1962-2022: 60 Years of KALX
The 1960s: Tight Quarters, the Smell of Cedar
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, that cigar box is the first mixing board used by the radio station you know today as the mighty KALX. Back in 1962, it was just Radio KAL, which broadcast from Ehrman Hall to UC Berkeley’s dormitories through wires stretched across campus. Founded by a group that included Cal student Marshall Reed and Jim Welsh, Radio KAL initially played classical music for four hours a day from Sunday through Thursday.
Despite operating on a budget that former volunteer Sam Wood describes as “$500 a year and everything we could steal,” KAL soon expanded both its hours and its playlist. Early on it offered the following mission statement, which pretty much holds true to this day:
“Radio KAL offers a wide variety of entertainment and information programs. Rather than attempt to hold the attention of a small segment of the audience most of the time, as is the practice in commercial AM broadcasting, we offer a wide variety of program content.”
By the fall semester of 1964 Radio KAL had relocated to an actual radio studio on campus. Now the students wanted to convince the UC Regents to apply to the FCC for an FM license so that the station could broadcast over the airwaves. But as luck would have it, they finally got an appointment with the Regents only a few weeks after 800 professors and students had been arrested inside Sproul Hall in the protests that marked the beginning of the Free Speech Movement. In this climate, the Regents did not even contemplate the idea of permitting student-run radio to reach beyond the dorms.
Two years later, the Regents relented and agreed to permit the station to apply for a low-power (10-watt) license. The call letters were chosen by Wood and Welsh, who pored through FCC records for available combinations beginning with “KAL.” KALW was taken and KALP didn’t sound right, so KALX it was. Initially KALX was to broadcast on 90.1, but after a number of legal and technical snags, it was decided that 90.7 would be better.
The cigar box’s replacement – as well as KALX’s first real transmitter – arrived in November 1966. The first broadcast was scheduled for February but, in what would become a KALX tradition, ran several months late. On October 3, 1967, KALX finally hit the airwaves at 90.7, where-with one or two glitches-it’s been ever since.
Yeah, But We Still Wouldn’t Play Ronnie’s Requests
1970 – The week of May 4 was tense at college campuses across the country. President Richard Nixon had deployed U.S. troops in Cambodia and students protested everywhere, including at Kent State University in Ohio, where the National Guard shot four student protesters dead.
Cal students were also protesting Cambodia, and after Kent State they wanted to shut down the campus. Chancellor Heyns and President Hitch were firm: Classes would be held as usual. Then Governor Ronald Reagan ordered all UCs, CSUs, and community colleges closed from Thursday to Sunday so that everyone could calm down. College campuses across California came to a grinding halt.
But, KALX DJs wondered, how closed is closed? The National Guard, which had become a regular campus presence in the last five years, was not present that weekend. One brazen staffer ventured onto the deserted campus and found Dwinelle Hall locked. He also found an open window and stole inside the station. KALX went on the air at its usual 1:00 P.M. that Thursday, broadcasting without incident into the night.
In fact, KALXers risked breaking into Dwinelle and announcing their presence over the airwaves for all four days of the shutdown, even though one month previously Reagan had promised forcefully to end political disruptions on campuses. “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with,” he had declared. “No more appeasement.”
Fortunately, there was no bloodbath in Berkeley that May. No DJ had to dodge bullets while planning segues. But as one programmer drily put it,”the number of fill-ins was slightly higher than usual that weekend.”
The 1970s: Bad Hair in the Wilderness
THE EARLY TO MID-70S were a confusing time at KALX, with the station bouncing from place to place and going off the air all together a couple of times. The content, it appears, was all over the place as well. Here are a few examples of stuff that was heard on KALX during that period, according to 1971-1976 playlists form the archives:
Firesign Theatre – I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus (1971)
Dick Gregory at Kent State (1971)
Sweathog – Sweathog (1972)
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Pictures at an Exhibition (1972)
Monty Python – Matching Tie & Handkerchief (1975)
Disco Tex and His Sex-o-Lettes (1975)
Chuck Mangione – Bellavia (1975)
Jimmy Buffett – Havana Daydream (1976)
Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby (1976)
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive (1976)
As we said, a confusing time, although not without its highlights. Then comes 1977 and punk rock and, kaboom, everything changes. You can’t even find playlists from 77 on, I think because punks don’t keep playlists – who wants to write down the 180 one-minute songs that you can play in three hours?
And Who Can Forget the Popular “Feed the DJ” Feature?
1976 – Programming college radio is an art, but KALX started out as a science project – and in 1976 it graduated to full-fledged science exhibit. With almost no cash and an uncertain budget, KALX had gone off the air in 1975. The station had lost its office space on campus, and its equipment had subsequently disappeared. On top of that, the license was up for renewal with no qualified engineer in sight. That’s when General Manager Andy Reimer made a wild and crazy move: He arranged for the station’s DJ booth and growing music library to become a permanent exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a children’s museum. Kids of all ages came to watch the DJs, who broadcast 24 hours a day from Lawrence. But on one of the few occasions where the KALX signal was actually heard inside the museum, disaster ensued.
According to longtime KALX DJ and former General Manager Doc Pelzel, a group of kids received an unscheduled biology lesson one day when KALX’s broadcast was played in the museum’s cafeteria. It so happened that on that particular day the DJ chose to program a flexi-disc that had been distributed in Velvet magazine – on which, as Pelzel puts it, “several women were enacting some of their more memorable experiences.”
The incident passed, but it didn’t help the station’s relationship with museum management, who blamed the radio rowdies for everything that went wrong in the building at night, whether they were at fault or not. This noble experiment came to an end when KALX was booted out of the museum in 1982, but for seven years children had marveled as human primates pushed buttons and alphabetized records.
Hey, It Beat Letting Bobby Winkles Have His Own Show
1978 – In April KALX, then broadcasting at 10 watts, gained national attention as it became the official broadcaster of the Oakland A’s. KALX sports director and business manager Larry Baer, a junior at Cal majoring in Political Science, made an agreement with the A’s owner Charlie Finley days before the start of the 1978 season. “I think he thought it would be another of those off the wall Finley stunts to raise eyebrows, like orange baseballs, designated runners and night series games,” Baer explained at the time to the campus newspaper. The A’s, who had been world champions as recently as 1974, had become a league punching bag since notorious spendthrift Finley had traded all the team’s stars; it was expected that he would move the A’s to Denver at any moment.
While this arrangement proved frustrating for A’s fans who lived outside KALX’s broadcasting range, stories are told of little old ladies who called relatives in Berkeley and had them hold the phone up to the radio – it did garner quite a bit of publicity. Baer appeared on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” and the “CBS Evening News” filmed him going to classes. He was also featured in Sports Illustrated and nearly every major newspaper in the country, but he wasn’t alone in this effort. UCB sophomore Bob Kozberg, a Mass Communications major, and KALX producer/engineer Steve Blum rounded out the team that presented A’s games on the same equipment that the station used for Cal sporting events.
This arrangement lasted for only one month and 16 games. The A’s ended up staying in Oakland but broadcast rights were awarded to a more powerful station. Larry Baer, however, went on to bigger and better things – although he had dreamed of filling San Francisco Giants announcer Lon Simmons’ shoes, he ended up with a position a little higher in that franchise. He currently serves as the Giants’ executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer.
-C. Maz de Nero
The 1980s: 500 Watts of Punk-Rock Attitude
IN 1980 RONALD REAGAN, nemesis of all good Berkeleyites, was elected president of the United States. This may or may not have been bad for the country – they’re still arguing that one and always will be – but in a perverse way it was good for KALX, which had started to go punk in the late 70’s and now had something to really be pissed off about.
Reagan went nuts cutting budgets for social programs and the arts but by 1982, his second year in office, KALX had moved to relatively stable studios at 2311 Bowditch and increased its power to 500 watts. The station’s combative nature thrived in the hostile context of Reagan’s America, and KALX remained a dependable voice of noisy opposition throughout the Reagan era (and into the Bush, Sr. era, if that really deserves to be called an era).
In 1986, then General Manager Bill Davis summed up the station’s mission this way: “What KALX stands for, more than anything else, is freedom. KALX doesn’t have a true format. KALX has no predetermined playlists. In general, KALX’s policies are designed to give programmers, reporters, producers, and sports announcers maximum flexibility, responsibility, and freedom. And that gives the listener the opportunity to hear things on the radio at 90.7 that he or she would never hear anywhere else on the dial. If that freedom is important, call 642-5259 to keep KALX independent.”
This still applies today, especially that last part.
12 Hours and We Still Couldn’t Figure Out the Damn Lyrics
1980 – Nobody had any idea how many versions of “Louie Louie” were out there. But every week, listeners of KPFK in Los Angeles would vote on the best versions in a weekly battle of the “Louie Louie” featured on the show “Unprovoked Attack.”
This inspired KFJC Music Director Stretch Riedle, who fired the first shot in what would become known as the “Louie Louie Wars” by playing 33 versions of the song back to back in a 90-minute marathon. After a listener survey revealed that “Louie Louie” was the Bay Area’s all-time favorite song, KALX aired a 50-version tribute in December 1981.
Not to be outdone, KFJC did another tribute in May of 1982, this time with 88 versions. KALX did not take this matter sitting down. In December of 1982, KALX’s Amazing Mystery DJ spent 12 hours spinning 200 versions of “The most easily recognizable rock song of all time.”
But wait, there’s more! On August 19, 1983, KFJC one-upped KALX by playing no less than 300 distinct versions of “Louie Louie” in a special hosted by the song’s author Richard Berry, complete with live versions played by local bands. And that, apparently, was the end – though some KALX old-timers whisper of a secret cadre hiding in the hills, squirreling away ever more versions of the rock classic and awaiting the right moment to strike.
We Yelled “Theatre!” in a Crowded Firehouse, Too
1986 – The issue of free speech, always simmering on the Berkeley campus, was returned to the front burner in 86. That summer, the station covered an anti-apartheid rally live from Sproul Plaza. In those days, broadcasting on Sproul meant running a really long extension cord across the plaza form King Student Center. (Monetary and technological considerations made batteries unfeasible.) So when the UC Police decided to start arresting demonstrators, first they made sure to unplug the radio station.
The next day KALX General Manager Bill Davis met with the UC Police and the Chancellor to find out why dead air ran across 90.7 as anti-apartheid activists were hauled off to jail. The police said they were afraid that the live broadcast might incite the protesters to violence, according to Davis. Today university officials say the police unplugged the station because they were afraid people would trip.
Everyone did trip a few months later when they saw the cover of the fall program guide, which featured part of the 1740 painting “Leda” by Charles Coypel. The cover shows the maiden Leda copulating with the Greek god Zeus, who has taken the form of a swan. University officials were upset by the painting’s graphic depiction of the act of love and moved to halt distribution of the program guide; editor Willa Madden threatened to sic the ACLU on the Regents if the cover did not run.
As a compromise, the unadultered cover was made available only on campus. A disclaimer stamp, which did not obscure the sexual imagery, appeared on every copy distributed off-campus. No one was happy: Cal Alumni wrote letters complaining that the image of fornication was obscene; Berkeley residents complained that the warning sticker was obscene. But on the air and in print, KALX had once again pushed the envelope of freedom of expression.
Or Perhaps You Meant to Say, “Homicidal Nutcase Beatnik”?
1985 – On February 25, KALX reporters Arnold Woods and Keven Kennedy interviewed legendary psychopath Charles Manson at the State Medical Facility in Vacaville. KALX aired the interview a month later, amidst protests outside the studios.
During the interview, Manson claimed, “I was Elvis Presley before he was” and discussed his disdain at being labeled a hippie. “I’m not a hippie,” he asserted. “I was a beatnik down in Venice pounding on bongos and reciting poetry in the 50s.” Manson also talked about his reluctance to be involved in the recording industry. “I had a record career. I didn’t want a record career. I just got out of one prison. I didn’t want to get into another one.”
The station also aired identification spots recorded by Manson where he announced, “Hi, I’m Charlie Manson and you’re listening to KALX in Berkeley.” The IDs were only aired for a week.
-C. Maz de Nero
Some Listeners Said they Preferred the Interference
1990 – Early in the year San Jose station KSJS – which broadcast at 90.7 at the time – made some changes that created a conflict with KALX’s transmission. In an effort to improve local listener reception, KSJS decreased its power from 1000 to 250 watts but increased the height of its antenna at Coyote Peak.
Almost immediately, complaints came in from KALX listeners in downtown Oakland who were receiving KSJS. KALX management hired both an engineering company and an attorney to prove impermissible interference; KSJS countered with a claim that the interference began in 1982 when KALX went to 500 watts.
However, neither station had noted interference-related complaints from listeners between 1982 and 1990.
In March of 1991, KALX filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Ten months later, the FCC ruled in KALX’s favor by rejecting the notion that KALX was responsible for the interference and ordering KSJS to reduce power to 175 watts. KSJS then acquired the rights to broadcast on 90.5 from a Jesuit high school. Take that, South Bay!
-C. Maz de Nero
The 1990s and On: Not Older, Just a Lot Crankier
IT’S A BIT EARLY to start trying to put the 90s in historical context; and anyway, in vintage KALX fashion, this is being written with only minutes to spare. We can tell you that in the 90s KALX moved back onto the UC Berkeley campus; started streaming on the Internet; won all sorts of awards; produced a buttload of Public Affairs programming; trained hundreds of DJs and producers; played about 100,000 songs; and more or less kept on keeping on in the style to which it had become accustomed. As of this writing, it’s October 2002 and KALX has been at it for 40 years – and we intend to keep doing it at least until tomorrow, and maybe till the end of time.
The past twenty years have certainly been interesting for KALX. It’s been almost fifty years since we started broadcasting under the name Radio KAL from an old cigar box. The station has seen a lot of changes since then, and we’re still doing our best to keep up with the times. Despite new volunteers, new music and new technology, the independent spirit our listeners love and cherish has remained intact. One studio, a few technological upgrades, a Naugahyde couch and far too many flannels later, we’re in a position to give the nineties and the noughties the story they deserve.
KALX in the News!
1994 – KALX was very excited to host activist and gubernatorial candidate Tom Hayden to answer some questions over the air during his campaign. We were even more excited when the San Jose Mercury News mentioned the visit in their paper the next day. Unfortunately, the only information about KALX that made the story was a Naugahyde couch that had been chewed up by a staff member’s dog the night before, leaving a massive, unexplained hole coming out of the back. The reporter trailing Hayden made sure to post a picture of what was labeled our “exploded Naugahyde couch.”
The Move to Barrows Hall
1995 – Perhaps the biggest moment in the past 20 years of KALX history was the move from our station on Bowditch to our current station in the basement of Barrows Hall. This was big news because we never fully moved into the space on Bowditch since it was never meant to be a permanent studio for KALX. Somehow we found ourselves stuck there for 13 years. There were no fire sprinklers, no handicap access to the studio in the basement, our records overflowed into the small kitchen space we had, a cassette deck was literally duct taped to the rack and every spring. We had to fight off the inevitable swarm of flying ants that would come in through the skylight.>
At last, in September we were able to move into our new and improved studio in the basement of Barrows Hall and haven’t looked back since. We now have a designated performance space, our own library, more breathing room and no more flying ants. The best part: we were able to make the move without having to cut our transmission. Ironically, the first song broadcasted from our new station was “Accidents Will Happen” by Elvis Costello. Luckily, they didn’t—the whole thing was seamless.
“We’re going to buy Live 105!”
1997 – During our 30th Anniversary fundraiser, we announced our goal to raise thirty million dollars so we could buy Live 105. It was absurd, because even if we had raised that much money, it still wouldn’t have been enough to buy the alternative radio giant. Still, our DJs jumped on the chance to participate in a collective effort to poke fun at one of the local corporate stations. And, as our Music Director at the time put it, “Why not? You never know. Millionaires could be listening…Ted Turner’s giving away money these days.”
KALX Stops Lying About Its Age
2002 – For a long time, KALX used to calculate its age based on the day we received our official FCC license in 1967. Our true birth date, however, was 1962, when we started broadcasting from the cigar box in Ehrman Hall. So only five years after our 30th anniversary, we decided to hold our 40th, promising that we would stop lying about our age. It was getting a little hard to hide the wrinkles anyway.
KALX Goes Digital
Once the year 2000 settled in and we were fully convinced that computers weren’t going to melt down the earth, we decided KALX was ready to venture into the digital world and start to embrace the technology it had to offer. On February 2, KALX began streaming its broadcast online, allowing listeners beyond the range of the airwaves to tune in from their computers at all hours. A few years later, we began implementing a digital system that allowed us to store and play all of our station IDs (“You’re listening to K-A-L-X!”) and other recorded spots via computers. In 2007, we began using digital playlists, making it easier for listeners to keep track of what our DJs were playing and for us to update our weekly and monthly charts.
We also now use professional sound editing software to produce public service announcements and preserve some of our old analog media. Just last year in 2010 we launched a new design of our website that offers new capabilities to our listeners including access to the live stream, frequently updated charts, current information about all of our departments and programming, an art gallery and an extended history of the station along with an explanation of our philosophy. We’ve also done our best to ride the social media wave by creating our own Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. And if you’re really tech savy, you can download the KALX iPhone app and carry us with you everywhere you go!
Moving Forward by Going Retro
2007 – Despite a lot of the changes we’ve started to implement in the past ten years, there are still some bits of the past we have a hard time letting go. So for our 45th Anniversary, instead of offering promotional mp3s or something fancy to give away to our donors, we gave them a special KALX 7” packed with live performances that had been recorded at UC Berkeley, including the Talking Heads playing “Stay Hungry” from Lower Sproul Plaza in 1978.
A lot has happened in the past twenty years that has affected both KALX and college radio as a whole, opening up a number of possibilities to expand our broadcast and make our operations more efficient. These changes have also made it harder to exist in a growing digital landscape where the Internet is slowly replacing the era of dial-turning radios. While KALX has evolved a bit with the times, we’re still the same old free-form bastion of independence we were twenty years ago, and we continue to celebrate the value of college and community radio. We won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
KALX Turns 50
In the fall of 2012, the mighty KALX roared (and warbled and thumped and twinkled) into its 50th year. After five long, occasionally contentious, and sometimes poorly documented decades, the station’s fledgling cigar-box days have taken on an aura of legend. For its anniversary, KALX offered a peek behind the curtain into the inner workings that have transformed the station from a dorm room project in 1962 to one of the most highly regarded names in college radio.
The festivities launched with a retrospective exhibit at Oakland’s Rock Paper Scissors Collective, where listeners got a glimpse of 50 years’ worth of KALX artifacts and ephemera, including records from our library, photos, and, of course, old KALX t-shirts. The station also put on a three-part concert series at the Berkeley Art Museum, with performances by indie rock duo the Dodos, Cal student and performer Astronauts, Etc., shoegaze revivalists Young Prisms, and the jazzy Shotgun Wedding Quintet. On the air, DJs commemorated the 50th with KALX Throwback programming, each week featuring songs from our charts from a different decade of our history. (As if we needed an excuse to play obscure cuts from one-hit-wonder ‘80s new wave bands.) We also aired monumental bits from the archives, including interviews with the likes of John Lennon and the Dalai Lama, as well as live performances from the Runaways on Sproul Plaza in 1976 (before they were a major motion picture) and the quintessential college rock band, R.E.M., in 1982 (back when Michael Stipe still had hair).
KALX’s public introspection earned us quite a bit of recognition from the Bay Area press, including features in the East Bay Express, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, and the Daily Californian. We even made the front (web) page of the UC Berkeley News Center, who lauded us thusly: “The payoff for people tuning in [to KALX] is a curated experience, with DJs making creative leaps that no Pandora algorithm can.” It was true in 1962, and, since the Mayan calendar let us down and the apocalypse didn’t come in 2012, it’ll be just as true in 2062.
From 50 to 60: We’re Not Getting Older, We’re Getting Better
2011– KALX upgrades its broadcast infrastructure, installing a new transmitter in a new-to-us building, with paved a road to get there!
2013 – KALX is voted Best Radio Station by readers of the East Bay Express! Thanks listeners! How technologially advaced were we at the time, you ask? The station used its emergency back-up power to keep broadcasting through a campus-wide electricity outage — which caused the rest of campus to be evacuated! — on September 30. That’s impressive for a little station based in the center of campus!
2015 – The Basement Tapes… Thanks to a major donation by an anonymous listener, KALX digitizes 825 reels of music and interviews recorded at the station over the years, preserving the sounds for future listeners everywhere. https://light.berkeley.edu/p/promise-winter-2016/digitizing-underground/
2016 – The Good: A major donor enables a major renovation of the air studio. Engineer Joe Tsyl installs state of the art gear including a new console, new microphones, CD and record players, custom tables, and racks. It was a mad dash to the finish, as Joe was scheduled to retire on June 30! Staff broadcast from the Production studio while the upgrade was underway. Later in the summer the performance studio got new carpet and paint as well.
2016 – The Horrific: Tragedy strikes in Oakland when an underground music and art space called The Ghost Ship burns during an event on December 2. 36 people were killed in the fire, including 3 current KALX volunteers (Chelsea Dolan, Vanessa Plotkin, Jennifer Morris), and one station alum (Griffin Madden), devastating staff and listeners alike.
2017 – KALX celebrates 55 years of broadcasting with a resolution of support from the CA legislature. Improvements to infrastructure continue with big investments in new digital audio workstations, and tower maintenance.
2018 – Programming continues to be of such high quality that in 2018 KALX is once again voted Best Music Radio Station by the East Bay Express. It’s not just local folks that notice though, as we’re named one of the Top Ten Most Influential College Stations In The U.S. as well.
2019 – KALX installs a new audio console in the production studio. All podcasts produced at the station now include transcripts, making the content accessible to those with hearing issues.
2020 – In early March it starts to become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is a big deal, but no one is quite sure just how big until midnight March 17, when KALX goes to completely pre-recorded content. Hey, we had 12 whole hours notice to get ready, of course we pulled it off! As campus all but shuts down and instruction is moved to remote delivery of class content, KALX stays on the air, because staff learned to record from home and submit shows via the cloud really quickly and well. How well, you ask? The Graduates is named a finalist in the National Student Production Awards for “Best Regularly Scheduled Entertainment Program” by the College Broadcasters, Inc., again. The show earns 4th Place in the nation for the category. (Spoiler alert, the show did the same thing again in 2022!) In late 2020, the Sports team broadcast a handful of games live.
2021 – A handful of broadcasters begin to trickle back into the station as the pandemic ebbs and flows. We’re recovering, we’re not…. Rinse and repeat. News programming from the Journalism School airs live but remotely, and live Sports comes back.
2022 – General Manager Sandra Wasson retires June 30 after guiding the station for 34 years! That’s more than half our life… and it’s way more than that if you’re just counting the years we’ve been officially licensed by the FCC. She left the station in good stead though, to be sure… Thanks to her leadership and our amazing staff, we were ranked #16 on this 2022 list of Top 50 college radio stations in the country! Longtime KPFA programmer and Cal staff member Tim Lynch became GM on October 1, just as the station returns to almost all live, in-studio broadcasting. The season also welcomes the return of bands playing in the studio on KALX Live. KALX begins its 2022-23 celebration of 60 years of broadcasting at Cal, but never resting on its laurels, the station begins planning for the future! You can help us build that future with tax deductible donations of any size at http://kalx.berkeley.edu/donate.