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Radio Days: KSPC Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

Today song requests are as likely to come over the Internet as over the phone, but as KSPC turns 50 this month, its mission of offering an alternative to standard radio hasn’t changed.

It’s a sleep-in Saturday morning, and Pomona College’s cutting-edge radio station KSPC (88.7 FM) is rousing students from their slumber with … polka music? That’s right. We’re talking accordions and oompah-pah from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The station has built its reputation on spinning underground, ultra-alternative music. But KSPC also plays a role in the wider community, providing a home for programming niches ranging from old-fashioned comedy to classic rock to hip hop. As ready-bake radio formats reach even the smallest markets, college stations such as KSPC are some of the few places left on the dial where quirky eclecticism still reigns, where polka can peacefully co-exist with Goth. Public service announcements about community events are another important part of the mix.

College radio is a “medium that is not driven by marketing concerns,” says KSPC Director Erica Tyron. “It’s really about community service.”

KSPC celebrates its 50th birthday on February 12, but its mission hasn’t strayed from that laid out by co-founder Terry Drinkwater '58 in the station’s inaugural broadcast: “We don’t feel that it is the purpose of KSPC merely to duplicate programming already available on other radio stations, but rather to provide our listeners with a desirable type of programming not readily available in the area.”

An anonymous donation of $4,000 launched the station in 1956, with Ron McDonald as station manager and Drinkwater as program director. The previous campus radio station, KPCR, had stopped broadcasting after four years on the AM dial. Classical music filled most of KSPC’s airtime in the early days, and the station also carried many news and public affairs programs. (Drinkwater went on to become a CBS news senior correspondent before his death from cancer in 1989.)

Today, “underground” music takes up the largest chunk of the five-college station's schedule. So it’s fitting that KSPC occupies the basement of Pomona’s Thatcher Music Building, where music posters plaster just about every available inch of wall space. The 3,000-watt station reaches a 35-mile radius that includes sections of four counties, and some of its biggest fans live beyond campus. Tyron tells of elderly widows who call in to the polka show to dedicate songs to recently-deceased spouses. Some regulars call in every week. “People get really attached to their deejay,’’ says Carolyn Purnell, a senior in her fourth year as a deejay at the station. “I had one guy invite me to his wedding.”

A few years back, the polka show didn’t air one Saturday because the host was sick, and a concerned listener came down to the station for answers. Purnell, who at the time was serving as general manager, sat down and reassured him. “He was really concerned that it might be cancelled,” she recalls.

On her underground show, Purnell’s mix of music is largely determined by her mood, though she also fields requests. College radio, she says, provides an important path for musicians to break through and gain exposure. And promoters know this. During school year, the station receives about 40 CD packages daily for students to sift through and decide what to play.

Learning about music is part of the fun, according to Purnell. And she adds that working at the station gives students experience working with record label, promoters and clubs. Upwards of 150 students are involved in roles on and off the air. Student deejays reign on weeknights; Alumni and community members often take the reins on weekends.

Artist and Claremont Graduate University alumnus Tom Skelly has hosted “The Sound of Pictures” a mélange of movie music, for more than 20 years. He finds camaraderie among the cadre of longtime weekend deejays who, he says, probably devote too much time to their volunteer roles. “We should be out cutting the grass and instead we’re digging through (record-store) music bins,’’ says Skelly. “This is usually the highlight of our week.”

Skelly loves to troll indie record stores -- ah, the smell of vinyl -- for fresh music for his show. He’s constantly listening to CDs and jotting down notes about the songs -- slow or fast, noisy or quiet, dense or sparse – to help guide him while he’s on the air. Hosting a show “gives us a chance to use what we know as opposed to just storing it in our heads and talking about it at a party once in a while,” says Skelly.

In the age of iTunes and MP3s, radio’s golden age perhaps has passed. Purnell says most students listen over the Web and many don’t even own radios. But the Internet also is an ally, allowing KSPC to reach across the globe. Requests are just as likely to come in by AOL Instant Message as over the phone. Purnell once received one from a Claremont transplant living in Argentina and listening over the Web.

While technology and musical tastes change, station director Tyron picks up clear, consistent signals of support not only from listeners, but also from alumni who have worked at the station over the years. “I’ve had many students tell me ‘KSPC was the reason I came to Pomona College,’” said Tyron. “Or ‘KSPC was the thing that made me stay here’ or ‘was the best thing I did while I was here.’”