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Visiting College Radio Station 9th Floor Radio at Laney College

Although I’m immersed in the world of college radio, I’m still catching up on visits to college radio stations in my local area. I was aware of a streaming radio station at Laney College in Oakland called 9th Floor Radio and was excited to hear that it would soon be broadcasting over low power FM (LPFM), so I finally scheduled a visit.

On Wednesday, April 9th, I trekked across the Bay Bridge to Oakland to check out 9th Floor Radio. Formerly housed on the 9th Floor of the Laney Tower building, the station is now located on the ground floor of a building near the Laney College campus.

Granted its LPFM construction permit in September, 2014, the Laney College station (which is licensed to the Peralta Community College District) will eventually broadcast over 96.9 FM in Oakland every day from 7pm to 6:59am, as it is in a time-share with Chinese Culture and Art Heritage Foundation’s KQEA-LP (7am to noon) and Sound of Hope Radio Network, Inc.’s KQEB-LP (noon to 7pm) in San Francisco. As I wrote in LPFM Watch this week, both of these stations plan to focus on the local Chinese language community.

college radio station 9th Floor Radio's studio

9th Floor Radio Studio. Photo: J. Waits

9th Floor Radio’s Programming Director Melissa Neal met up with me at the station and gave me a run-down on the station’s origins and its future. She was energized after having attended the University of California Radio Network (UCRN) conference at KALX-FM in Berkeley last weekend and shared her thoughts on it with me. Neal said that she enjoyed connecting with other folks from college radio stations from all over California and told me that “everyone’s enthusiasm was off the charts.” She added that it was “fun to meet people that are so passionate about underground music, college radio…and about facilitating space for people to be creative.” She’s working on a video story about the conference, which I can’t wait to see! Neal also explained that KALX’s General Manager Sandra Wasson has been a mentor for her during the creation and expansion of 9th Floor Radio.

On Air sign at 9th Floor Radio

On Air sign at 9th Floor Radio. Photo: J. Waits

There since the station began in 2006, Neal said that the school’s Chancellor brought up the idea of launching a radio station. Since no terrestrial frequencies were available, Neal’s response was “what about podcasts?” With that concept in mind, 9th Floor Radio began with a schedule of podcasts two days a week. At the time Neal was a temporary staffer doing web work at Peralta TV (which airs on Comcast Cable channel 28 in Oakland, Emeryville and Piedmont and on channel 27 in Alameda and Berkeley, as well as online). Neal described the early days of 9th Floor Radio, saying “it was meager.” When they started out, they were located in a storage closet with a falling ceiling. To make things even more challenging for DJs hauling crates full of records, the station was on the 9th floor of a building and the elevator didn’t go all the way up to their floor. Eventually the building was shut down for renovation and 9th Floor moved to its current digs.

poster-covered wall in 9th Floor Radio studio

Poster-covered wall in 9th Floor Radio studio. Photo: J. Waits

Over the years the amount of content on 9th Floor Radio has fluctuated, with a total of 40 shows at one point. Neal said that having that many shows was “a lot to manage” and she’s happy with the current roster of 25 shows, with DJs coming in more frequently.

As far as moving the station to terrestrial radio, Neal said that the district’s Director of Communications, Jeffrey Heyman became aware of the opportunity to apply for a new LPFM license and encouraged the district to apply. After a three-year process, Laney College’s new LPFM should launch this summer.

Although Neal didn’t have any prior experience with radio before starting 9th Floor Radio, she said, “I was really into podcasts…[and] music.” Her college didn’t have a college radio station and she said that she wasn’t exposed to college radio growing up “in the Boonies.” She said that she had minimal radio choices as a kid and told me, “for the most part I stopped listening to radio when I was 17.” She then turned to record stores in order to discover new music. She explained that her lack of radio experience is an advantage, telling me that a lot of radio people are stuck in the past. She said, “I wasn’t born in that system.”

flyers at 9th Floor Radio

Flyers posted on wall in 9th Floor Radio’s studio. Photo: J. Waits

Neal said that people with radio backgrounds often promote the idea of longer radio shows of 3 to 4 hours in length. For her, with her podcasting orientation, longer shows make less sense, as they aren’t as easily digestible for an online, on-demand audience. At 9th Floor Radio, programming is broken down into 10 minute segments which are followed by 1 hour shows and then by 1 hour and 50 minute programs.

headphones at 9th Floor Radio

Headphones at 9th Floor Radio. Photo: J. Waits

Neal said, “We podcast everything.” She’s also very focused on having web-friendly material along with these shorter shows. Live shows typically air on Tuesdays through Fridays from 3pm to 10pm. Although I visited on a weekday afternoon, the scheduled DJ couldn’t make it on that particular day. When that happens (and when there’s no regularly scheduled live show), 9th Floor Radio repeats content from the prior week.

Additionally, social media is extremely important to 9th Floor Radio. Every DJ is required to have a social media presence and is asked to post from not only personal (or DJ) accounts, but also from the 9th Floor Radio accounts. Neal explained that social media is often an “afterthought” for many stations, but that it’s crucial for 9th Floor Radio in order to get the word out about the station.

Melissa Neal at 9th Floor Radio

Melissa Neal at her desk outside of the 9th Floor Radio studio. Photo: J. Waits

Regarding the transition to LPFM, Neal feels that 9th Floor Radio is well-positioned since it has already been streaming for nearly 9 years and already has DJs, shows, and “content in place.” She acknowledged that going FM “adds legitimacy” to their efforts since it will be a “real radio station,” even though the broadcast range will be small (she guessed that it will have a 5 mile listening radius).

Currently there are around 30 DJs at 9th Floor Radio and only two staff members, Neal and Production Coordinator Aaron Harbour. Neal told me that most of the DJs have been there for more than a year and “obviously they’re all really excited” about the LPFM grant and explained that they are in the process of training DJs about FCC rules, including various restrictions related to language. The station is also preparing to install its antenna so that it can begin broadcasting this summer.

cassette player at 9th Floor Radio

Equipment at 9th Floor Radio, including a cassette player. Photo: J. Waits

Neal said that she would love to have more interns at the station as that would make it possible to tackle even more projects. Ideally, interns would be students from one of the Peralta Community Colleges, which includes Laney College, Merritt College, College of Alameda, and Berkeley City College. Interns, who are eligible for course credit, could potentially help with the day-to-day oversight of the station, work on audio production, and help with marketing and promotion.

Neal said that it’s been a challenge to get volunteers at 9th Floor Radio and she explained that there’s a lot of student turnover at Laney College in general. At this point the on-air DJs and hosts are made up of about 50% students and 50% community members (residents of Oakland), with all of the long-time DJs coming from outside of the student population.

Hannah Montana guitar-shaped clock at 9th Floor Radio

Hannah Montana guitar-shaped clock in 9th Floor Radio Studio. Photo: J. Waits

Unlike many radio stations, 9th Floor Radio doesn’t have a record library. DJs bring in their own music and the formats can vary tremendously. Some DJs play CDs only, others play vinyl, and more and more of them just bring in their laptops full of digital music. I asked Neal about cassettes and she recounted a tale about a cassette-only show in which the hosts brought in extra cassette players so that they could cross-fade between different tapes.

turntables at 9th Floor Radio

Turntables in 9th Floor Radio studio. Photo: J. Waits

Although music has been a regular feature at 9th Floor Radio, Neal told me that the station is increasingly moving towards a talk format. She explained that in today’s “Spotify age,” people are turning to radio less and less for music, yet still gravitate towards radio to connect with “personalities.” This shift also fits with Neal’s emphasis on podcasting, which also tends to focus on talk and interview-based programs.

9th Floor radio won’t eschew music entirely, but programmers need to have very specific show ideas, whether music or talk-oriented. One of the current programs is “Date Talk,” which is hosted by two comedians who go on dates and then report back on the experience during their show. Neal said that some of her favorite music shows include “The Argyll Adventure Tree,” which plays “kind of indie, underground stuff” and always has a specific theme. She told me that one week the show focused on “Teen Tunes” and played songs that mentioned youth (you can listen to podcasts of the show on the 9th Floor Radio website).

Date Talk flyer at 9th Floor Radio

Date Talk flyer in 9th Floor Radio studio. Photo: J. Waits

One of the oldest 9th Floor Radio shows, 9th Ub Radio, has been running for at least 7 years. In addition to airing on 9th Floor Radio, it can also been heard and seen on Peralta TV. For the TV broadcast, 9th Ub Radio includes an accompanying experimental video show (take a look at this episode on Vimeo).

After we wrapped up our visit, Neal gave me a quick tour of Peralta TV before she reflected on the terrestrial future of 9th Floor Radio, saying, “Oakland needs a good radio station.”

Thanks so much to Melissa Neal for showing me around 9th Floor Radio. I look forward to hearing more about their progress as they add a LPFM broadcast to the mix. This is station tour #82 for me. I still need to report on two more Kentucky field trips as well as some visits to stations in D.C. and Virginia. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.


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