Proudly eclectic and free, KALX radio celebrates 50 years on the air

Lorraine Petel as KALX DJ
Cuing up some 1970s vinyl, Berkeley sophomore Lorraine Petel is a perpetual-motion DJ in the KALX studio. (UC Berkeley NewsCenter photos)

BERKELEY — Not every college radio station can boast of interviewing John Lennon live, from his bed; becoming the official broadcaster for a Major League Baseball team (the Oakland A’s, for just 16 games); running station-ID spots recorded by Charles Manson (these lasted only a week before good taste prevailed); playing 200 different versions of “Louie Louie” in one 12-hour stint (in 1982); and, on any given day, airing Ben E. King’s soul classic “Stand By Me,” say, in the same half-hour as the Buzzcocks and Los Lobos.

KALX can. And that’s just the beginning when it comes to the lore surrounding the UC Berkeley campus radio station as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. The station broadcasts live, 24-7, from the basement of Barrows Hall, at 90.7 on your radio dial, which is the way they said it back when Radio KAL first hit the airwaves in 1962.

And for all of its 50 years, from the days of reel-to-reels and campus strife to digital transmission around the world, KALX and its music-obsessed, radio-loving volunteers have collectively projected a consistent identity and ethic: It’s profoundly eclectic and free. 

Sandra Wasson has worn the general manager’s hat for just shy of half the station’s years. When she arrived in 1988, soon after graduating from Rice University, KALX had already gone through a metamorphosis from its humble beginnings — the first mixing board was built by students in a Cuban-cigar box, the first broadcasts carried by wires strung between dormitories, the first shows just four hours of classical music five days a week, live from the basement of Ehrman Hall. It grew into a 500-watt station that could be heard from the North Bay to San Jose, all day and all night, a place where listeners never knew what to expect next — its great strength.

Wasson has overseen the transformation to digital; there’s even an iPhone app now, and in just three minutes a computer spits out the weekly and monthly hit lists that took days to compile by hand. “People can hear us all over the world. They can be walking in the streets of London listening to KALX on their phone — which people have told me they’ve done,” she says. She’s instituted rigorous DJ trainings, with practice shows in the pre-sunrise hours when, presumably, few are listening. The staff has grown to 250, all but two and a half FTEs of whom are student and community volunteers.

Sandra Wesson and the 2012 KALX T-shirt
Station manager Sandra Wasson shows off the winning design in the 2012 KALX t-shirt contest.

Is it better? “It’s different,” says Wasson, one of the two and a half.  

But at its heart, it’s still the same. DJs plunder the station’s library of 100,000 record albums and CDs to compile playlists, using other DJs’ notes (on a Cosmonauts’ album jacket from the 1970s, “acid grunge” and “psychedelic pot punk”), old playlists and a lot of listening to make unobvious connections between artists, eras and genres. There’s only one rule: the grandmother policy, imposed in the 1970s and a through line since. DJs have to play at least three or four kinds of music that “your grandmother would recognize as different,” as Wasson states it.

For the DJs, the search is half the fun: “The more you dig, the more you find things you wouldn’t have, and there’s nothing like when you run across something and it’s a real gem. It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Lena Ghazarian, a recent Berkeley graduate and station operations coordinator. “Unlike on the web, where you can just stumble across it.”

The payoff for people tuning in is a curated experience, with DJs making creative leaps that no Pandora algorithm can. “It’s one of the great things about KALX — that it provides an alternative,” says Wasson. “We pride ourselves in playing things you might like but you don’t know about.” 

One recent Thursday morning, that means brand new DJ Lorraine Petel, a blur of motion behind the console and big red-sponge mike in the 6-to-9 a.m. slot. It’s ‘70s week at KALX, part of the station’s anniversary celebration, so “eclectic” this day means whipsawing between the wake-up pounding of the Avengers and the smooth sounds of the Manhattans and Ben E. King, and segueing between the familiar (“White Punks on Dope”) and the not (“Unite,” Ivory Coast soul by Moussa Doumbia).

KALX newsroom in 1967
The KALX newsroom in 1967. (Dennis Galloway photo)

Petel, a Berkeley sophomore from Florida, grew up on East Bay punk, but had to give herself an education in funk to put her playlist together. “I want to make it really cohesive,” she says. Being on-air also lets her play old favorites. Cuing up “Stand By Me” on one of the two turntables, she turns to the mike and tells listeners, “It’s a week of guilty pleasures. This is another artist near and dear to my heart — my mother used to play it. I know that sounds corny, but I go to all these concerts and the bands are covering it.” 

Because of the Internet, Petel knew about KALX long before she got to campus. Working at the station was a no-brainer, and she spends about 12 hours a week there, as DJ and publicity manager.

The ring of the public phone line interrupts the flow as “Stand By Me” gives way to the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” “Oh no!” says Petel, braced for whatever comments the caller might make. A quick listen and she relaxes. Someone just wanted to tell her, “You just made my morning.”

“It makes everything you do for the station totally worth it,” says Petel.

A lot of students seem to agree: More than 100 showed up last month for the station’s fall-semester orientations.

In celebration of its half-centenary, Wasson has orchestrated a month of events that amount to mashup of past and present, on-air and off-.

Week by week, KALX has been broadcasting songs off the playlists from each of the last five decades. Interspersed are “throwback” recordings of live performances (REM at the Old Waldorf, taped by the station in 1979, for example) and live interviews (the Dalai Lama among them). 

KALX music library
KALX’s treasure trove, its “library” of 100,000 annotated record albums and CDs.

An exhibit of memorabilia spent a few weeks at the Oakland gallery Rock Paper Scissors, and now is showing in a window at Amoeba on Telegraph. Among the historic artifacts is a photo of Larry Baer in 1978 when, as a junior and KALX station director, he persuaded A’s maverick owner Charlie Finley to make KALX — then a mere 10 watts strong — its radio home, briefly; Baer went on to become the owner of the San Francisco Giants. Also on display: a gold record from De La Soul’s record company, and a platinum record from Public Enemy’s, recognizing the station’s promotion of the acts, and a copy of the 1961 letter (signed by Thomas B. Dutton, assistant dean of men) authorizing installation of KAL in a music room in Ehrman Hall.

The station also curated three L@TE: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA shows, including the upcoming (Nov. 2) appearance by Shotgun Wedding Quintet.

The whole month culminates with the 50th-anniversary edition of its annual rite of survival, the on-air fundraiser, this year featuring more historical programming. A 13-minute piece of the John Lennon interview — he talked about People’s Park from the famous Bed-In for Peace he and Yoko Ono staged in Montreal in 1969 — will be played.  The fundraiser starts tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 19) and lasts through Sunday, Oct. 28.

For more about KALX’s colorful history, the station’s own account is posted online.