KCSN to air ‘smart rock’

With a name like Sky Daniels, there’s no question where the new program director at Cal State Northridge-based radio station KCSN-FM (88.5) is reaching with the ambitious and eclectic new format he’s introducing this coming weekend.

“We’re not going to be elitist,” said Daniels, a veteran of commercial rock stations, including (the now-defunct) KMET-FM in Los Angeles and KFOG-FM in San Francisco, as well as a record company executive. “Sometimes stations, especially noncommercial stations, get caught up in playing music you’re supposed to like if you really knew what was going on.

“That’s just not who I am,” said Daniels. “I’m going to play music that can be cutting edge; it might be from an act that will be the next big thing, it can be adventurous, but it’s always going to be coming from a place where you can like it, and you don’t have to work to like it or pretend to like it so you can keep your credibility card. It’s going to be a listenable station with two governing ideas: message and melody.”

That philosophy will be carried out in special programs for which Daniels has hired hosts who have been fixtures on the Southland pop music scene: former KCRW-FM DJ and music director Nic Harcourt, whose new “Connections” show will run 3 to 6 p.m. Saturdays; longtime L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, whose “Rock ‘n’ Roll Times with Robert Hilburn” will air at 6 p.m. Sundays; and another former Times staffer, Kevin Bronson, who will bring his “Buzz Bands” coverage of L.A. bands on the rise to the station from midnight to 1 a.m. Sundays.


Daniels is unveiling the Harcourt, Hilburn and Bronson shows this weekend in time for the “Carmageddon” closure of the 405 Freeway through the Mulholland Pass, when he expects many Angelenos to be spending extra time in their cars searching for diversions.

Daniels himself will return to the airwaves July 18 as the station’s afternoon drive-time DJ 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Jim Nelson will handle the morning drive slot from 6 to 10, and Meishel Menachekanian will bridge the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. show between Nelson and Daniels. The station also will continue to carry National Public Radio’s World Cafe program 7 to 9 weeknights.

KCSN’s adult album alternative music currently is automated, so the shift to live DJs through the day represents a major transformation. But the station’s relatively modest power -- a few hundred watts -- means its signal coverage is limited to the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, some parts of Central L.A. and, with the help of a signal relay, West Los Angeles.

KCSN began as a 10-watt station in 1949, spent 20 years broadcasting classical music starting in 1989 when commercial station KFAC-FM shifted away from the format, and switched to adult album alternative music last year. Today the station still has only five full-time employees, according to KCSN General Manager Karen Kearns, who brought Daniels aboard in April to pump up the station’s profile in the crowded L.A. radio market.


Daniels recognizes it’s an uphill battle to build an audience with so many competitors for listeners’ attention.

“One of the things I’ve learned about building an audience,” he said, “is you have to start with the local music community. There’s no greater evangelism than when you support the local music community. When they get to hear their record on the radio in their hometown, they don’t just tell their friends anymore, they tell everyone they know.”

And while KCSN’s format officially remains AAA, Daniels said, “If someone says, ‘I’m really into Triple A music,’ who even knows what that is? That’s not how real people talk. What we play, pure and simple, is smart rock.”

He says KCSN’s “smart rock” will encompass Top 40, Americana, alternative, country, R&B; and hip-hop. Several commercial stations have tried broadly varied formats on the L.A. radio dial, and died trying. Among those in the eclectic radio graveyard: Indie 103.1 and KSCA-FM (“The Edge”).


“It’s not lost on me that there have been three or four predecessors that ‘failed’ to meet the commercial obligations that come with $150 million in debt service,” Daniels said. “Did they fail in inspiring passion among a reasonably good-sized audience? No. Did they fail in instilling a real fervent and engaged audience? No. Were they able to impact Arbitron ratings to generate $30 million in revenue? No, ergo they become formats that were canned.”

To an extent, being at a noncommercial station such as KCSN lessens the pressure on ratings. But Daniels also recognizes the other competitive forces at work.

“No one’s got to tell me how the Pandoras and the Slackers and the Spotifys of the world are creating in a very near future -- a Wi-Fi future -- a customizable, interactive program created by you, the listener. It’s an opportunity that will be a real challenge to any broadcast property,” he said. “So I know I’ve got to be a curator who will do some heavy lifting. We’ll be drawing from a number of eras of music and styles of music that we hope will say to the engaged music fan, ‘Allow us to be your concierge; allow us to be a reminder of great things you’ve always loved and turn you on to new things that you can love.’ ”