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Foothill College's boundary-pushing radio station turns 60

 
Jennifer Waits, KFJC's publicity director who’s also known as DJ Cynthia Lombard, introduces music on the air during her show at the station, located at Foothill College, on April 2. Photo by Magali Gauthier

Editors note: A multimedia version of this story with photos and audio clips can be read here.

Like many residents living in the Bay Area, I have spent decades wondering what's wrong with the bottom of my radio dial.

Far away from the classic rock stations, top 40 hits and standard-issue alternative rock is 89.7 FM, an uncanny and enigmatic place called KFJC. Questions like "Is my radio working?" and "Why can't Shazam find this song?" come to mind. Sometimes the tracks are a discordant and terrifying soundscape, like a Google algorithm went berserk while attempting to create "human" music.

Other times, however, it's the best music you've never heard, leaving you scrambling to the archives for the name of the song.

On a recent morning commute, I tuned in to KFJC to hear a man who sounded like Iggy Pop ranting and raving while reciting poetry. Turns out, it was Iggy Pop doing Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," bookended by two songs from West Africa. Tune in right now, and you might have to do a similar mental double-take.

Broadcasting from Foothill College and nestled in Los Altos Hills with a transmitter high atop Black Mountain, KFJC is in the midst of celebrating its 60th anniversary of bringing enigmatic airwaves to the denizens below. Priding itself as a place willing to play all things unconventional and largely rejected by commercial radio, the college station has been the backbone for the local and underground music scene and frequently hosts live performances.

It's also a curator of a catalog that you probably can't find anywhere else, stacked from floor to ceiling inside a station that shows its age. Memorabilia, strange gifts and old photo albums of performances and DJs -- present, past and passed away -- line KFJC's lobby, and everything you touch seems to have the letters "KFJC" scrawled in at least a few places. Bands bound for the recording studio are greeted with a giant macaroni collage of the station's name.

Very few rules guide DJs, who are given the latitude to play pretty much whatever they want, said Eric Johnson, KFJC's general manager and a 28-year veteran at the station. Just over one-third of the tracks have to be from the station's "current" selection of more than 200 recordings, while the rest can come from anywhere else in KFJC's vast and eclectic collection. Just grasping the terms for describing some of the music -- crust, sludge, dark wave and "math rock" -- can be a challenge.

Defining what makes it into KFJC's library is elusive, but the general rule of thumb is that mainstream bands and Grammy winners are rejected, while smaller and local bands in need of more exposure are weighed favorably. The more the band does to try new things or break from the formula, the more likely it's the right fit for the station, Johnson said.

"Is it something somewhat rare, something new to the music world outside of the regular formula? Even from past genres like power pop and punk -- it's if they do something different than what we've heard before," he said.

That's why, if you're listening to a melodic tune on 89.7, it may abruptly shift gears to what sounds like dishwasher noises. In the current library is a band called Matmos, a San Francisco band that just did an album of music generated by plastic materials. The band Survival Research Laboratories takes it a step further, creating music through bizarre robots equipped with flamethrowers and shock wave cannons. Some DJs have played lengthy tracks that sound a lot like static and nothing else, prompting phone calls with concerns that something is wrong with the broadcast.

"The pots and pans and the sounds of punching people -- it comes out of the idea of doing something completely out of the formula," Johnson said.

Who are these people?

It quickly becomes clear as you listen to KFJC that few, if any, of the voices you hear are college students. Foothill hasn't offered a broadcast degree for years, and a career in radio has lost some of its allure since the 1990s. Instead, the station and all of its zaniness is held together by a devoted crew of volunteers from all walks of life -- a sort of United Nations General Assembly of radio fans and music lovers for which there is no prototype.

DJs at the station include tech employees, musicians, teachers, a tattoo artist, the owner of a wine label and an employee at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. They live throughout the Bay Area -- some grew up listening to KFJC and others came from the East Coast, Michigan, Japan, Hawaii, England and Australia.

"Maybe half of them are local, but a lot of the folks are transplanted into the area and discover the station," Johnson said.

It's through these DJs who stick around for years, some now sporting wispy gray hair, that form the station's cultural foundation and a personality. Robert Emmett, who plays three solid hours of soundtracks from movies and television shows from the early 20th century to today, is one of the most popular. DJ Spliff Skankin can be counted on to give listeners their fix of reggae, and Phil Dirt and Cousin Mary are the gurus of all things surf at the station.

Jennifer Waits, known as DJ Cynthia Lombard, has been engulfed in college radio for decades, working at three stations before "upping the ante" with KFJC in 1999, as she put it. Foothill's station expects more from its DJs and the training process is intense, but with it comes a constant feed of new music and discovery that's hard to replicate.

"KFJC has only expanded since then, and that's why I'm here -- to keep expanding and learning," she told the Voice during a recent Tuesday show. "The show I do now is different than it was 20 years ago, as it should be."

To Waits, college stations like KFJC are a rare and valuable resource that gain importance the further they are away from cultural epicenters like San Francisco. She said she remembers moving to a small town in Ohio for graduate school and having really only one place to turn for new music: the local college radio station.

"It was an oasis of creative music," she said. "In places like that, you need it even more than San Francisco, so maybe you need it more in a place like Los Altos Hills."

Fully embracing that spirit of discovery is DJ Bully Demise, one of the station's younger DJs, who started last summer. Still learning the ropes and doing fill-ins, she said she remembers hearing KFJC when she was growing up in the Bay Area. She jumped on an opportunity to work at the station while juggling a job and classes at De Anza College.

It's hard to DJ at the station and not stumble upon new bands and new music. While grabbing a record, she said, a strange band name or art on the record sleeve just pulls your attention -- her inclination is to put it on the air and see what happens. No middleman, no Pitchfork Media review -- just pure experimentation.

"I need to discover new music, I want to discover something new," she said. "Often times a review will color what your opinions will be, where(as) I'll just pick music if it sounds interesting or weird."

Once a new band gets added to the library, KFJC does its best to promote the music in any way that it can, said Liz Clark, the station's promotions manager. Bands are invited to come by for live performances in KFJC's studio "The Pit," and DJs give away tickets to upcoming shows. Station staff has a running tradition of creative wordsmithing during the verbal, on-air preview of the shows called The Concert Outlook, which runs every day at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Bands never "perform" somewhere -- they "honk and hoot" or "yuck it up," depending on their name.

"I'm not sure when it started, the fun wordplay," Clark said. "They used to incorporate songs or song titles into the concert outlook, and now they just kind of get as weird and crazy as possible."

Keeping alive all the recording equipment, the turntables and the perpetually breaking CD players is Brian Potter, KFJC's chief engineer. He remembers arriving in San Jose from England in 1992 and seeking a degree from Foothill College, where he found the station by accident while walking around the campus. He was excited to embrace the engineering aspects of KFJC. The music? Not so much.

"I was perplexed," he said, describing some of the tracks as flesh-peeling noise. "I spent a lot of time sitting here in the station on my first project, scratching my head saying, 'I just do not understand.' I would wonder what I was even doing here."

"I came around eventually, and I can handle skronky jazz now, which I had never been able to do before," he added.

On the tech side, KFJC has always punched above its weight through a combination of personal connections, dogged determination and a willingness to push the envelope in ways college stations had no business doing in the early 1990s. Determined to do a live remote broadcast of South by Southwest in 1994, Potter said they were able to convince the powers that be at NPR in Austin to hook up KFJC's equipment to its satellite feed. They set up the VHF data links in a hotel room and plopped a rented satellite dish down on a nearby field, Potter said, and KFJC was able to play live performances from more than 1,400 miles away.

Many more remote broadcasts would follow, in England, New Zealand, Iceland, the Netherlands, Japan, Italy and Germany, all successful in their own right despite a handful of messy glitches. The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia was particularly rough when the KFJC crew found out not long before the show started that they couldn't get venue's the satellite connection working. Turns out the neighbors across the street had a lightning-fast connection, prompting Potter and his crew to use two Wi-Fi microwave links to bridge the connection across the road. All they needed to do was find a place to plug in.

"Turns out it was in the bar," he said. "We ran cables all around, up the stairwell and put this little antenna up pointed out the window. By then we're already two hours late and the festival has already started."

Foothill's administrators seem content, as they have for decades, to let KFJC do its own thing and manage its equipment internally. Doc Pelzel, the station supervisor, described KFJC as being in a sort of "bubble," a self-sufficient, independent unit at the school with a tacit understanding that if a computer breaks, it's going to be up to KFJC's volunteers -- not the campus IT staff -- to go fix it. Pelzel said he appreciates the hands-off approach and the aged, rectangular brick building that holds the station together.

"We do have to pay rent for (the) transmitter site and electricity, but that's a small price to pay for the facilities we've got," he said.

Counter-culture underpinnings, then and now

Keeping with the station's rebellious reputation, KFJC today is largely the product of revolution and a perpetual rejection of playing any tunes that come near Billboard's top 200 chart.

Institutional memory gets hazy prior to 1980, but the story goes that the general manager at KFJC tried unsuccessfully in 1978 to move toward a tight format that cloned the mainstream rock stations of the day. The move threatened to narrow the focus to hit singles, muting less popular bands, Pelzel said.

"It doesn't allow for a lot of creativity or experimentation and it was already available elsewhere, and the crowd that came in 1978 sort of voted out the guy who was running the station," Pelzel said.

It wasn't the first time KFJC blew off the rules. When college students on the Peninsula were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, Pelzel said a crush of students on campus turned the station into a "hotbed of activity" running 24 hours a day. As a result, requirements to play dry, pre-produced public affairs material were impossible to enforce, and student DJs drifted away from what Pelzel described as "1950s Pleasantville-type shows" to rock 'n' roll.

Charting a new course, the student-led insurrection plunged KFJC deep into the world of underground radio in the 1980s, bringing in a focus on new wave and gritty hardcore punk. Rap was also starting to take off as a genre, but Pelzel said it was unfortunately not part of the station's descent into underground music.

For some in the Bay Area, it can't be overstated how much the station's counter-culture airwaves meant to them. Clark, now on KFJC as DJ Maybelline, said she remembers moving to Foster City in 1980 and feeling an awful sense of isolation. Happening upon a station that was doing something so different turned out to be her salvation.

"I didn't know anybody and, I swear to God, I found KFJC on the radio dial and it saved my life," Clark said. "I had a new job, I didn't know anyone, I didn't know anywhere, and I found a station that was playing punk rock."

Counting himself among the newcomers-turned-devotees is Simon Pennington, a British transplant now working as an administrator at Foothill College. Pennington told the Voice he was a high schooler when he arrived from England in 1979 and struggled to fit in. It was a tough transition, he said, made even harder by a lack of shared musical interest. KFJC kept him sane, he said, and probably helped save his life, too.

"I was listening to The Ruts and reggae and rap while everyone at Paly was listening to Led Zeppelin and Rush," he said.

Pennington said he vividly remembers hearing the station for the first time at 1 a.m. It was exciting to hear new sounds, intently listening to jot down the name of the artist and song, hopping on a bus to the record store and potentially meeting like-minded fans while searching for the album. "As fantastic as the internet is, it takes away from the romance of discovery," Pennington said.

As fate would have it, Pennington would later land a job as the dean of fine arts at Foothill College, ostensibly overseeing KFJC. Johnson said he was nervous about how the new hire would react to the unusual music, only to find out Pennington was a die-hard fan, a former British punk and had even performed at a KFJC live studio event. Pennington said he hopes the station doesn't still have the recording.

Despite the subterranean "we'll play whatever we feel like" attitude, the station managed to stumble into the international spotlight and was featured on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1983. The reason? Students at the station decided to broadcast more than 800 versions of the song "Louie, Louie" over the course of 63 hours, playing every version they could get their hands on. As the Journal wrote somewhat condescendingly, "no version of 'Louie Louie' is too awful for KFJC."

"Maximum Louie Louie," as it came to be known, is now permanently engraved in the mythos of the station, which seemed right on point, Johnson said. The song was rebellious and confused authorities, with faux lyrics including lewd language making the rounds at college campuses. It culminated when the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the possibility the lyrics were obscene, and ultimately came up empty-handed. Much like the 1978 insurrection and the anti-war protests preceding it, the marathon felt like a victory, extending a middle finger to the powerful.

The strange sounds, and where they come from

Every Wednesday afternoon, KFJC jolts to life. DJs and station volunteers churn through the tight hallways of the station, jumping between computers and printers while clutching albums, peeling sticky labels and preparing the latest haul of new music.

CDs, 12-inch records, 7-inch records, jazz, blues, movie soundtracks, hip-hop, old stuff, new stuff, famous releases and unknown tracks from long-forgotten musicians -- all of it gets tossed in an industrial crate and taken to a dim lecture hall across campus with a periodic table of elements on the wall.

Like a sort of adult show-and-tell, DJs take turns describing each one of them.

"You get some quiet moments, but there are some very piercing, filling-loosening songs going on here," said DJ Goodwrench, describing a CD from jazz duo Vinny Golia and Gianni Mimmo.

"If you're looking for some mellow flute you're probably going to be disappointed, but if you want avant-garde jazz, it's there in spades," he said.

Dark, ambient and pretty miserable is how DJ Number 6 described the soundtrack to "Hereditary," a 2018 horror movie with music that was intended more as a movie prop and probably never meant for radio play.

"It's really not a pleasant, a comfortable or a happy listening experience," he said, shortly before recommending that people listen to it "in whole" during their lowest moment of self-disgust.

Chaotic but meticulous, this is the weekly routine through which KFJC introduces music to its library, adding to a staggering collection. The tally, now approaching 77,000, including tens of thousands of vinyl records and CDs, along with hundreds of cassettes and carts. During a worldwide event earlier this month called Vinylthon, college stations were encouraged to play nothing but vinyl records for 24 hours straight. KFJC could very well have done that by accident, so they went for the gold. Capping off the event on Thursday, April 18, the station had played 168 hours of vinyl, with a little fisheye camera planted in the studio to prove it.

Nic Lacasse, the station's music director, admits there's hardly any room left to move around the station, and his job -- digging up 30 new records, LPs and other sources of music each week -- is keeping it snug. He said it sometimes feels like the station is more like an archive than an active music library, but there doesn't seem to be the willpower to throw anything away.

Behind the station's scrappy facade is an extensive and laborious system to find new music and see if it passes KFJC's smell test, followed by a short written review from a DJ that's stuck directly onto the records. Some of the reviews are in haiku form, while others are written like a cooking recipe, but you won't find an album without one.

"It's overwhelming and all, but every record and cassette has a little sticker on it -- maybe someone reviewed it last week, or maybe 40 years ago."

The station's music department relies on its underwriting partners, Streetlight Records, Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music, with Amoeba in San Francisco having the largest and most varied selection of the three. Going there, Lacasse said, is a serious divide-and-conquer operation for five people, with one person heading to the international section while two more split a rack of LPs. The final challenge: Sifting through KFJC's database to see if the seemingly obscure picks are already housed somewhere in the station's extensive shelves.

"That's the tedious part," Lacasse said. "Sometimes I'll think it's new and I'll go to look and we already have it. Not only that, we've had it for 30 years."

The station's guiding principle has long been that the music should go beyond people's comfort zones or stretch their musical horizons, with an expectation that listeners won't like everything they hear. Lacasse recommends doing a fade-out strategy if you hate the music -- kill the volume for a while and then try again later -- because the DJ could very well shift gears at a moment's notice.

Pennington, for all his admiration of the station, admits that he finds some of the music awful. But he said he loves the fact that it's on the air in an increasingly commercialized environment where "being liked" takes priority over everything else. He said he looks at KFJC from a philosophical view, calling it a fulfillment of the American dream -- offering true individualism by giving people a real alternative in a world with dwindling options.

"The more that you get a corporation or a record company controlling what you hear, the less ideas you get to hear and freedom you get to have," he said. "You should experiment, you should listen to different things, you should test yourself and challenge yourself."

KFJC's month of Mayhem starts May 1 and has a whopping 56 special shows lined up, including some devoted to the station's 60th birthday.. If you like what you hear, consider donating to help keep the lights on.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by dollarbin
a resident of Monta Loma
on Apr 26, 2019 at 10:16 am

dollarbin is a registered user.

Yay KFJC!


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