Tiny KCSN attracts rock's A-list

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will play a rare small-theater show later this month to benefit a local public radio station so marginal its ratings should be characterized not as off the chart, but in search of one. U2 has donated a customized green Gretsch Falcon electric guitar, signed by all four band members, that could fetch $150,000 or more during the station's fall pledge drive. Mick Jagger, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow and other power players also are pitching in.

So what's suddenly so compelling about KCSN-FM (88.5), a tiny station on the Cal State Northridge campus that doesn't even register an Arbitron rating?

Musicians say it's the station's ambitions of bringing radio back to its free-form roots, when DJs were deeply knowledgeable about their local scene, broke acts and forged tastes by playing a wide range of new music among the older favorites.

"Young musicians I talk to now have no interest in radio at all because there are so many other ways to get new music," Petty said. "I feel that radio could and should offer a sense of discovery of new music. There's no reason the Fleet Foxes shouldn't be played alongside Pink Floyd."

Since July 15, KCSN has adopted a format that its new program director calls "smart rock." The programming, a mix of rock, Americana, top 40, alternative, R&B;, hip-hop and country, is determined by local DJs rather than national programming consultants employed by corporate conglomerates looking to maintain consistency -- and save money -- by enforcing centralized playlists at thousands of stations.

"It was really important to us in the beginning that there was radical progressive radio in the United States," U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, said. "Even though it's now been a long time since we were starting out, we remember exactly what that was like, and how tightly formatted radio is like the enemy of new music."

KCSN's fall pledge drive will pay for the station's operating costs as well as its "Pump the Power" plan to increase its signal strength so it reaches a broad swath rather than a sliver of Southern California. The former classical music station now reaches the San Fernando Valley, parts of the San Gabriel Valley, and northern and Westside Los Angeles.

The station's clout with artists stems from the rich musical pedigree of its new programmers. McGuinness noted that Sky Daniels, who joined KCSN as program director in June, was an early supporter of U2 when he was music director and a DJ at Chicago station WLUP. Daniels later was a radio promotion executive at U2's record company.

The band also has two other longtime U2 enthusiasts at the station in former KCRW-FM DJ Nic Harcourt and former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who hosts a show on Sunday nights. Hilburn covered U2's first Los Angeles concert in 1981, singling it out from a wave of overseas arrivals at the time: "The band with the most commercial potential here may be U2, a gutsy and richly talented Irish quartet," he wrote.

"In every era there will be a mold-breaking, groundbreaking, taste-making station, and this one sounds very clearly like something we ought to support," McGuinness said.

In 2007, Bono donated another Irish Falcon with his autograph to benefit Music Rising, the organization created after Hurricane Katrina to purchase musical instruments for children in New Orleans. That guitar sold at auction for $180,000.

Jagger, Coldplay and Bob Seger also are donating autographed instruments to KCSN's drive, which begins Friday. "It is because of stations like KCSN that music will always come first," Coldplay said through a spokesman.

Before switching to the adult album alternative format last year, KCSN played classical music for nearly 20 years. Its programming remained automated -- no DJs -- until Daniels was hired by KCSN General Manager Karen Kearns. Shortly after, Daniels signed former "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host Harcourt to air a weekly show. Daniels himself gets behind the microphone weekday afternoons and is supplemented through the day by other live DJs, hearkening back to a nearly bygone style of freewheeling FM radio.

KCSN's main competitor may be KCRW, which has a national reputation for identifying and developing new talent, although it also has a significant amount of news programming in addition to its eclectic music offerings.

A former DJ and programmer at influential rock stations in L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit, Daniels relied on his and his new associates' history with artists.

"These guys care," Daniels said. "It speaks to their belief in what we're trying to do. This isn't a giant corporation aggregating 3,600 stations and putting its leverage and muscle down. This is a station [most people] hadn't heard of two months ago."

Daniels was alluding to the recent iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas put on by Clear Channel Radio, the industry giant that operates some 3,600 stations. Clear Channel brought dozens of stars, including Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Usher, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and Coldplay, to proselytize on behalf of terrestrial radio -- and the company's new radio app -- in the face of heavy competition from satellite radio, Internet streaming services and other new media music outlets.

Opposition to such corporate forces and their soul-sapping effect on rock 'n' roll is a theme of several songs from Petty's 2002 loose concept album "The Last DJ." Like many musicians, Petty has expressed appreciation over the years for free-form radio stations and DJs who shaped his musical tastes when he was growing up in Florida. It's an approach he applies in his own weekly show, "Buried Treasure," now in its sixth year on Sirius XM satellite radio.

Petty and the Heartbreakers' performance Oct. 29 at Northridge's 500-seat Performance Theater is the cornerstone of KCSN's pledge drive. Tickets will become available during a random "cue to call" through the day to 10 callers at a time for a $300 pledge per pair. Station subscribers also will have access to bid on tickets. Full information is available at the station's website.

Daniels describes himself as "one of those kids who believed in rock 'n' roll, who heard some DJ say that I belonged and that rock 'n' roll would always be there for me. All these years later, this [response] is a reaffirmation of faith like I can't tell you."

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction KCSN-FM: An article in the Oct. 13 Calendar section about Cal State Northridge-based public radio station KCSN-FM (88.5) described it as a "former classical music station." KCSN has had a variety of formats over the past quarter-century, including vintage country, classical and Americana, before adopting the current adult album alternative format in July.
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