Still freestyling at 30

Pub date July 31, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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The workroom of KUSF, 90.3 FM, has always looked just this side of combustible. It’s a second home to the radio station’s new-music volunteers, a tightly packed DIY office space papered with band posters from top to bottom. Ancient desks are pinned against each wall, one holding a beat-down stereo. Two huge metal-hinged lockers loom in the corner, monoliths stickered beyond recognition with archeological layers of rock ‘n’ roll’s past. I stare at them and try to remember the exact location of a Barkmarket sticker I myself put up more than 15 years ago. No dice.

Down the hallway — KUSF is crammed into a lone walkway in the basement of Phelan Hall on the University of San Francisco campus — Program Director Trista Bernasconi is helping a cultural producer get his next show sorted out. Putf8um records hang on the walls behind her, a reminder of the respect the noncommercial station has commanded from the musical community since its inception in 1977.

But high-caliber programming was almost no match for the university’s management, which sought to sell its license in 2006.

"Last year the university tried to sell us, and their main thing was that we were not connected to the students," says Bernasconi, a 10-year station veteran and former USF student. "It’s hard because San Francisco is expensive and [students] have to work so many jobs, but there’s been a major push to get more involved."

Coming back from the edge of the FM grave is an excellent reason to party and one that happens to coincide with the station’s 30th anniversary. After four months of celebration, the most impressive event occurs when Yo La Tengo perform a benefit for the beleaguered institution. "We wanted to celebrate in a big way and started thinking about a band that represents what KUSF is about," co–<\d>music director Irwin Swirnoff explains. "Yo La Tengo came into our mind because they’re a band that always progresses." Bernasconi echoes Swirnoff’s enthusiasm, seeing the benefit as a big step in on-campus visibility. "We have an exclusive," she adds, smiling. "There are even a couple of professors who like Yo La Tengo and are really into KUSF now."

But indie popularity and the fact that Swirnoff praises the group’s last three albums as its "three best" played only a part in making Yo La Tengo the top choice. Since 1996 the band has participated in Jersey City, N.J., noncommercial station WFMU’s annual pledge drive to support local, poorly funded radio.

Running a radio station with extremely limited funding is possible only because of the thousands of hours of volunteer work by people from the different departments of KUSF. While the university contributes half of KUSF’s operating budget, there are capital expenses, such as replacing the busted transmitter suffered six years ago, that the station and its volunteers must absorb. Swirnoff feels it’s a crucial distinction to make: "Every day that music is getting played and tickets are being given away it’s amazing, because besides a couple of paid positions, we’re all volunteers and somehow we figure out a way to get it done."

Swirnoff splits his duties with three other music directors — Miguel Serra, DJ Schmeejay, and Lenode — in an effort to combat the sheer volume of music that the station is expected to absorb. Another KUSF veteran, fundraising coordinator Jet, who along with Bernasconi holds one of the station’s few paid positions, explains that volunteering means never really being off the clock. "I have taken a pay cut to take the job," she says with a laugh. "So it’s a labor of love. I put in my volunteer hours as well, so I’m not only an employee, I’m also a volunteer, and I’m not only a volunteer, I’m still also a listener."

But what about the listeners? According to Arbitron, KUSF’s 3,000-watt basement transmitter is able to reach an audience of about 50,000, and luckily the station has managed to allocate part of its shoestring budget to broadcasting via the Internet radio network, enabling listeners worldwide to tune in even if they’re beyond the reach of the transmitter. Still, the consumer landscape has changed radically since the station debuted. From the erosion of the major-label hierarchy to the digital explosion of the past decade, people are now drowning in musical options ranging from iTunes to DIY podcasts to satellite radio.

What lures the KUSF faithful through this technological glut is the content and, ultimately, the DJs who provide it. The cultural programming alone is enough to intrigue: where else in the country does the Hamazkayin Armenian Hour run back-to-back with I Heart Organics? New-music programming is no less varied, as DJs are required to pull half of their shows from the "currents" section of the library. While listening to Jacob Felix Heule’s show, which runs Wednesdays from midnight to 3 a.m., I hear dub combo African Head Charge, ’60s pop chanteuse Lesley Gore, and local band Rubber O Cement within 30 minutes. It’s the kind of schizophrenic genre jumping that has created the reputation KUSF enjoys today.

The station’s history lives on in the current new-music staffers. Every volunteer with an air shift has a story about a predecessor who introduced them to band X or taught them how to perform board function Y. Swirnoff, for example, first learned of the station after Sonic Youth cut a record in memory of then-music director Jason Knuth, and he remembers thinking, "I gotta get on KUSF." Jet says her station hero is legendary Rampage Radio‘s Ron Quintana — the guy who named Metallica.

As a former DJ and ex–<\d>promotions director, I recall an on-air mentor who would gesture toward Slayer’s Decade of Aggression, admonishing me to "always end with something apocalyptic." I’d follow her advice right here, but with volunteers who give so selflessly to keep the station alive, there’s a good chance that — at least for now — KUSF will keep the end times at bay.<\!s>*


With Yo La Tengo, Citay, and KUSF DJ Irwin

Fri/3, 9 p.m., $25 (available through

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365