January 19, 2013
One of the more unusual radio stations that I've visited is KCHUNG in Los Angeles. Around since 2011, the station has caught the ears of not only the artist community in its home town, but also the attention of the national press. Visiting journalists typically paint a portrait of KCHUNG's diverse programming and quirky lair, perched above a Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Although I'm accustomed to navigating to stations in strange locations, KCHUNG felt particularly mysterious on the summer morning when I made my way up a darkened stairwell to the station's headquarters. Luckily a KCHUNG volunteer arrived at the same time and we used our cell phone flash lights to light our way.
Although ostensibly a community radio station, KCHUNG operates a bit differently than any other radio station that I've visited. It broadcasts over a low power, unlicensed terrestrial signal at 1630 AM, which is allowed under the FCC's part 15 rules. However, during my August 10 visit, I wasn't able to pick up the station's signal on my car radio, although I did catch UCLA's "Emergency Advisory System" station on that frequency while driving around LA. Because of its short range, chances are that most KCHUNG listeners are tuning in online, either during live shows or to archived programs.
The station's funky space is reflective of its creative programming. We arrived a bit before our hosts and plopped down on a couch in one corner of the room. To our right was a window with a view of neighboring buildings, foothills and palm trees and in front of us a large blackboard was covered with handwritten notes, both pragmatic and poetic. My favorite missive was: "Broadcast into the Void."
A few items from a recent meeting dotted a coffee table, including a Nolo Press book about forming a non-profit as well as a booklet on leadership and creativity. The studio is housed along the back wall of the room and is separated from the lobby by a sliding glass patio door. Just outside the booth, there's a small record library, containing CDs, cassettes and vinyl LPs.
Throughout the entire KCHUNG space, there's some wonderfully weird decor, including a monkey face carved out of a coconut, a stuffed sock monkey-esque rat, painted denim shorts, a plastic fog fluid container, and a small teddy bear wearing a tiny KCHUNG shirt. The studio seems to be the scene of someone's personal art project, with a number of items hung on the wall (including a beer can, styrofoam cup, vinyl record and a coat hanger) accompanied by labels with the f-word, followed by the name of the adjacent object.
Of course there's also all the requisite radio equipment in the studio, including turntables (one has a particularly psychedelic slip mat), tape decks, CD player, sound board, microphones, monitor speakers and headphones. A handful of records, tapes and CDs were also dispersed within the studio space.
During my summer visit, I met up with KCHUNG General Manager Chrysanthe Oltmann and Michal Kamran, KCHUNG's Minister of Internal Transparency for the grand tour. Both have college radio connections. Kamran got her start at University of California, Santa Cruz station KZSC (my most recent visit was for the UCRN conference in 2016) and although Oltmann started doing radio at KCHUNG back in 2013, she now moonlights at her college alma mater's station KSPC at Pomona College (see my 2015 tour) over school breaks.
Around 200 people are involved at KCHUNG, with approximately 40 serving as Station Managers; which means that they take responsibility for the station and the equipment during multiple shifts throughout the week. A freeform station, KCHUNG has always had deep connections with the local arts community and many of its shows reflect its experimental roots. Kamran mentioned that one program ("No") often features its hosts yelling the word "no" for an extended period of time during the show, for example.
The AM channel is also very much a part of KCHUNG's mission as a locally-focused station. Kamran shared, "I like being hyper localized," but also admitted that at times it can be hard to discern if the experimentally-focused station's AM signal is working. She joked, "Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm hearing like static or somebody's actual show and it's kind of cool when that happens."
When I asked about the history of KCHUNG, Kamran told me "...the station was pretty much founded by Luke Fischbeck, Solomon Bothwell and Harsh Patel and it kind of started when Solomon went to see a Mountain School talk from KPCC...after that he…looked into making his own station. Luke started up the actual, physical…engineering stuff."
Another really interesting aspect of KCHUNG is its work with Los Angeles-area arts organizations. Later this month, the station will doing a radio residency at the Getty. According to the The Getty Center's website, "Los Angeles' artist-run community radio station KCHUNG is in residence for two weeks at the Getty Center to broadcast in-depth news programming and build opportunities for spectacle, performance, and live engagement that imagine alternative uses and definitions of the news. Complementing the exhibition Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media, the residency will produce between 6 to 10 episodes, featuring a diverse breadth of content from KCHUNG's artistic community including interviews, performances, and live reporting, to explore both exhibition themes and current events."
Thanks so much to Chrysanthe Oltmann and Michal Kamran for the great visit and tour of KCHUNG. You can hear more from my tour on Radio Survivor Podcast #74. This is my 117th radio station field trip report. Future posts will cover my travels in Arkansas and Pennsylvania. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and peruse a full list of my station tour reports on Spinning Indie.
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