Although I had visited college radio station KUCI 88.9FM at University of California, Irvine (UCI) several times already for University of California Radio Network (UCRN) conferences, it wasn’t until this summer that I did an in-depth tour with KUCI General Manager Kevin Stockdale. Since my daughter’s summer break had just begun, we decided to do a road trip to southern California to go to Disneyland and I managed to convince her that we could squeeze in a few college radio station tours before heading to the Magic Kingdom. I knew that she would be fascinated by Stockdale’s office, if nothing else. But more on that later…
After arriving on campus and parking near the station, one of the first things that my 10-year-old noticed was a large canoe-like object perched in a patio just outside the entrance to KUCI. Our curiosity piqued, we wandered over to KUCI, which is located in a well-loved trailer. As we entered the station lobby, we spied some typical college radio fare like LPs and 7″ records, posters, a sticker-covered cabinet and a Leo Blais-crafted KUCI sign. Popular for staff gatherings, the lobby also sports a very large table and lots of seating. My daughter spotted a microphone hanging from the ceiling and asked Stockdale, “Do you listen to people’s conversations?” He explained that the microphone mounts on the ceiling are actually used for live performances so that bands can play on the air. Doors to several studios (including the on-air studio) open into the lobby and a hallway leads to a bathroom, a few offices and part of the record library.
Stockdale filled us in on the station’s unique location amid a pod of classroom trailers. He explained that the “outrigger project” that we noticed outside is connected with the School of the Arts, which is also in charge of some of the neighboring trailers. An Arts, Computation and Engineering graduate program used to be nearby and some current neighbors include the internet television station Anteater TV. It also turns out that the entire KUCI trailer compound (it’s three trailers combined) was moved from a different location on campus 12 years ago.
A long-time fixture at KUCI, Stockdale first walked into KUCI as a college freshman in the fall of 1983. He joked with me that he almost missed the introductory station tour because he went to the wrong building. He told me that he was about to give up, but persevered and when he eventually found his way to the station, he was “wowed.” He immediately got involved and became a DJ in the summer of 1984. He later became Program Director and then General Manager while a student. After graduating he took the job as the part-time Broadcast Music Coordinator (“aka adviser”) in December, 1988 and went full-time in 1990. During our chat, I mentioned his path from being a student to being General Manager, saying, “and now you’re running the place,” to which Stockdale replied, “the place sometimes seems like it’s running me, but yes, I’m just the den mother.”
In reflecting back on his nearly 33 years at the station, Stockdale enthusiastically shared anecdotes from the past. He said that for station anniversaries, he typically has a DJ reunion and also pulls out historical artifacts, including playlists, photos, flyers and old equipment so that alumni can “relive” their time at KUCI and so that current students and volunteers can see the station’s “rich history.” For KUCI’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2019, Stockdale is hoping to have an even more ambitious celebration, so he’s been working to digitize old documents and is strategizing about building a special website or a multimedia presentation. He’s also been systematically combing through old program guides in order to create a database of KUCI show names and host names.
As we chatted, the studio engineer for KUCI’s ISDN service walked in. Stockdale explained that KUCI rents out one of its studios and ISDN service to professors and others who need access to ISDN for interviews with the likes of NPR, the BBC and other outlets. Later, a local newspaper editor walked by, as he was recording an interview for a nearby NPR station. KUCI also offers another great service, transferring vinyl and cassettes to digital for a fee.
Launched over FM in 1969, KUCI added internet streaming in 1996. Today, there are more than 100 participants at the station, with around 80 to 90 who are on-air as DJs and hosts. Although the station is open to non-students (from the local community as well as from the UCI community of faculty, alumni and staff), Stockdale said that the station is typically comprised of about 65 to 70% students during the school year, with that number decreasing in the summer. The summertime is also the one time during the year that those who are not affiliated with UCI are invited to take the station’s radio training class. Students are given the first opportunity to apply for KUCI’s management positions, with Program Director currently the top student role (there’s no longer a student General Manager role). If there’s no student interest, then community members can apply for management jobs and Stockdale said that in spring 2016, around three out of twelve positions went to non-students.
KUCI is on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and does not have an automation system. Shows are all live, save for the prerecorded “Planetary Radio” show and the syndicated show “Counterspin” as well as the occasional re-airing of live shows. The station airs a mix of music and public affairs programming, with twenty hours a week of talk programming. On my drive to the station I caught a poetry discussion on one of those shows, “Writers on Writing.” Stockdale added that it’s a real mix, telling me that another talk show delved into the “Lord of the Rings universe” and that back in the 1990s KUCI had a show about psychic spirituality. He opined about that diversity, saying, “It’s what makes college radio college radio.” A few other interesting shows on the KUCI schedule include a weekly Hall of Fame program featuring alumni DJs and a show that does theater in the style of a 1920s radio drama.
As far as music programming, shows play a wide array of genres and are typically two hours in length. Some of the programs on the current schedule focus on music from Japan (Nippon Overdrive!), French music (Friday Soiree), blues, hip hop, electronic music, jazz, metal, classical, punk, reggae, indie rock and pop. With an emphasis on non-mainstream music and talk, KUCI articulates its mission on its website, saying, “We are the last bastion against crappy, sound-alike radio in Orange County. We are the voice of freedom for all the independent music that gets snubbed by the major labels. We are the defenders of the faith for those who choose to express a different opinion. We are Corporate Rock’s worst nightmare. We are KUCI.”
DJs are able to pull from a massive library of physical music, including 40,000 LPs ad between 35,000 and 40,000 CDs. However, Stockdale guesses than more than half of the DJs doing music shows “have never touched it.” He reminisced with me about doing skilled turntable techniques like slip cues on his metal show (which he does occasionally) and when I asked about the DJs who avoid physical music at KUCI, he said, “It pains me.” Instead, many DJs are bringing in their own digital music files to play on the air. The station used to have more rules about the music being played, including requirements about playing a certain number of new releases; but these days DJs are given more creative freedom.
UC Irvine’s quarter was still in session on the day of our visit (June 1, 2016), with classes ending and finals beginning in a matter of days. It was pretty quiet that day, probably because many students were finishing up their coursework. The calm gave us the perfect opportunity to check out every nook and cranny of the station, including Stockdale’s pop culture-filled office. Since I’d been there before, I knew what to expect; but I was looking forward to seeing my daughter’s reaction upon spying all of Stockdale’s toys and Simpsons collectibles.
Before we’d even gotten to his office, she asked him if there was anything “strange” at the station. He said, “it’s all normal to me,” but then proceeded to talk about how he used to have “exotic pets” like tarantulas, scorpions, snakes and turtles in his office. One day a tarantula escaped and terrified station staffers. Although he no longer has live animals in his office, Stockdale did show us a jar full of tarantula skins (which he called “sheds”).
Thanks so much to Kevin Stockdale for giving us a great tour of KUCI. This is my 111th radio station field trip report, with more to come from Colorado and Southern California. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see a full list of my station tour reports on Spinning Indie.