When I was plotting out my desired radio station visits during my summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest, college radio station KAOS-FM at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington was on the top of my list. I’ve known KAOS DJs over the years and the station’s adventurous programming has always been intriguing to me.
So, on Wednesday, August 5, while making my way from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington, I made a stop in Olympia to see the station. It was around noon when we (I brought my husband and daughter along) arrived on campus and I was amazed by the forested, lush, park-like setting.
Since it was the middle of summer, there wasn’t too much activity, so we easily found parking and made our way to the Campus Activities Building. As we approached the building, we could hear music emanating from outdoor speakers, so we were reassured that we’d found the right building.
After wandering down to the basement of the building, we approached the station entrance (again, we could hear KAOS playing via speakers just outside the door) and met up with Training and Operations Manager Morgan Jaffe in KAOS’ spacious lobby. Jaffe is one of KAOS’ two full-time paid staff members (the other is KAOS’ General Manager Ruth Brownstein) and she moved out to Olympia from Massachusetts this April specifically for the job. She’s worked in college radio before (at WRUR at University of Rochester, which is an NPR affiliate) and also taught radio and digital media while in the Boston area.
In addition to Jaffe and KAOS’ General Manager, there are also 8 student staff members working in various departments, including music, production, and outreach. Although students are responsible for these departments, there is also a large contingent of non-student DJs from the local community. Jaffe told me that there are more than 80 volunteers at KAOS.
KAOS is deeply devoted to freeform radio ideals and also has a strong emphasis on both independent music and local music. Founded in 1973, KAOS broadcasts at 89.3 FM in Olympia, Washington, which is in Washington’s state capital, not far from Seattle. It’s one of the few stations that I’m aware of that has a specific policy that emphasizes playing artists that are outside of the major record label system. DJs are asked to play at least 80% independent music on their shows. According to KAOS’ Independent Music Policy,
There are two reasons why KAOS has adopted our ‘80% independent’ music policy. Philosophically, the policy supports independent artists and businesses who are pursuing an alternative to ‘business as usual’ in the music industry. Practically, the policy gives KAOS a unique air sound.
KAOS has maintained this music policy since 1978, and our policy has served as a model of other radio stations. The policy has long been one of KAOS’ trademarks, making the station unique in the U.S. KAOS has gained a national reputation for its support of independent music and artists.”
KAOS has a large record library of physical music and items are marked with stickers designating “indie,” “major,” and “local” in order to help DJs plan their shows with the 80% independent policy in mind. DJs play a wide variety of genres (rock, hip hop, international, electronic music, experimental, jazz, country, etc.) and also use a mix of sources, including CDs, vinyl records (there’s even a vinyl-only country music show), cassettes, and a digital library of around 30,000 tracks accessed through the station’s automation software (MegaSeg). I was also pleased to see mini discs, as I thought my own station (KFJC) was one of the few that still played them!
The station’s freeform ethos also extends to its program schedule, which does not employ the mainstream style of “block programming” certain genres of music during specific times of the day. Instead, KAOS sprinkles all kinds of shows throughout the broadcast day, meaning that a folk show may precede a hip hop show one day of the week and jazz, Latin, and soul-oriented shows might appear in the same time slot on different days of the week.
There are also quite a few shows that play a variety of music, as well as some programs dedicated to local music (which is defined in a number of ways, depending upon who you ask). Additionally, there is some consistent daily programming, including the syndicated public affairs show Democracy Now at 9am and 8pm on weekdays. One of the many programs that is unique to KAOS is the children’s show “Cottleston Pie.” Jaffe explained that the host, Miss Melissa, plays atypical kids’ music, including “kindie rock” and “kid hop.”
As a testament to the cross-section of music played at the station, when we arrived, a community DJ was finishing up her Celtic music show and when we left Olympia later that afternoon we caught a bit of a show playing hip hop. Although KAOS seems to have a full schedule of shows, during the times when there isn’t a live DJ in the studio, the station plays handpicked playlist of music. This generally happens during the overnight hours, although there are also some live DJs during that time. On the day of my visit, Jaffe was preparing to train some new DJs and she told me that she anticipated that trainees will probably take some of the 1am to 3am shifts soon. There’s also a long-time DJ who drives from Portland, Oregon every week to host a 1am to 5am show.
The large KAOS space was built specifically for the station. In years gone by KAOS was in different locations, including a trailer, and Jaffe remarked that the station used to be on the 3rd floor of the building “where the Flaming Eggplant is.” After I laughed at the image conjured up by that statement, she explained that the Flaming Eggplant is a restaurant.
The spiffy space includes the aforementioned lobby (complete with an inviting seating area and an open space with desks behind a counter) and a dedicated room for live performances (the Live Studio room), which is easily visible from the on-air studio. Additionally, there’s a production studio that’s pretty much a mirror of the on-air studio equipment-wise, an in-progress secondary production studio, newsroom, a large CD library, a few offices, a small kitchen/coffee nook (with one of the best clean up reminder signs ever), and a lounge/conference room space where DJs can hang out or have meetings.
Down the hall there’s also some extra vinyl storage in a room dubbed the “vinyl vault.” As we poked through the records in that room, Jaffe and KAOS Music Director Anna Gordon told us that DJs had found some real gems there, including an album of punk versions of “Sound of Music” songs. Amid the LPs we spotted a huge variety of things, including jazz and hip hop albums, a Lily Tomlin comedy record, punk 7″s and a box of Tex-Mex records. Although we didn’t see it, there’s some deeper off-site storage called “the crypt,” where older music (more than 10 years old) and less popular music (items that have been played less than 3 times) is housed.
I’m always impressed when stations work to connect with other radio stations and KAOS has made an extraordinary effort to build relationships with the broader radio community. Less than two weeks before my visit, KAOS hosted the Olympia Summit in collaboration with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB). Jaffe told me that more than 100 people were in attendance at the multi-day “regional summit,” which featured numerous guest speakers, concerts, workshops, a regional NFCB meeting, tours of KAOS, and radio-themed film screenings.
Jaffe said that attendees came from mostly community radio stations in Washington, Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Alaska. She remarked that the whole event was “perfect for collaboration.” Jaffe said that she’d love to work with some of the nearby radio stations and hoped that the NFCB Summit would help to spark some new projects.
Thanks so much to Morgan Jaffe for the fun tour of KAOS! This is my 89th station tour report. I still have a few more trips to write up, including stations in Portland (Oregon), Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.