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Feature

Keri Carlson.

Keri Carlson is behind the mike on Thursday afternoons from 12 to 3 p.m., and also teams up with Alison Stolpa on Friday afternoons for Off the Record, a show that highlights local music.

A genuine alternative

Radio K--'real college radio'

By Rick Moore

Published on September 30, 2005

Scanning the FM dial of your radio, you're bound to hear proclamations of stations being "alternative" or playing a good share of "alternative music." And that would be utterly true if Counting Crows and Sheryl Crow weren't birds of the relatively common type.

If you really want an alternative radio station, try tuning in to Radio K (770 AM, 100.7 and 106.5 FM) on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It's guided primarily by enthusiastic, music-adoring students and it's critically acclaimed, to boot. (And they actually choose songs from CDs and albums, rather than hit the play button on a pre-programmed hard drive. More on that later.)

The origins of Radio K trace back to a time well before hip-hop, and even Dick Clark. In January of 1922, the University received a license to operate the broadcast station WLB, the precursor to Radio K. It was the first broadcast license issued in Minnesota and the 34th in the United States. Eighty-three years later, Radio K (in essence, a hybrid of stations KUOM and WMMR) holds the distinction of being the 10th oldest station on the air and the oldest licensed, non-commercial broadcast station in the country.

If you want to dwell in the past, listen to that oldies station at the right end of the FM dial. Radio K is about appealing to today's college students--and high school students and other assorted music hipsters--with an assortment of eclectic, albeit not commercial radio-friendly, songs that skip across the spectrum of musical styles.

Take the current Top 7 from Radio K's weekly playlist. It's made up of songs from Halloween, Alaska; Devendra Banhart; The Dandy Warhols; Sigur Ros; Iron & Wine/Calexico; I Self Divine; and The New Pornographers. If your music collection doesn't include all of those artists, or if you haven't heard of a single one of them, fear not; remember, this is the newest of the new, or at least the latest of the obscure.

The Rarig clubhouse

There are plenty of U students around wanting to spin their favorite songs and willing to aid in the music selection. According to Radio K station manager Andy Marlow, there are about two dozen paid students working at the station, along with 50 to 100 student volunteers, including 30 or so who help to review the up to 150 new CDs the station receives each week. In addition, there's a small newsroom where students compile, edit, and produce their own news segments for broadcast.

The whole operation takes place on the top floor of Rarig Hall--a grid of studio space surrounded by windlowless rooms and offices, albeit appropriately decorated with scores of band posters and miscellaneous music paraphernalia.

"This is the place where [students] meet their friends and find a place to be at the University," says Marlow. Marlow has been at the University and Radio K for more than 30 years. He's one of five full-time, non-student staff members at the station and, given his tenure, has seen a lot of students sign on and off the air.

"It's their club--their fun place," adds Shelley Miller, the program coach at Radio K. "Where else do you go if you really like music? There's a lot of room to grow; the potential is huge."

In addition to helping facilitate connections between Radio K and the University and radio communities, Miller, a DJ herself, helps coach the budding on-air talent. Her goal, she says, "is to make students sound better on the air, feel comfortable, and have fun. Because if you can't have fun on college radio, something's wrong."

There's no doubt that that Radio K's DJs have their share of fun. While their interjections between songs can be informative and straight to the point, there's also considerable leeway for humor and sarcasm.

Alison Stolpa, the station's program director, combines all of those traits, both in her regular, solo three-hour DJ shift on Wednesday mornings as well during the Friday afternoon program Off the Record, when she teams up with Keri Carlson to focus on local music, including a band that performs live each week in Studio K.

Stolpa is an English honors student who has been at Radio K for four and a half years. "I started listening [to Radio K] when I was in high school and heard a song by an artist I liked but had never heard before on the radio, and I kept listening to the station and got hooked on it. And that's why I came to the University of Minnesota."

"I've really enjoyed my experience, and part of that is I've been able to make a lot of friends here," says Kwong. "There's no radio station in the country where I could get a job DJ-ing like I do here at Radio K."

Working at the station has given Stolpa experience that she "couldn't get any other way," she says. "It's led me to realize that what I want to do is in the music business, in any form."

While some of Radio K's student staff and volunteers are English or journalism majors, many are not. Carlson, Stolpa's Off the Record co-host, is a cultural studies major. And Thomas Kwong, the news director, is a bio-based products major with a marketing-management specialty.

Kwong began volunteering as a PSEO [post-secondary educational opportunities] student in high school reviewing CDs. (All students who wish to be on air must first volunteer at Radio K for a year.) He later stepped in as the morning show host for a year, and became news director at the start of fall semester. "I started off doing music and then got roped into doing news," Kwong deadpans. "Frankly, I'm a news junkie."

He also has a deep, resonant voice seemingly made for radio, but he's not counting on a career in it. Kwong says his dream job would be in journalism or journalism production, but that he'd be fine with working in bio-based products sales or marketing, or maybe in environmental reporting. "I enjoy being behind the mike but I don't need to do it," Kwong says. "If I could get paid to do it, I'd do it."

Real college radio

Radio K is the broad grab bag of musical styles that defines college radio. In addition to the regularly scheduled DJ shifts (most students work one two- or three-hour shift per week), there are a host of weekly specialty shows on the weekend. Here's just a sample:

Not so stuck on AM

"Stuck on AM" is the name of the series of CDs produced by Radio K--about one every other year--of live performances at the station. "Stuck on AM" was also a descriptor that had plagued Radio K for decades. Its music was only available on AM and only until it had to sign off in the evening to avoid interference with other, more powerful stations with the same frequency.

But in 2003, KUOM-FM (106.5) signed on for the first time. Radio K shares the frequency with KDXL-FM, which is licensed to the St. Louis Park School District. The district has the airwaves from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on school days, and Radio K has it at all other times. As one student told Radio K program coach Shelley Miller, "We have the FM when your cell phone has night and weekend minutes."

The FM broadcast radius covers about six kilometers from the Calhoun Towers apartment building in Uptown, meaning the FM, stereo version of Radio K can be heard throughout most of Minneapolis and some of the western suburbs.

You can also access the station via streaming audio from the Radio K Web site.

During "Rude Radio," Rev. Evan spins ska, reggae, and roots rock. "Beat Box" features hip-hop, "def beats, and more from the east coast." In "Some Assembly Required," which Kwong describes as "the weird cut-up show," Jon Nelson plays "tape manipulations, digital deconstructions, and turntable creations." "Hot Roxx" features Radio K-style classic rock. "Locust Lecture" features "a goth, industrial, darkwave, electro, and metal mix with six macabre-loving hosts." And that's just on Saturday.

Then there's the playlist. Radio K has a 150-song rotation per week. Songs in the top tier get played the most, with songs in the lowest tier of the 150 being played the least. And about 10 new songs--sifted through by volunteers, ("screened for the naughty words that we don't want to broadcast," Marlow says,) and approved by music director Chris Polley--crack the list each subsequent week. About a third of each hour is open for DJ picks and listener requests. "It's a compromise between free-form and a commercial format," Marlow notes.

Unlike some commercial radio stations, which Marlow says have a pre-programmed hard drive of music sent to them every couple of weeks, Radio K's DJs have a candy superstore's worth of delights at their fingertips. Some 9,000 CDs line the walls of the main broadcast studio, with another 1,000 CDs and about 7,000 vinyl selections down the hall.

That translates to variety you can't find on all but a rare few commercial stations. And people devoted to music have noticed. Hanging on the walls near the front desk of the station are some of the accolades from recent years from City Pages' Best of the Twin Cities polls: Best Radio Station in 2000 and 2002; Best Radio Station Reader's Choice and Best Rap Radio station, also in 2000; and Best AM Radio Personality Reader's Choice, Mark Wheat, 2004. And Radio K was also mentioned by Rolling Stone as a contributing factor toward the University of Minnesota being one of the top 10 Schools That Rock.

Aside from offering diverse and truly alternative music, the station also offers students an experience of a lifetime.

"It's been way more than I ever expected," says Stolpa. "It's been probably one of my best experiences here [at the University]."

"I've really enjoyed my experience, and part of that is I've been able to make a lot of friends here," adds Kwong. "There's no radio station in the country where I could get a job DJ-ing like I do here at Radio K."

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