Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Indie In Irvine: KUCI, The Anti-Mainstream College Radio Station

by Emily Villanueva

Good music really does exist in Orange County. On the edge of the picturesque campus of the University of California, Irvine, is an unassuming trailer obscured by the shadow of the massive Science Library. Relatively unknown, it is right next to the Humanities Interim Classroom Facility (HICF), but not considered a part of it; it has no markings other than four small black letters in its upper right corner. It seems shabby, quiet, and vacant, but inside tells a different story: shelves completely filled with albums cover the walls while music pulsates in the background. People enter and exit a studio with a flashing light above it, indicating that someone, somewhere, is on the air. This is the base station for KUCI 88.9FM, UCI’s own underground radio station.

At 7pm in a trailer right next door, staff members file into room 100K for another KUCI general meeting. Aside from four glasses-wearing men, one maroon-haired woman, and a scarily convincing Anthony Hopkins look-alike, everyone else is a student. All the desks are occupied, so people coming in late plop cross-legged onto the floor, while everyone chats and passes around a box of snacks. The room smells dry and slightly musty, and there are faint traces of mathematical equations on the chalkboard, signs of the room’s previous use. Kevin Stockdale, the station broadcast media general manager, walks around handing out agendas with important dates for the upcoming quarter, and then heads to the front to start the meeting. He begins by talking about a couple technical concerns, and during reminders about the security system and not leaving doors propped open, someone hums a tune. Someone else drums on the surface of his desk with his fingers. Another picks at the band stickers on her binder. The meeting for “Corporate Rock’s worse nightmare” has begun.

What started out as a group of tech-nerds sick of commercial radio has evolved into a legitimate voice on campus, with a long history and an established presence in Orange County radio. Like the trailer it currently operates from, KUCI is of small and humble origins. The brainchild of engineering student Craig Will, it began as an experiment inside a closet in the physical sciences buildings. Will later passed his project on to Earl Arbuckle, the station’s first official Chief Engineer, who helped gain authorization to broadcast on the air in October of 1969. By the following November he was granted an official broadcasting license to transmit on 89.9FM.

Since then, brief conflicts have caused KUCI to change and adapt. Struggles with neighboring stations in the ‘80s forced it to move to its current frequency of 88.9FM. Threatened to lose its signal, the station had to increase its power from an original 10 watts to now 200 watts. Forty years later though, and the basic philosophy behind KUCI still exists, as it continues to permeate the airwaves with underground music. Since its inception, KUCI has hosted a number of notable guests, including Ray Bradbury, Cesar Chavez, and The Beach Boys. It has opened its doors to bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Social Distortion, before they hit it big. It has thrived on being a taste-maker, a place for new and emerging artists to get exposed. And in 1996, in keeping with the its fresh, forward-thinking ways, 88.9FM went viral and became one of the first radio stations to open its signal over the Internet, expanding past Irvine's borders to a worldwide listenership.

KUCI, the self-proclaimed “last bastion against crappy, sound-alike radio in Orange County,” has a unique presence in radio, with a small yet loyal listenership and a staff of passionate and eclectic individuals. These individuals all have one thing in common: alternative tastes and an aversion to mainstream. Unrestrained by what’s popular or profitable, these people are allowed to play any type of music they want, as long as it’s within FCC broadcast regulations and university rules. There seems to be only one, steadfast rule at the station: NO mainstream. So, could a DJ play Kanye West? No. Phoenix? That’s debatable, since they have gotten pretty popular these days. Britney Spears? Absolutely not.

"I mean, the only time you can really mess up here is if you play mainstream music. Like a clear violation, like if you play Metallica or something. That's obvious, you know, you can't play Metallica! It's like, after that you gotta go," says Matt Buga, KUCI's current music director. Buga has had his Thursday afternoon show, “Love Psychosis,” since winter quarter of his freshman year, and he admits that the question of what is truly considered mainstream can get hazy. But as stated on the KUCI website, “We are pioneers and once the world discovers what we’ve been up to all along, we move on to the next band that needs to be heard.” At the core of the station’s credo is a dedication to building an audience for bands who normally wouldn’t have a chance in commercial radio and mainstream culture— not adding to the hype of some already-signed artist.

This on-the-fringe existence is open to all types of shows. Just take a look at a typical Saturday schedule. Jazz, funk, reggae have their place with Dirty V. in the morning, "Indie-Hip-Pop-Rock ‘N’ Soul" with Sean Boy Walton at night, and a fusion of psychedelic trance, progressive house, and techno during “Nirvanic Trance” to end the day. And this is just music. The public affairs shows are equally diverse. One can explore space with the planetary society during “Planetary Radio” (Saturday 1:20pm-2:00pm) or hear from newsmakers and activists with social science data librarian Dan Tseng on “Subversity” (Monday 9am-10am). There is “Health Matters” with Dr. Shakib, a show about alternatives to mainstream conventional medicine (Wednesday 8am-9am), “filmschool” with Nathan Callahan and Mike Kaspar discussing independent film news and reviews (Tuesday 9am-10am), “Naked Comedy” with DJ “Intern” Sam spouting today's’ comics on yesterday’s technology (Wednesday 10pm-Midnight), and “Writers on Writing,” where Barbara De Marco-Barrett and Marrie Stone converse with fellow writers, poets, and literary agents on the business of writing and getting published (Wednesday 9am-10am). There is even a show called “What Would Arwen Do?” with Tani Tinuviel and Hobbit co-host Milo Loamsdown that touches on all things Elvish (Friday 8am-9am). This is just a small taste of the unconventional programming KUCI has to offer.

Granted, this does not mean that just anyone and everyone can have their own show. The process of becoming a DJ is relatively simple, but not necessarily easy. The DJ Training Class is offered every quarter to students and open to all community members in the spring; since the class exists outside of the university, there is no registration process other than showing up. It is an hour long, once weekly class that lasts for eight weeks and typically occurs on Tuesdays at 7pm. After completing the course and covering topics like equipment usage and FCC policy, a written test must be passed in order to be able to submit an application to become a DJ. After that, if the staff approves your demo, you can acquire your own two-hour slot after completing 15 hours of required volunteer work. The only vice is if you’re a newcomer, you’ll probably have to DJ in the wee hours of the morning. Nevertheless, this inconvenience has yet to deter people from joining in.

“I heard about KUCI the fall quarter of my freshman year, and had been following it for the first two quarters before I actually took the initiative to get involved with it,” says Ellen Luu, host of “Chicken Soup for the Audiophile’s Soul” on Wednesdays from 4am-6am. “I’ve loved music my entire life, so it was natural that I would gravitate towards radio, especially a station that was interested in playing music that I was interested in.” As a newer DJ, Ellen’s slot is during the aforementioned graveyard shift, and because of that, it is not rare for listeners to hear her ramble about the obscure and the random. “I blame it on the fatigue and lack of sleep,” she says. Still, she has no complaints about being a DJ. “I can’t say there are any cons about being a DJ, because I love it so much. I love being able to share the music that I love with the public.” And her show consists of “anything from hip-hop, rock, show gaze, psychedelic, folk, electronica, experimental, etc.—anything as long as its under the umbrella of “indie.””

Matt Buga, the music director of KUCI, is also a DJ and has been for the past three years. Since becoming the music director, he has gained a lot of new responsibilities, like submitting around 8-12 CDs of new music a week to the ‘fresh’ section of the library, answering emails, communicating with music promoters, and compiling charts for the College Media Journal, the Billboard of college radio. He joined KUCI for the opportunity to “listen to new music and just hang out with friends.” Oftentimes, the usually laid-back station can get crazy depending on who’s there. “The funnest times are when you’re in the studio and fellow DJs or friends will just come in… and it becomes kind of a funny group conversation on air,” says Buga. He recalls one time when Kevin’s pet tarantulas escaped from their case in his office and scared some early morning Goth DJs. To this day a sign hangs on Kevin’s office door warning visitors of a “spider the size of your hand.” And Luu admits, “Basically every show I have is in some way crazy. I always end up saying something I regret later on that day.”

However, new music, like-minded acquaintances, and memorable times aren’t the only thing to be gained; people like Sam Farzin, Matt’s co-director and former long-time DJ, have seen their interest expand far beyond KUCI’s small trailer. Farzin, who graduated last June but still maintains his position at the station, independently juggles a variety of projects that cover all aspects of the music industry. He has toured with his eight-piece band, Moon Pearl, started a record label called “Life’s Blood,” and helped create and runs Acrobatics Everyday, a group of students who, with their own time and money, book musicians to come and play shows on UCI’s campus. He has performed, produced, and planned, but credits a lot of his experience and know-how to his involvement with KUCI. “I would not be doing Acrobatics Everyday if it wasn’t for KUCI, because I learned everything I know about music through KUCI. And the same thing for the rest of the people who are a part of it all, really. Of course, I make a very big point of the two being different because they’re not the same thing… But KUCI is and always will be present in [Acrobatics Everyday].” To Farzin, the radio station “is a place to call home and build a following at. It’s just one big holistic symbiotic… thing.”

Back at the meeting, Kevin finishes up by talking about KALX, the upcoming conference for the UC Radio Network that will be happening on UC Berkeley's campus. Following his announcements, he calls up Matt to talk. Matt mentions a few things about adding new music to the library, looks at Sam (who is sitting on the floor) to see if he has forgotten anything, and then reverts to his desk. Briana, who is in charge of training, comes up and talks about how all of the winter quarter students passed their training test and there are nine new faces to expect in the station. Samantha, the marketing director, follows with an urgent call to all to more actively promote the station through posters and fliers; apparently, the last event she planned, “Tweak The Freq,” did not do so well because of poor attendance and a lack of advertising. Rachel, the newly appointed volunteer hours manager, reminds people to “keep in mind that I'm having to compile your guys' hours from December to now, so bare with me. And if you have any hours that you need to submit, PLEASE do that as soon as possible. I know you'll probably procrastinate, which I do too, but it'll make my job a whole lot easier if you don't." And finally, after a three minute break, Julie, the Program Director, arrives to encourage DJs to practice “station etiquette” and “make a family out of the DJs who bookend your show. These are the people you’ll see most, who’ll most likely have to sub for you when you need it, so get to know them. I mean, we’re all stuck in the same tiny trailer anyways, right?”

And with that, the general meeting comes to an end. Everyone begins to exit the room. Some head towards their cars to go back home, while others head towards the station, the little trailer on campus with the perpetually flashing red light, where someone, somewhere, is always on air.

Reporting Notes

  • Lengthy interviews with Matt Buga (Music Director), Sam Farzin (Music Director), and Ellen Luu (DJ)

  • Attended Winter Quarter general staff meeting

  • Observation inside the station trailer

  • Hours of listening to 88.9FM

  • Documentation: official station website (www.kuci.org) and articles from the OC Register, LA Times, and New University