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KFSR 90.7 FM: The Brave Alternative
by Andrew Veihmeyer
Jazz tunes in the early morning, electro-lounge and bossa nova in the afternoon, and a concoction of techno, British rock and folk in the late evenings. That's merely a sampling of the programming at KFSR, Fresno's self-described “music alternative” operating on the Fresno State campus. The station's past can be traced to the early days of the university, but its existence today as a jazz and eclectic specialty station comes in the wake of significant industry change and financial struggle -- one its supporters are determined to win.
“Our hearts are wrapped up in this place,” said Julie Logan, KFSR's operations manager and program director.
Logan has built an extensive radio career both in Sacramento and Fresno. Her beginnings in radio were at KFSR as an on-air talent while she was a student at Fresno State in the 1980s, a decade in which many emerging musical acts received airplay on the station. A few, such as U2 and R.E.M., would become among the decade’s most iconic bands.
In 1987, while Logan was the student station manager, the Federal Communications Commission approved KFSR's application to increase the station's power to 2,600 watts, greatly expanding its transmitting range. (The station's FM signal covers the Fresno and Clovis metro area, with a potential audience of a half-million people. Listeners worldwide can tune in online.)
Just a few short years later, in the mid-1990s, changing technology threatened the viability of the station. Don Priest, KFSR’s general manager, recalled how an industry-wide move to computer-based operations meant turntables, cart machines and reel-to-reel tape recorders were outdated. So was the need to operate them. Because the academic department that offered the university’s lone audio course did not have extra funds to invest in new equipment, the course -- a vital laboratory for students interested in careers in radio -- was discontinued. Students with a passion for music still sought out on-air opportunities to hone their skills and share their interests, as did volunteer DJs from the community, but there was no longer a system in place.
“The station became a sort of playground for music nuts,” Priest said. “No one was really in charge and everyone pretty much played what they wanted.”
What was needed was leadership and equipment upgrades. Both arrived in the early 2000s. A major player in the transformation was a 20-something year-old who had volunteered at KFSR as a college student and stayed with the station after earning his degree: Joe Moore.
“It was clear that the station had many listeners,” said Moore, now director of program content for KVPR (FM 89.3), the Fresno-based public radio station. He added that, while he could recognize that KFSR was a “great resource” for students and the larger community, “it wasn’t always being used for the benefit of either.”
Moore approached Priest with the idea of turning KFSR into a nonprofit that would raise its own operating funds, similar to National Public Radio. Priest was then chair of the university’s Department of Mass Communication & Journalism, which had oversight of the station. Becoming a nonprofit would allow KFSR to hire a full-time station manager and give the operation the continuity it sorely needed. Moore and Priest hoped it would also generate enough revenue to allow KFSR to begin upgrading equipment.
University administrators approved the proposal and KFSR became a hybrid of sorts, with Moore at the helm as station manager. Fresno State continued to provide the studio and office space and cover the cost of music licensing, but the station now relied almost solely on community-based fundraising.
“Listeners did respond,” Moore said of KFSR’s fundraising efforts. “Without that I don’t think we would have been able to move forward.”
Indeed, KFSR saw many improvements during the next few years, including the expansion of the control room with a new audio workstation, an upgrade of the station's audio control board and transmitter, and the addition of an industry-standard automation system that insured uninterrupted programming throughout the day.
The recent economic downturn has had significant implications for the station. With an annual budget of approximately $75,000, KFSR relies primarily on biannual pledge drives to help cover operating costs. At the beginning, the funds collected from these drives would reach between $50-$60,000. Once the recession began, that amount plummeted to as low as $15,000.
“Finding consistent streams of revenue, that's the difficulty,” said current KFSR station manager Mike Stephens. “That was the case two years ago and is still the case today -- to find the right people with a passion for the station.”
Stephens started with KFSR as a student sports reporter in the 1980s. He gained radio experience in Honolulu and later developed a career at several Central Valley stations. Along with Logan, he was excited to return to KFSR and believes the station can act as a model for other nonprofits.
“We can own what we do in this market,” he said, by focusing on what sets KFSR apart in the Central Valley: its dedication to jazz and blues and commitment to eclectic style over commercial sameness.
Logan said the station’s unique and varied offerings attract considerable interest from both local niches and around the world. She said the specialty show, “Hye Oozh,” dedicated to Armenian music and culture, is especially popular.
Jordan Nicholson is a DJ for the Evening Electic show. Like other student DJs before her, she enjoys the freedom she has to explore new music on air.
“I will play a piece of music from Nigeria from the early ’70s. I’ll follow that with a soul classic like ‘Use Me’ from Bill Withers,” the mass communication and journalism major said, underscoring just how varied her program can be.
Nicholson also appreciates the opportunity she has been given to gain experience in radio production. She said volunteering at KFSR has allowed her to improve her skills in sound mixing and her ability to work with different kinds of studio equipment.
Opportunities for students to get involved with KFSR are not limited to radio broadcasting and production. The station routinely reaches out to the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning for student help in a variety of capacities. Students have developed skills in public relations, event planning and even grant writing in support of the station.
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from their involvement with KFSR. The station is committed to fostering relationships with the community at large by offering on-air opportunities to volunteer DJ’s who have a real passion for the music they play.
“For KFSR to be on campus is huge,” Stephens said. “We offer people a way to learn radio in a vocational sense.”
But such opportunities for radio enthusiasts, not to mention students who gain invaluable experience at KFSR, are threatened by financial realities. More to the point, the station needs the strong support of listeners to thrive.
Don Priest believes one key to the station’s success is getting the word out: If you’re tired of settling for the mundane offerings of commercial radio, you need to tune in to KFSR.
“For whatever reason, KFSR still seems like the ‘Undiscovered Country’ around here,” Priest said. “I run into people all the time who say they’re music lovers and are tired of commercial radio, but still think of KFSR as ‘that college station’ and never give us a listen.
“To them I have to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing. Once you try us, you’ll never go back to white bread.’”
The KFSR Fall 2014 Pledge Drive runs from Oct. 4-18. It will kick off with a Latin jazz concert Saturday, Oct. 4, at a location to be announced and wrap up with The Fresno Grand Opry Show on Saturday, Oct. 18, at the Fresno Scottish Rite Center in downtown Fresno.
Andrew Veihmeyer was news editor of the campus newspaper while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in communication at Fresno State. Most recently, he has worked as a marketing intern for several companies and nonprofits in the Central Valley.