Rebecca Levin is a smart, articulate, fashionably dressed, 21-year-old college junior. People are sometimes surprised she isn’t wearing orange hair or purple dreadlocks, or Beastie Boys buttons on a velvet lapel.
Appearances can be deceiving, she said.
Levin is general manager of the UC San Diego campus radio station. That’s KSDT-FM, which has a potentially massive listening audience. You can pick it up at 95.7 on Cox Cable FM, 95.5 on Southwestern Cable FM.
That means even housewives and businessmen can get it. City Council members, Padre outfielders, surrealist painters and afterlife therapists can get it. Even venture capitalists can pull it in over a croissant and the Wall Street Journal.
But do they? And if they don’t, what are they missing?
A spokesman for Cox said a lot of people just plain miss cable FM. Out of 278,000 Cox subscribers, only 3,000 get the FM service. He, of course, would like a higher number, as would KSDT. (It costs $3.95 a month.)
KSDT reaches only a few dormitories, wired to receive the signal through electrical outlets--you just can’t get it over the airwaves. And that’s a shame, because KSDT is not your typical “America’s Finest City” music-and-go-get-'em news radio station.
It’s different. It’s daring and alternative, at times unusual and, most of all, unconventional.
If typical in San Diego is sometimes seen as conservative, Republican, stodgy or even yuppieish, it’s none of those things. It’s atypical and tries oh-so-hard to stay that way.
Levin was asked over a cup of hard black coffee if the station ever played James Taylor or Jackson Browne.
“No,” she said, looking slightly confused, “we don’t do oldies.”
What do they do?
We’re talking fringe here. We’re talking waiting-to-happen-but-haven’t-yet. We’re talking--are you ready?--the Legendary Pink Dots, the Godfathers, Firehose and Blow Monkeys. We’re not even talking Beastie Boys or Dead Kennedys anymore. They got “so big” that KSDT can now take pride in having once played them before commercialism sucked them up and made them rich.
That’s the view, at least, of Mark Neiter, one of many well-spoken, unassuming students who populate the airwaves at KSDT or administer the garishly decorated front office. Levin estimated the station has as many as 125 to 200 students working for it at any time. Its funding from Associated Students has risen to a new high ($38,000 a year), and dream-fantasies now include an FCC license to make it a “real” station, over real airwaves, as well as plans to broaden the range on campus.
“Like a lot of college radio,” said Neiter, a 21-year-old junior from Los Angeles, “we’re committed to supporting bands and music that aren’t played on commercial radio. We ask ourselves, is it alternative or progressive? Does it have integrity? We play a wide variety, stuff that’s very eclectic or different, that no one else would touch, because it is so eclectic or different or new.
“In other words, we can go from (jazz great) Billie Holliday to (hard-rock) Husker Du just like that.”
Music on KSDT isn’t just “punk” or “new wave,” labels that have stomached as big a beating as West Beirut in recent years. KSDT plays reggae and jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal and funk. It has been known to showcase such bands as REM and the Police before their commercial christenings. Heard long before “So” made him a high-achieving chart climber was Peter Gabriel’s solo work.
“The beauty of college radio,” Neiter said, “is being noncommercial, all-volunteer, lacking economic interference. We don’t worry about ratings, being fired, whatever. We’re independent, even while being funded by Associated Students. We have a reputation of being nonconformist, but I don’t think that’s really true. We’re just people who like music and want to try new things.”
Levin said XTRA-FM (91-X) is the only commercial station approaching the avant-garde approach of KSDT, and even then only in a cursory way.
“They call themselves the cutting edge,” she said, “but they continually play things three years old. I wouldn’t exactly call that the cutting edge.”
Robin Roth, a radio announcer with 91-X and a KSDT alumnus, disagreed:
“Certain songs we play are cutting-edge songs, and we’re the only commercial station playing them. A college station is not a commercial station, and they can’t really be compared. Sure, we play three-year-old stuff, mixed in with two-year-old and brand-new stuff. You can’t play all new music.
“We have a Sunday night show called ‘Listen to This,’ which has a lot of cutting-edge-type music. A lot of people say, ‘Well, you play Police and the Cars, so you’re not cutting edge,’ but we also play the Cure.
“Hey, I loved KSDT, I grew up there--that’s where I started. It gave me a foundation and a background. College radio is one of the most wonderful things in the world.”
A bit of envy might also be involved. Despite being accessible on cable FM hookups on a citywide basis, KSDT often finds itself not being listened to. On-air giveaways are sometimes met with no response.
Still, the students press on, with an 80% music, 20% news format and the urge, in most cases, to try “real” radio once they graduate. KSDT alumni include Leslie Peters, a newswoman with KPBS-FM in San Diego; Frank Long, with KPBS, and Karen King, now in radio in San Francisco.
Funding is not a problem but has been at times over its 20-year history. A budget cut was once threatened after a stormy, curse-packed interview with local Ku Klux Klan boss Tom Metzger.
Nevertheless, the station has stayed autonomous.
“We have the benefit of a good student body,” Levin said, “one amenable to alternative programming. We don’t have major sports (at UCSD), math and science is a big focus, and we’re very academically oriented.”
She would like to clear up a misconception, though.
“We have the reputation, at the station, of being weird-looking,” she said. “I guess some people are turned off by, oh, I don’t know, blue mohawks. But me, I always dress like this --"in a style best described as tasteful and professional, even elegant.
“Mainly,” she said, “we’re just serious about radio. We love it.”