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Rough notes: reflections on (patiently) listening to the new KUSP

Rough NotesLike a lot of people making their way through the KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz transition saga, I am listening patiently to the new sound. And this, apparently, is what I am supposed to do.

“I would love for people just to have some patience,” Nikki Silva of the legendary Kitchen Sisters (which got its start at KUSP) told The Santa Cruz Sentinel last week. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and everybody’s trying very hard to make it work. It’s not just us that’s changing. It’s the whole radio landscape.”

Silva was presumably speaking in defense of the station’s embrace of a Triple A music format. The three As stand for “adult album alternative” (or something like that). KUSP’s new general manager, Lee Ferraro, has hired a small gaggle of professional sounding deejays and given them access to a big expandable database of songs. Sentinel reporter Wallace Baine charmingly struggles with the composite sound. Here’s his summation:

“[AAA] can feature such boomer icons as David Bowie or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan (while shying away from the classic-rock hits), but also embraces such millennial stand-bys as the Animal Collective, Blitzen Trapper and Spoon. Nick Drake bumps up against Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Washed Out slips in behind Tom Waits.”

KUSPI’ve been auditing this stream pretty regularly over the last two weeks and I’m less interested in the rather tedious debate over whether it’s good community radio (or not) that is raging across Santa Cruz, and more interested in my own ignorance of so much of this remarkable music. When I listen on weekday mornings on the way to work, I hear playlists full of tunes that are consistently ironic, bittersweet, and folksy in an urban but out in Coney Island (or Santa Cruz) urban sort of way. Then I think to myself, where was I when all this music got written and performed . . . am I that out of it?

Yes, part of me concludes. I’m old and don’t go to clubs any more (this is all true, BTW), so of course I don’t know these bands and their people. But another part of me suspects that it isn’t all my fault, that music really did change in the 1990s . . . that the Clear Channel counter-revolution really did banish new creative music from the analog airwaves, so that the guys and gals who emerged after The Pretenders and The Talking Heads and The Smiths and Jane’s Addiction just did not get on mainstream FM radio, so if you weren’t part of a specific age demographic collectively hipped into the right new technologies and trends at the right moment, you missed all the next stuff.

Obviously the ‘you’ in this instance is ‘me.’ Listening to the new KUSP I feel like somebody invited me back into the club, into the party, or back into some scene from which I’d been secretly disinvited. Mind you, now that I’ve returned and grabbed a drink, I have mixed feelings about what I’m hearing. At various points in the day, there’s a certain baroque similitude to the content that I find moving, charming, and repetitive all at the same time. Mostly I want to ask the under-40 audience that KUSP seems to be targeting if they’ve all plastered the same Baudelaire quote on their refrigerator: “What do I care if you are good? Be beautiful! And be sad!”

I suppose I should mention the obligatory KUSP-FM crisis backstory at this point. Trying to compete with KAZU-FM in Monterrey, KUSP adopted an NPR format that put the station in a huge financial hole. The license almost got sold. Now they’re trying the aforementioned AAA format. I like the deejays, but I wish they’d share a little more of their real selves over the airwaves . . . Anyway, I’m going to keep listening. I gave a little money. Let’s see what happens.

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