says Gary Kates (Pitzer ’74) who joined KSPC as a deejay in the early ’70s and would return to Pomona 30 years later as dean of the College. “I played some of that music, of course, on KSPC. Everyone did.”

The ’70s remained a turbulent time for the station, especially given stricter FCC regulations that required college stations to increase their staffing, standards and equipment to remain on-air. To keep the station alive, Pomona created a full-time paid staff position, upgraded its broadcast equipment and created a studio suite in the basement of the Thatcher Music Building, the station’s current home.

Underground radio had, in effect, moved above ground and found itself more closely aligned with mainstream, commercial FM radio. It would diverge again in the late ’80s and early ’90s as college stations shifted away from an increasingly homogenous and corporate popular music scene. Once again KSPC found itself on the cutting edge of a cultural shift that would come to define a modern movement: the indie rock scene.

Josh Abelon (Pitzer ’95) served as the station’s music director during this time. As he recalls, “Every day small independent record labels were being bought or brought into distribution deals with the few large companies. We started to feel that diversity and true independence within the music world were slowly crumbling away. ... [KSPC] should provide people with something different.” The decision brought the station back to the original focus of its founders by providing a forum for emerging and adventurous artists.

The idea of popular music has evolved dramatically in the 50 years since KSPC signed onto the air. Modern listeners are as likely to access music from Internet downloads and subscription radio as from the public airwaves, but the station’s staff and fans don’t think KSPC is doomed to become a relic. Matt Abrams ’97, who served as an undergraduate deejay and is among the many KSPC staffers who have remained actively interested in the station, believes there will always be a place for alternative radio. He notes, “It’s nice to know that when you finally get tired of [commercial radio] and realize it’s time to take that step into the musical wilderness to find something that hasn’t been fed to you, KSPC will be broadcasting.”

Read the in-depth story of KSPC's history

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by Pomona College
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