New Signals at KCSN : Students Upset Over Their Dwindling Role in Operation of Campus Radio Station

Times Staff Writer

Days before Larry Myers made his debut as the radio voice of the California State University, Northridge football team, he found himself in the middle of a controversy.

A veteran broadcaster, Myers, 56, had been chosen to anchor the Matadors’ “away” games on KCSN-FM (88.5), the campus radio station. The appointment marked the first time in more than a decade that a non-journalism student had won the job, and the move was met with criticism.

“Is this right?” asked the Sundial, the campus newspaper. “Should jobs traditionally set aside for students, i.e., announcers for football games, be given to professionals?

“What it means is that KCSN went from a journalism student-run, educationally oriented radio station to a professional station where money and profit margins mean more than teaching students,” the editorial concluded.

The hiring of Myers brought to light the intensity of debate over the future of KCSN, for 24 years an institution on the 30,000-student campus. At the heart of the controversy is whether the station should be managed and staffed by students or run by professionals--with students working in only limited roles.


Wrangling over KCSN’s mission has gone on for some time, but passions have intensified during the last two years. The turning point came after university officials watched with envy the growing influence of local college radio stations such as KUSC-FM (91.5) and KCRW-FM (89.9), which broadcasts from the Santa Monica College campus. They decided that KCSN could be used as a vehicle to increase the university’s prestige.

“KCSN means a lot to us. It means enhancing the university’s image out in the community. It means a lot for fund-raising, our life blood,” said Lennin Glass, dean of the School of Communication and Professional Studies.

As head of the school of communication, Glass has final responsibility for KCSN and oversees the separate Radio-Television-Film and Journalism departments, both of which feed students into the radio station.

“All of us want student involvement. It’s the degree of involvement that’s in dispute,” Glass said. “We don’t just want to throw anyone on the air just because they have an interest in radio.”

Many faculty members, however, believe the station should emphasize student participation.

“I don’t think KCSN should be a professional station that just happens to be on campus,” said Kenneth Devol, acting chairman of the Journalism Department. “We have a duty to uplift, to lead, to teach. If KCSN isn’t doing that, then it isn’t filling its function as a university radio station.”

When KCSN went on the air 24 years ago, it was under the direction of the school’s Radio-Television-Film Department. The Journalism Department later became involved with KCSN’s news department and news broadcasts.

Programming leaned toward progressive rock, radical political commentary and heavy news coverage of campus events. For the most part, any student who wanted to play radio disc jockey could get on the air.

But in the early 1970s, KCSN’s easy-going atmosphere changed. The station became a charter member of the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave it access to such national news programs as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” and to hefty federal grants.

To be eligible for CPB financing, member stations must keep at least five full-time professionals in management positions. For KCSN, complying with this regulation meant changing from a free-wheeling, student-run station to a professionally run outlet with an emphasis on student participation.

During the next several years, KCSN had its high and lows. The student-staffed news department won 13 Golden Mikes, the highest local broadcast journalism honor awarded to Los Angeles-area broadcasters. A late-night progressive music show, “The Rock Shift,” attracted a devoted audience that sought rock music that other Los Angeles stations ignored.

On the downside, the station barely avoided sanctions from the Federal Communications Commission two years ago when two late-night disc jockeys spewed a string of obscenities over the air.

But the station’s affiliation with the CPB and its subsidiary, National Public Radio, helped it grow in stature. Its annual budget has grown from small amounts to $474,000 a year. That made CSUN administrators start considering the station as more than just a laboratory for journalism and broadcast students, administrators said.

Administration interest in KCSN started about the same time as the school began trying to shake its country-cousin image. With its enrollment growing, the university hoped to edge closer to the academic big leagues represented by UCLA and USC.

To help the school achieve those aspirations, officials considered a professional-quality campus radio station critical, CSUN President James Cleary said.

“KCSN is a valuable asset and one of our best bridges to the community,” Cleary said.

Said Glass: “It’s our aspiration to build a station that becomes more of a voice of the Valley than any other radio station.”

But the subsequent remolding of KCSN started a series of events that led some faculty and students to believe the station had turned its back on students.

The first troubling signal, according to faculty members, came two years ago with the release of a university report on KCSN. The report, part of a regular internal review required of university departments, recommended that responsibility for the station be removed from the Radio-Television- Film Department and transferred to Glass.

Glass favored the move because it would set up a “cleaner system” for KCSN to report directly to a university administrator instead of dividing the responsibility between the Radio-Television-Film and Journalism departments. The change would eliminate turf battles between the two departments, he said.

But Judith Marlane, a New York City television producer who this fall became chairwoman of the Radio-Television-Film Department, said she was never informed during her job interview that KCSN would not report to her.

“I wasn’t aware that I had lost the station until I arrived,” Marlane said. “I have a personal and professional interest in the station and would like to see it back under the auspices of this department.”

The most abrupt KCSN change was the decision earlier this year to shift the music format from a collection of jazz, classical and progressive rock to traditional country and western music. This change, plus the cancellation of several public affairs programs staffed by volunteers, started an exodus of student workers from the station.

“The format change is just one indication that the station is not very receptive to students and student tastes,” said Karen Kearns, a professor of radio.

About the time the music format changed, the station moved its transmitter. For all its 24 years, KCSN’s 3,000-watt transmitter had been perched on the roof of the Speech-Drama Building. The transmitter now sits atop an antenna tower on Canyon Peak Loop above Sylmar.

The relocation enabled KCSN to broadcast in the Santa Clarita Valley, Sunland and Tujunga. Those areas had been out of reach of any public radio station’s signal.

Now that KCSN has its new audience, however, its ability to reach parts of the CSUN campus and neighboring communities has diminished.

“I don’t listen to KCSN because I live in Northridge and can’t get the signal,” said Gina Valencia, a junior majoring in broadcasting. “It’s too bad, because I really love country music.”

Student participation at the station has declined between 1986 and this fall. In a 1986 survey of student staffs at six Los Angeles County college radio stations, KCSN ranked second with 114 student workers, 80 of whom had to work there because of course requirements.

This fall, 102 students work at KCSN; again, 80 are journalism students completing required course work. No ranking was available for this fall.

Shift of Direction

KCSN’s shift of direction has brought a lot of students “to the conclusion that the station’s management has moved away from a position of welcoming student involvement,” said Irwin Safchick, the journalism faculty adviser to the KCSN news operation.

But KCSN General Manager Jack Brown said the station welcomes students as long as they have the background to shoulder responsibilities on a professional level.

“When you stack up all the events one right after the other I can understand why people would think that we don’t want students involved,” Brown said. “But that’s not the impression we want to create.”

Of all the recent changes at KCSN, one of the most controversial has been the hiring of Myers as the play-by-play announcer for Matador football games away from home.

Myers also manages the CSUN campus tavern, The Pub, and is enrolled as a part-time student majoring in physical education. Like all KCSN broadcasters, Myers is paid $8 an hour while covering games.

Myers, former sports director for the University of Arizona in Tucson, worked for eight years as a sportscaster for KTUC radio in Tucson. He also has worked as a sports reporter for three radio stations in Long Beach.

His appointment, Myers says, caught even him off guard.

“The previous times that I asked KCSN management about broadcasting football games, I was told that I didn’t qualify because I wasn’t a journalism student,” he said. “I thought that was a restraint, but I said to myself, ‘Hey, that’s the policy and there’s not much I can do,’ ” Myers said in an interview.

“That’s why I was very surprised when they came to me with the job offer.”

Students as well as some journalism faculty members saw Myers’ appointment as robbing students of opportunities to learn.

The decision to hire a professional sportscaster was made in early July by Glass, Brown, and Bob Hiegert, the CSUN athletic director. When they made the choice, they all say, it was their belief that there were no qualified CSUN students available to handle the job.

Additionally, they said, they felt they had to move quickly to fill the slot. Brown and Glass said pressure for a speedy hire came from the athletic department. Hiegert said he did not pressure Brown and Glass, but said they seemed relieved when he suggested Myers because “they said they didn’t have any qualified students for the job.”

Myers had already been hired when KCSN news director Keith Goldstein arrived on campus in mid-July. But that filled only one of four sportscasting jobs. Goldstein still had to hire a color commentator to work with Myers and two sportscasters to broadcast home games.

Within three weeks, Goldstein hired three students for the other broadcasting jobs. Asked whether he also could have located a qualified student for the fourth position--Myers’ job--in time for the Sept. 12 football season opener, Goldstein replied flatly, “Yes.”

Even with the controversy, however, Brown said he has no apologies for hiring Myers.

“Hiring Myers was a thing that had to be done. If the problem occurs again, we’ll look at Larry again. He’s done a good job.”

Brown is adamant that hiring a professional to broadcast football games does not signal a change in KCSN policy.

“Our policy for sports broadcasting is just the same as it is for most of the positions at the station,” Brown said. “If there is a qualified student available, we’ll use that person. If there isn’t, then we’ll hire a professional.”