The most recent UCRN (University of California Radio Network) conference provided the perfect opportunity for me to finally see Loyola Marymount University’s college radio station KXLU 88.9 FM in Los Angeles. Located on the Catholic university’s resort-like campus full of palm trees, expansive lawns, and glistening white buildings, KXLU feels like a secret club, blasting adventurous music from its 4th floor lair in the Malone Student Center.
In honor of its 60th anniversary this year, a large celebratory poster is prominently displayed in the station lobby and was one of the first things that I noticed when I arrived at KXLU on the morning of Saturday, April 8th for the UCRN event. As I got my bearings, conference-goers snacked on breakfast fare, picked up commemorative UCRN T-shirts from the LP and 7″ record-filled live room and were led on tours through the station space.
In the midst of KXLU’s weekend Latin music programming (Alma del Barrio, which runs from 6am to 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays), the on-air hosts graciously welcomed visitors into the studio for a peek. Chock full of fun decor, a stylish pillow-adorned couch, a wall full of CDs, the requisite sound equipment, and even a shelf of newly added cassettes; it’s a warm and welcoming space for DJs and guests.
One enters KXLU headquarters through a long hallway full of historic photos and framed ephemera. At the end of that hall is a lobby-esque area with a high desk where visitors can check in. To the right of that is the office of KXLU advisor Lydia Ammossow and adjacent to that is the KXLU studio. If one makes a left turn at the front desk, you will be led to an open hang-out area with seating and lovely views of the campus out of large windows covering one entire wall and CDs covering the opposite wall. Off of that open area are entrances to the record library/live room, another studio, and the on-air studio for student-only radio station KLMU (see my tour report here).
With a mix of both student and non-student DJs from the broader Los Angeles community, KXLU airs a diverse mix of programming. In addition to its long running (since 1973) weekend block of Latin music (Alma del Barrio), the station airs a variety of sounds throughout the week. The KXLU website states that, “KXLU offers a widely diverse and alternative programming schedule which includes the following genres: progressive and independent rock, classical, opera, world, dance, country, metal, noise, jazz, punk, kids, ginecore, oldies, surf, psychedelic, reggae, theater & film as well as being home to one of the most successful and longest running Latin radio programs in the country, Alma Del Barrio.”
Run by a student director team of seven undergraduates, KXLU uses its online-only sister station KLMU as a training ground for new on-air recruits. KXLU General Manager Lily O’Brien told me that among the 90 or so DJs, “a little under half are students, but with how our scheduling works, most of the daytime and late night shows are students on air!” O’Brien just wrapped up her senior year at Loyola Marymount and has been involved with KXLU since her sophomore year. As a newly minted college graduate, she reflected on her time at the station, telling me:
KXLU acts as a little space away from LMU on LMU’s campus, if that makes sense. It’s a place for all the weird kids who wanna gather and geek out about music together. Our presence on campus is relatively small, which is funny because most students don’t realize KXLU actually broadcasts out of LMU, but ask any Los Angeles native and it would be hard to find someone who isn’t familiar with the station’s legacy and name!”
O’Brien elaborated on KXLU’s reputation off campus, saying that, “We are really the only independent, commercial-free FM radio station in LA, so I think KXLU is an integral part of the music scene in southern California.” Like many college radio participants, she also shared that KXLU has been an important part of her social life and her music education, explaining that:
I love that KXLU has caused me to meet some of the best people in my life–it really feels like a giant, weird, smelly, 21st century family. I also love that because everyone has such different tastes, I am confronted with music and sounds that I would never seek out on my own but actually end up loving. It forces me to expand my horizons. I also love that when literally every other radio station is playing a commercial, I can turn on KXLU and hear something weird.”
Celebrating its 60th anniversary over FM this fall, KXLU is the descendant of a long radio legacy at Loyola Marymount, which had its start back when Loyola University and Marymount College were separate institutions. The Loyola Marymount University Archives maintains a collection of materials related to the station’s history and outlines those early days. According to a description posted on the Online Archive of California:
The inception of the student operated radio station, known as the KLU Campus Radio Workshop began in 1946, with equipment designed and built by Loyola University student staff. The student staff was comprised of World War II veterans who had gained electronic and radio experience while in service. In 1952, the radio station adopted the call letters KXLU, and hoped to switch to an FM transmission soon after. In 1957 the applications for transmitter construction and FCC approval were filed and KXLU 88.7 went live. From 1959 until 1968, KXLU broadcasted from 89.1. The radio station moved one last time to its present frequency of 88.9 FM in September, 1968.”
Old-timers will note that KXLU attracted attention in the 1980s and 1990s for its work championing punk rock, local music, and future superstars like Nirvana. A 2015 piece in the Los Angeles Loyolan digs into 1990s-era station lore. Maria Nelson writes, “KXLU was the first station to give bands like Beck, Black Flag and Jane’s Addiction tons of play on the airwaves. When the rumor surfaced in the Loyolan offices that the station was also the first to air Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ a song that would change the landscape of music as we know it, an investigation into the station’s past ensued.”
Nelson learned that former KXLU Music Director Daniel Makagon was the first to play “Smells like Teen Spirit” over KXLU. According to the piece, “Makagon, now a professor of communication studies at DePaul University in Chicago, officially brought an end to the mystery. ‘I was a senior or about to start my senior year when I interviewed Nirvana and played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,”‘ Makagon wrote via email. ‘In this particular case,’ continued Makagon, ‘Nirvana was in town because they were about to make the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and wanted us to announce that video shoot. The band needed extras for crowd shots.'”
The station still has many programs that play underground and local artists, including the decades-old Demolisten show, which began in 1984. Airing on Friday nights from 6pm to 8pm, the show features demo recordings and live music every week. For more on the station’s music legacy, take a look at the video crafted by Loyola Marymount University, which features interviews with famous musicians and station staffers.
O’Brien told me that in honor of the station’s upcoming anniversary this fall, various plans are in the works. She revealed, “Special 60th anniversary merch, shows, and maybe even something a little bigger like a small festival are things to look forward to in celebrating KXLU’s birthday come this fall! Stay tuned to our social media for more announcements and updates…”
Ammossow shared a few more details, telling me that a summer festival will kick off KXLU’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Coming up on July 16, KXLU’s 3rd annual Alma del Barrio Salsa Festival will take place from 11am to 7pm in Loyola Marymount’s Sunken Gardens. Ammossow told me that the lineup will feature “…a Brazilian soul samba opening band called Os Zagueiros” as well as salsa bands “Con Ganas, Iliana and Las Chikas and headliners Costazul and Charanga Cubana.” The free, all ages event will also feature salsa dance lessons, food trucks, DJ sets, and pop-up shops. Recounting the success of last year’s event, she reminisced that, “For our most recent festival, well over 2,000 people were in attendance. Every age range was represented in the audience from infants to great-grand parents.”
More specific KXLU anniversary celebrations will take place in the fall during Loyola Marymount University’s alumni weekend, including a KXLU 60th anniversary celebration on Sunday, September 24th from 2pm to 4pm in the radio station. “We will be welcoming back all of our alums to a special reception to toast the past 60 years of free form independent college radio thriving on our LMU blufftops,” revealed Ammossow.
No doubt many of those returning to KXLU in the fall will share memories of good times spent at the station across the decades. Summing up the unique qualities of KXLU, O’Brien surmised that part of what makes the station special is “The fact that the station’s ultimate decision makers are actually students who make everything happen.” She added that, “We are lucky to have a lot of creative freedom with how things are run year-to-year.”
Thanks to everyone at KXLU for the great time at UCRN and to Lydia Ammossow and Lily O’Brien for sharing the inside scoop on the station. This is my 137th radio station field trip report. Still to come are additional reports from Philadelphia, New York and California. My most recent field trips can be found on Radio Survivor and a full list of all my station tour reports is compiled on Spinning Indie.