Someone once told Marc Okrand that his best shot at radio broadcasting was to mount an antenna on a trash can. And he believed them—it made sense, since the surface area of the metal can theoretically yield a stronger signal than the antenna alone.
It was 1967, just two years after UCSC was founded, and first-year student Okrand and a few others hijacked a trashcan and mounted it on a plumbing pipe atop Stevenson Dorm 2. He attached the makeshift antenna, but before they could try it out, the university’s administration came along and made them take it down, citing fire hazard.
“I remember saying we would paint the pipe brown and the trash can green to look like a tree and blend right in. But they didn’t buy that,” Okrand says, laughing.
Once the administration approved their pirate radio gig, the students were granted temporary custody of the basement in Dorm 2 to broadcast under the assumption that they would eventually get Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved. They used a ham radio-like transmitter perched atop Dorm 2 (sans trash can) and fastened egg cartons to the wall for soundproofing. Thus KZSC was born—although cofounders Okrand, Rick Laubscher and Larry Johnson named it KRUZ back then.
Around 15 DJs brought their own records and played music or hosted talk shows. Laubscher remembers playing one-hit wonder Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermint” so many times the record broke, though that didn’t keep them from playing it. Like most of UCSC at the time, the project was a complete experiment at no cost to the students. It was a means to prove that Santa Cruz had a thriving rock scene and to tell stories of underrepresented communities.
That is, until the FCC showed up.
KRUZ began broadcasting on AM frequency 1580, which interfered with a shared station broadcasting from San Jose. When that station’s Santa Cruz listeners complained, the FCC got involved.
“They came literally knocking on my dorm door,” says Laubscher, who went on to work in both radio and broadcast television before becoming the president of San Francisco’s Market Street Railway. “I wasn’t yet 18, so it was pretty startling, and in the federal law there were big penalties for being a pirate radio station.”
They quickly shut down their operation and abandoned the basement. Soon after, UCSC installed wiring and cable TV hookups throughout the dorms, and KRUZ began broadcasting from the communications building as a direct, closed-circuit carrier station.
“Hardly anyone listened to FM back then, FM played elevator and classical music and had four listeners,” Okrand says. “Over time, more people started to listen to FM and fewer to AM because you could play album cuts that lasted more than three minutes.”
But before UCSC’s upstarts could file with the FCC, the original KRUZ call letters were taken by another station, and they were forced to change the name to KZSC. The station eventually received FCC approval to broadcast as KZSC 88.1 FM eight years later.
“It was fun, it was experimental, it was a bunch of kids in the redwoods just trying to get something new going on a campus that had no traditions,” Laubscher says.
Don Mussell, the original radio engineer for KZSC and also an engineer for KUSP and KAZU, remembers helping set up the original 10-watt antenna. But 10 watts only covered the campus, and soon after, the staff decided that it wasn’t enough—their voices, they believed, should reach into Santa Cruz. Soon after, UCSC students voted to allocate $100,000 to fund the KZSC building and radio tower on the other side of the campus.
They were permitted to use an old music building in Crown College as their new headquarters, and Mussell found a nearby knoll suited for the radio tower. They had all of the materials shipped in and poured the foundation, but ran into trouble when then-Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer disapproved of some of the shows.
“I remember the chancellor saying, ‘I am not going to allow these jiggity jigs on the air,’” Mussell said, referencing an Irish music show. “But the students already voted for it, so I wrote him a letter saying it was going to cost more if it was delayed … and he eventually changed his mind.”
They worked through the winter, and the tower was finished in February 1979.
“The students were suddenly being heard all over Santa Cruz,” Mussell says. “They loved it, and I did too.”
Station Shake Ups
UCSC’s student-produced radio station is now celebrating its 50th year on the air. KZSC has swelled into much more than the original “10-watt titan”—its 20,000-watt reach spans three counties and with the potential to reach up to a million listeners daily.
“It’s the most hands-on, practical thing I’ve done in college,” says current station manager and third-year student Morgan Corona. “There’s no communications or journalism major at UCSC, and if you’re interested in media there is no place to get audio production and broadcast skills other than KZSC.”
KZSC is first and foremost a student resource and education platform. But it also serves the community at large and has a handful of disc jockeys who are longtime community members. The intent in including community members was to both diversify the station and have experienced mentors for students, says former Station Manager Michael Bryant. In the early 2000s, Bryant says, there was a larger percentage of community-members-to-students on the air, which made student staffers upset, considering it’s mostly student support that drives the station.
“The concerns made sense to me—number one it’s on the campus, and two it’s an educational opportunity for students,” Bryant says. “More than anything, we would get the very best of the community members who were willing to work with and mentor the students who stayed.”
Currently KZSC maintains a 70:30 student-to-staff ratio and has a waitlist for non-students. Corona says that ratio seems to work, though she sometimes gets emails from upset community members saying they are “kicking out” non-students.
“A lot of people have this misconception,” Corona says. “First of all, we’re not kicking anyone out. Second of all, it’s not that we aren’t accepting non-students, there is just no more room in our ratio right now. I calculate it every quarter, and if there is space we open it up.”
When Maggie O’Grady walked into the station in the mid ’80s, she found a wastebasket full of beer cans and students who were, she says, somewhat less than professional. O’Grady, the new station manager and broadcast advisor at the time, threw the cans out and prepped for some major changes. “When we party, we party hard, but not here,” she told them, according to a 1988 Santa Cruz Sentinel article.
O’Grady was at the station for 10 years, and was present for some of the biggest events, including the 1991 protest against the Iraq war, which KZSC broadcast live, and the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
It was a miracle the station survived the earthquake, in retrospect. The building is on stilts, and the crash of hundreds of records should have taken the floor out. Art O’Sullivan was broadcasting at the time, and was blocked in the broadcasting room during his show after it hit.
“Alive and alone, I did the only thing that occurred to me,” he recalls in a post on KZSC’s blog. “I cued up a record, took a deep breath, turned on the microphone and ad-libbed.”
Along with KSCO, KZSC was one of the only stations able to broadcast across the Bay, and it served as a primary news source for locals following the quake. The station still hasn’t been seismically retrofitted, and is slated for a major renovation as soon as June. With more than six tons of vinyl on the shelves, “earthquake” is a taboo word in the building, and both the station and neighboring Cantu Queer Center are sitting ducks. The building was meant to be retrofitted 40 years ago, but there was never the time or funding. The station has been anticipating a move for years, and even removed most of the posters on the walls in preparation. Now the station is both naked and uneasy. But the show must go on.
“They say it’s cheaper to knock the building down and rebuild than brace the current building,” Corona says with a shudder. “It’s more like a demolition.”
Radio of the Future
The Crown College building has been KZSC’s home for more than 30 years, and it’s accumulated memorandums and materials to show for it. The move won’t be easy, and will have to be quick—though no one really knows yet when it will be. UCSC News and Media Relations Director Scott Hernandez-Jason says it’ll have to take place before December 2018, though staffers are crossing their fingers for as early as June 2018 since fall is prime recruitment time and is crucial for retention.
“It’s starting to be a major concern that the move time will slip back,” says KZSC Broadcast Advisor Keith Rozendal.
Temporary housing ideas have not yet been discussed, though Rozendal says that since KZSC cannot broadcast from temporary trailers, they will likely be displacing others during the construction. The project would likely cost at least $7 million, with an earliest projected finalization of winter 2020, Hernandez-Jason says, though the numbers are theoretical and nothing will be finalized for a couple of weeks. Around half of the project funding will come from student fees.
The station hopes to get a facelift and new amenities in the renovation process. Since there’s no elevator for disabled folks, they are hoping to make it ADA accessible. They want to create a larger computer production space and have a larger area to host live bands.
“We have a lot of bands on the air, almost every weekend, and there’s just no space,” Rozendal days. “Everyone will be in the lobby and the drummer will be in another room.”
In its day, the building wasn’t meant to be a radio station and wasn’t even retrofitted for internet, let alone the continual power draw that the station demands. The grafted, exposed wiring gives them internet and power issues semi-regularly.
“The rats knocked out Cruznet a while ago,” Rozendal adds blatantly.
The renovations come on the heels of the 50th anniversary celebration, which KZSC is planning for April during UCSC alumni weekend. Though the details are still being ironed out, they are hoping to include an alumni aircheck and documentary as well as variety show in the Quarry Amphitheatre. Current staffers are also working on revamping the station’s website and app, redesigning their logo and beefing up the news department in anticipation of the next 50.
Over the years, KZSC has made its name with a plethora of eclectic music and talk shows. From the station’s longest-running shows, like the women-produced “Breakfast in Bed” and “It’s All Good” to the experimental “Insect Agony” and cyperpunk talk show “Cybersoykafe,” there is really something for everyone. But along with the hits, there have been some misses.
“One show that didn’t work out so well was called the ‘Heavy Metal Wake Up Call’ and it was on from 6-9 a.m.,” Bryant says. “As far as I know, they only had one listener, which was a UPS driver and we got a lot of complaints. Picture your alarm clock going off in the morning and you hear something far beyond Metallica just thrashing away.”
A cornerstone of the station’s programming is still Friday morning’s “Bushwackers Breakfast Club,” named when George H. W. Bush still held office. And no Santa Cruz-based station is complete without a Grateful Dead show—in this case, Art O’Sullivan’s “Golden Road,” which Bryant says helped to get the Grateful Dead Archives established at UCSC.
Notably there was also Rose Lobel’s “What’s New,” which ran for nearly 30 years. Lobel has cerebral palsy, and though it was often difficult for listeners to understand her, Rose’s show was known for great music and her wicked sense of humor.
“She is such a fine person, and so strong,” says John “Sleepy John” Sandidge, who hosts “Talkabout” on Wednesday nights and co-hosts “Bushwackers Breakfast Club.” He introduced Lobel to KZSC. “She has such a great story, that’s something that the station is very proud of.”
In the early 2000s, Jane Mio and musician Del Rey temporarily took over “Talkabout.” They focused primarily on independent, pioneering women and issues around town at a time when there weren’t many women broadcasting on the air.
“It was really fun to feel like we were in control. It gave me a good backbone, but the equipment was really bad, oh my god,” Mio says. “We would have white air, because all of a sudden it would decide not to broadcast. They have really upgraded their equipment since, but that used to happen fairly often.”
KZSC also boasts some accomplished alumni, including This American Life and Serial producer Julie Snyder, and NPR’s Jesse Thorn, who started “The Sound of Young America” at the station. KZSC has received numerous awards, including recognition as one of Huffington Post’s “Top 5 College Radio Stations in America” in 2010.
Though much has changed in half a century, the core values of the station are by and large the same. Students still teach and mentor each other and use the platform as a learning opportunity to gather critical professional skills.
“Free expression, with an emphasis on free, is extremely important,” Laubscher says. “Of course, it’s impossible not to have a little nostalgia for the egg cartons and pirate radio transmitter.”
“It’s doing exactly what we hoped,” Okrand says. “I think it’s brilliant.”
For more information about KZSC, visit kzsc.org or tune in to 88.1 FM.
Update 12/11/17 12:29 p.m.: A previous version of this story misreported that KZSC reaches one million listeners daily. They have the potential to reach one million listeners daily, though have no way of calculating the exact number. We regret the error.