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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Despite Early Challenges, Student-Run KRLX Prevails

<n broadcasting at 5 pm on January 18th this term, eight days after show applications were due and five days after the station had hoped to be up and running. Why the delay? “This term we were a little bit light on applications,” commented Ian Mercer, KRLX’s Compliance Manager.

The late start was due to a shortage of shows and resulting empty slots in the schedule.  Mercer clarified, however, that only six shows were actually needed to fill in the rest of the slots–an almost laughably small amount when compared to the more than 120 shows currently on the KRLX schedule. Still, the station cannot go live without a finalized schedule, or else it risks violating Federal Communications Commissions guidelines.

Jake Yanoviak ’16, DJ of the show “Reflexive Prosthetic Pleasure” (Fridays, 2:30-4pm), felt that the scheduling problems had possibly increased in the past year. But then, “It always takes time to get it [KRLX] up and running,” he added. “It doesn’t start day one of the term. If we were able to start the first day of the term, it might fit in with people’s schedules [better], instead of being an afterthought.” Yanoviak added, however, that one of the great qualities about KRLX is that “just about anyone can do it if they have time to do it.”

Scheduling complications and complexities, furthermore, seem to be par for the course for KRLX. Organizing hundreds of Carls into time slots while taking into consideration availability and seniority is, to put it simply, hard. “One of the intrinsic features of KRLX’s character is the fact that it is a 24/7 radio station,” said Mercer. “We offer live broadcasts for every single second that we are on air. I find this aspect of the station to be one of its greatest strengths, but performing such a feat is not easy.”

To fill gaps in programming, KRLX board members not only solicit more shows, but also shift and lengthen existing ones. As Station Manager Jon Ver Steegh ‘14 remarked, “if every single person got the length of the show that they wanted, we’d fill a little over half of our schedule.” Newer DJ’s are allotted the least desirable times, such as painfully early morning shows, and their slots are typically longer so that less students have to play during those times. Although this bothers some of the newbies, Ver Steegh finds that most students get over their initial groaning and end up viewing their 3-5 AM radio shows as a kind of right of passage. Moreover, Ver Steegh said, “No one really wants to have their first radio show during a time everyone’s listening.”

If some artful manipulation of show times and lengths still doesn’t yield a full schedule, however, pushing back when the station goes on air seems the best plan of action.

“Starting late is less than ideal,” said Mercer. But, he added, “I know for a fact that it is superior to starting on time but with a flawed schedule… We waited until we had a conflict-free, flawless structure schedule. In short, we chose to lose a few days of radio so that we could have a higher quality of KRLX as a whole.”

In one sense, these kinds of challenges, such as scheduling difficulties, appear to be a function of KRLX’s twenty-four-seven, student-run format. And yet in another, it is this format–although perhaps trickier to execute at times–that helps make KRLX utterly unique. “We take some pride in that it’s all student run,” said Ver Steegh. “It’s a completely student experience.”

Having KRLX be a wholly student initiative means that students must take on larger responsibilities, but it also means that with those responsibilities, they gain invaluable experiences, both in enjoyment and in future job skills. For instance, because there is no higher administration running KRLX, as Station Manager Ver Steegh must perform certain perfunctory duties like interacting with KRLX’s lawyer. He must also make sure that all the station’s forms are properly completed and stored, because there is always the possibility that the FCC could surprise the station with an inspection (although, as far as Ver Steegh can say, this hasn’t happened in at least the last twenty years).

Occupying these kinds of roles, moreover, “puts a little more liability on the students, and it’s a bit more pressure, because I imagine with some stations all of that goes higher end administration roles, supervising it, and students worry more about the fun parts. But it’s also a good thing, because now I know how to do all that stuff. And if I were to look for some kind of position in the future, I could say, ‘hey, I know how to do all of this,’ that kind of thing,” said Ver Steegh.

KRLX has from its beginning, moreover, been a student initiative. Multiple radio stations have existed at Carleton, each with varying levels of legitimacy. The first was broadcast out of Willis Hall by the Music Department between 1917 and 1929 at an unknown frequency. Between 1924 and 1933, there existed a faculty-operated station, KFMX, which had a high operation cost and so was eventually terminated. Finally, KARL 680—an AM station which would eventually morph into the current KRLX–was started by a handful of students, mostly WWII veterans attending Carleton on the G.I. Bill, who raised $1,000 among students, took out an $800 loan from the college, built a dugout underneath Scoville, hand-built their radio equipment (the transmitters was scrapped from a WII destroyer), and on April 14th, 1948, began broadcasting Monday through Friday for two hours a day.

In 1974, KARL 680 switched to an FM-10-watt educational station with the new name KRLX (KARL was already taken on FM radio). In 1981, when the FCC sought to eliminate 10-watt FM stations because they believed they were cluttering the airwaves, KRLX was forced to upgrade to an 100-watt status. In the early 1990s, the station entertained the idea of planned programming and had a brief stint wherein certain nights had designated genres. This endeavor, however, proved to be very unpopular and difficult to manage, and the station returned to their freeform style.

Their freeform format is, indeed, another one of KRLX’s strengths that has prevailed through the station’s history. “The diversity of our output is unparalleled,” commented Mercer. “I guarantee that you can listen to KRLX for six hours straight and hear six hours of wildly unique shows.”
Outside of FCC language regulations and safe-harbor hours, DJs have total autonomy over their content, a freedom which they appear to take full advantage of. KRLX Features Director Katie Koza ’16, when asked what her favorite part of her position was, replied: “working with enthusiastic DJs who have unorthodox ideas for radio shows.”

“Just this term, I’ve spent time with a DJ with a show in Arabic, a DJ from Jamaica with a show promoting health and wellness, and a group of student journalists who want to produce a podcast about Minnesota veterans,” Koza said.

The freeform nature of KRLX allows for these kinds of shows–and truly, for all kinds of shows, both the mainstream and the eccentric. Ver Steegh reported that the craziest thing he’d ever played on the radio was actually the first song he ever played: “it was four in the morning, and it was a twenty-minute song recorded in 1928. It was a conceptual thing…an experimental movie for which there was no visual, so basically the visual of the movie is whatever you’re looking at while your listening to it… it was really wonky, trains going everywhere, crashing noises. I just got a kick out knowing the first song I played on the radio was a movie.”

Mercer commented that his favorite on-air moment was when he went to during his show and broadcasted his own show’s audio through the station, “creating this fantastic auto effect.” “There was a couple-second delay, and I was able to control it to make these ethereal cascades of noise. Experimental radio at its finest!”

These anecdotes reinforce Koza’s observation that “you can find nearly anything on our frequency,” and ultimately emphasizes the importance of the DJ experience to those students involved. In fact, the DJ experience is arguably the most vibrant and vital part of the station. According to Mercer, “KRLX is as much for the school and community as it is for the DJs themselves. Hosting a KRLX show is a real pleasure…the experience of working in broadcast media is something that every KRLX DJ will always treasure.”

And, Mercer explained, this enjoyment exists regardless of how many listeners are out there. “A common misconception about KRLX is that we are upset with our sometimes seemingly low listenership. This is not true,” he said. Moreover, it is difficult to gauge listenership because only online streamers are quantifiable, and there is currently no way to tally those listening in their cars or on old-fashioned, analog radios.

But that doesn’t mean no one is tuned in, or that somehow the broadcasting is not important to those in both the campus and larger community. “Once people lower their expectations, they’ll be really surprised–and kind of charmed–by who is listening,” said Yanoviak. “It’s nice when you can be really bummed out about the circumstance, thinking, ‘wow, nobody’s listening, this doesn’t matter at all, why am I not just asleep?’ and then you get a call and someone says, ‘there are five of us listening, on this little portable radio, and we’re making breakfast. We really like the show, keep it up.’ That’s a great feeling.”

Ver Steegh added: “Obviously it would be great if more students listened, if more people in the community listened. But as long as we still have support from all the DJs, and have DJs to go on air, and friends and family are tuning in… we’re succeeding.” His primary goal, and the goal of the board as a whole, is to increase that satisfaction among DJs. Furthermore, because KRLX is a college radio station, he delineated, “we’re in a position where we can have different goals than things like listenership. Even if no one ever listened to KRLX, I feel like we would still be succeeding somewhat because of what we do for the students that are actually in the booth.”

As for KRLX’s future, board members and DJs are both ambitious and optimistic. Ver Steegh believes there’s been a sea change at KRLX in the past couple of years, from focusing on “fixing problems” to enacting new, positive changes in the station. “Part of my goal for my time here was to shift our entire mood from being one of ‘alright, guys, what problems do we have to fix this week?’ to ‘ok, so the radio is up. What are we gonna do know? Let’s think of something cool to do with this money that we’ve been given,’ instead of just having to take of the broken-this and the broken-that.”

This academic year alone has brought major changes to the station, such as a new, fully-functioning website and a cozier, more hang-out conducive layout for the record library. On the table for the future are also both small and big visions for the station. Ver Steegh would love to expand the website to include a history of played songs, as well as re-instate the bar code system for CDs in the record library so they can be properly tracked and logged. Both he and Mercer additionally expressed keen interest in expanding the physical space of the studio, which is slightly cramped in the basement of Sayles-Hill. KRLX has been receiving a new endowment fund on top of their annual judgment, and is saving the money for a major project down the line. In particular, Ver Steegh would like to expand the studio space to allow for “an airtight, in studio, band experience,” an asset that would be especially valuable considering the many students bands that currently exist on campus who could play live on-air.

As for scheduling issues and show shortages in later terms, Mercer noted, “we could do a slightly better job at increasing our presence on campus.” Still, he said, “KRLX has been around for 66 years, and I know without a doubt that its longevity is not in any danger.” In fact, he is especially positive about KRLX’s longevity and the longevity of radio as a medium in general. “I believe that there will always be a market for great radio,” he said. “As long as the community continues to support us like it has for the last 66 years, KRLX will continue to be a strong component of Carleton College for decades to come.”

“The future of KRLX is bright,” Yanoviak concurred. “I think people will always care about music. There will always be somebody with the conviction to read a book series on air, or do weird character pieces and skits, and they’ll be people like me who just want to play weird music that they feel like doesn’t get attention in popular circles.” Radio, he continued, is “a platform for people to express themselves, even if its abstractly, or just to talk about some news that happened in the past week, or in their lives, or give some flavor to life in this weird human experience where once person is sitting like The Wizard of Oz in a bunker in a basement, just projecting their voice out–and you have the option to tune in or tune out… It’s a really unique, special thing, and I don’t think people will ever do away with it.”

Yanoviak continued: “There’s something magical about the feeling when a song you’ve never heard before touches at something so true and humanistic, or means something to your life in particular, and you didn’t see it coming at all. Or, when the song you’ve kind of forgotten about, or you really want to hear, get’s played by someone else and you hear it. Because it means you are not alone in your appreciation of that music. It’s a very shared, social thing, that you can have the same tastes as somebody, even on such a superficial level of what three minutes of sound can mean… It means a lot when music can interact with people in that way.

So if radio dies, then humanity dies. If we can’t connect through music over radio… if we can’t connect through the sound waves of three-minute average length songs, then we can’t connect with each other anymore. I would hate to see that day when hell freezes over and we stop being human and nobody wants to hear a song on the radio.”
Luckily for KRLX, so long as dedicated students feel as passionately as they currently do about the station and its mission, that day when “hell freezes over” and radio dies doesn’t seem to be arriving any time soon.

*At the end of our interview, Jon Ver Steegh’14 wished to emphasize the following: “if I ever said anything during this interview about things that I do, and things that I’ve been trying to do, I mean the board. Most of them do the same, if not more work, than I do… It’s everyone else on the board that makes KRLX run; I’m just there to do to make sure they can do what they need to do.”

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