KSDT's Hunt for a New Wave

(Erik Jepsen/Guardian)
(Erik Jepsen/Guardian)

A one- or two-hour graveyard set can get lonely for a radio deejay, but at least she has her listeners. Unfortunately, the student spin doctors at KSDT radio don’t have that luxury. “I know how frustrating it is working at the radio station when you’re doing your set, and you check the numbers and see only one or two, four people listening at the most — and that was on a good day,” said A.S. Campuswide Senator Adam Kenworthy, recalling his days as a disc jockey at KSDT, UCSD’s 41-year-old student-run radio station. Kenworthy may just have suffered a shoddy time slot, but considering KSDT doesn’t currently broadcast on AM or FM, student deejays don’t have much of a chance at listenership. Without a radio signal, the indie station can’t reach the student population as easily as other college stations, said KSDT General Manager and Sixth College senior Meredith Wong. Currently, the only place listeners can tune in to KSDT’s underground-only, “fiercely independent” programming is online or through the tinny speakers outside its tucked-away headquarters in the Student Center. But if a current bid to acquire an FM signal is successful, according to Wong, the station’s number of followers could reach grand new proportions. “We’ve been broadcasting on-line for a number of years and we’re pretty happy with that. It suits us pretty well. But to expand as a student service we really want to get an FM signal,” said Wong. “A lot of it is about making the KSDT station more of an integral part of the community and to be here more for the UCSD community as a whole.” Since its launch at UCSD as an AM radio station in June of 1968, acquiring an FM frequency has been a consistent, yet elusive goal. Just don’t ask any of its current members about this history. “One of the things about KSDT is that since we’re students, we have a horrible collective memory,” said Wong, “Every four years it gets completely erased.” Kenworthy thinks it’s more like two. As a result of the university’s revolving door, the institutional history passed down to KSDT’s current generation is a distorted one built upon myth and misunderstanding.

Selective Memory

If you ask Kenworthy, Wong, or any other current and recent KSDT staff member, they’ll tell you that the station used to have its own FM frequency. Supposedly, KSDT lost its signal in 1999 when A.S. cut the station’s funding after it violated the drug and alcohol policy. Because of this budget loss, the station had to sell its radio tower, which used to be located where the Price Center ATMs are now. But this is just one theory — according to Wong, there is a rumor mill of alternative accounts. However, KSDT was never its own FM station. No record exists — in Federal Communications Commision (FCC) archives or elsewhere — of KSDT ever having a radio tower or terrestrial FM signal. According to archived pages of KSDT’s own Web site (accessed via the WayBackMachine — a nonprofit virtual library that saves old versions of Web sites at http://www.archive.org/web) the radio station’s history reflects the difficulty in achieving long-term goals in a two-to-four-year college residency. According to these accounts, KSDT originated in 1967 in a Pacific Beach garage, from where a group of students broadcasted tunes using a low power signal. With the help of then Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Robert Topolovac, KSDT founders Don Bright and Jon Collins were awarded funding to establish a college radio station on UCSD. News of its creation ran in the founding issue of the Guardian’s predecessor, the Triton Times, on May 26, 1967, announcing its plans to wire music and student programming into the Revelle College dorms — the only ones built at the time. In 1968, KSDT set up shop on campus in an old military building made out of corrugated steel. The station used the university’s electrical system to broadcast on 540 AM over a sketchy carrier current — a low power method that doesn’t require an FCC license because of its limited reach. Maybe rumors of KSDT having its own terrestrial FM station stemmed from its broadcast over cable radio on cable FM 95.7. Cable radio transmits a signal through electrical wires but it does not require FCC licensing or a radio tower. Growing Pains

Four years after going live, KSDT made its first attempt at securing an FM signal in 1972. The station applied for a permit from the FCC that would allow it to build a radio tower to broadcast as an FM Noncommercial Educational (NCE) entity. However, the application was denied due to engineering concerns about the location of the proposed site. The next push came in 1974 when KSDT filed a petition with the FCC challenging commercial station KDIG’s broadcasting license for 98.1 FM — a frequency KSDT had its eye on to acquire. The petition maintained that KDIG (now KIFM) failed to comply with its public service responsibilities. If approved, KSDT could apply to take over the 98.1 FM frequency. Attempts to hijack 98.1 FM continued throughout the years, with interest fluctuating as staff and management changed. According to KSDT’s archived history, in 1982, UC attorneys advised the station that such a petition would likely be denied and the station dropped its efforts to pursue the procurement of 98.1 FM. The thrust to obtain an FM signal surfaced again in 1988, when the University struck an agreement with the Gannet Co., Inc. — a media company that owned local radio station KSDO broadcasting on 1160 AM and 102.9 FM. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times published on March 3, 1988, UCSD leased space on its powerful Mt. Soledad transmitter tower for KSDO to build an antenna to strengthen the station’s signal in the North County region. In exchange, KSDO agreed to pay UCSD $18,000 a year, provide student internships and set aside an hour-long slot for UCSD programming on its stations. Most importantly, KSDO pledged to help guide UCSD in the thorny process of obtaining an FM radio signal. But UCSD Communication Professor Robert Horowitz is quoted as saying, “I’m not real optimistic. The real question is whether Gannett can convince the State Department to talk to Mexico about our getting an unused frequency that is now allocated for Mexico.” Today, the University of California continues to offer internships with the Gannet Co., Inc. and 102.9 FM — now known as KJQY — still broadcasts from Mt. Soledad. But UCSD never got it’s FM radio station. The barriers to establishing an FM station had much to do with San Diego’s proximity to Mexico. In addition to the horde of commercial radio stations already established on this side of the border, KSDT would also have to compete with stations transmitting from Mexico, which has much less stringent airspace protection restrictions. Clearly, changing foreign policy for our college radio station to get an FM signal was beyond the scope of the deal. After the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the San Diego market became saturated with powerful media conglomerates, further halting KSDT’s FM radio aspirations.

Starting Over

In 1999, the KSDT Web site underwent an overhaul. It’s section on “Why KSDT Can’t Be Picked Up On a Normal FM Radio” as well as its historical content disappeared — and with the eventual graduation of its then current staff members, the station’s collective memory faded into the virtual ether, preserved only in the neglected corners of the Web. Of course, there might just be a hard copy floating around somewhere in the station. “We can probably find [the station’s history] in our records” said Wong. “We have a filing cabinet full of archives from KSDT but some of it is like, at this period of time they put all their meeting notes in and all their DJ attendance — but then some of it is like coloring book pages. And one of the drawers we can’t open. It’s like, wedged shut.” According to Wong, the station’s methods for maintaining information has changed over time. Of course, with change comes progress, and despite a slight memory loss, the new millennium has brought a new FCC policy that may affect KSDT’s FM radio prospects. In January 2000, the FCC established an option for small stations to broadcast through Low Power FM Radio — a method using less than 100watts of power resulting in a 3.5mile radius service range — ideal for a college radio and KSDT’s needs. KSDT took prompt advantage of the new broadcasting option and filed an application with the FCC on June 2 of that year. According to minutes from a September 13, 2000 meeting of the UC Regents Committee on Finance, the establishment of a Low Power FM Radio Station had the support of then Chancellor Robert Dynes and was to be fully funded by the Associated Students (A.S.) of UCSD. Equipment and construction costs were estimated at $20,000 to $25,000, with annual operating costs after obtaining an FM signal at $50,000. But like all others in KSDT’s past, this attempt was also foiled. In the Summer 2001 issue of the local Rouge Forum newsletter, former KSDT staffer Michel Cazary wrote that the FCC application was denied on the grounds that the station was located in an urban area surrounded by commercial stations. This was due to the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which was hurriedly passed in December 2000. The Act protected existing broadcasting interests by making the requirements for establishing Low Power FM stations more stringent.

The Next Episode

KSDT once again has plans to build an FM radio tower. But this time, the station might actually stand a chance. Recent developments are trending toward loosening the requirements of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000. In 2003, an independent entity — the Mitre Corporation — released a study which concluded that Low Power FM signals cause no significant interference to full-power stations like 91.1 FM or 93.3 FM — good news for KSDT’s FM radio aspirations. As a result, The Local Community Radio Act has been introduced into Congress several times with the goal of lifting restrictions on Low Power FM station licensing. It’s current form — H.R. 1147 — is awaiting a vote by the House of Representatives and, if passed, would eliminate the grounds from which KSDT’s 2000 application was denied. Also different this time around is KSDT’s partnership with the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, Inc. — an organization devoted to assisting colleges and universities establish their own radio stations. According to KSDT Exec-At-Large Marcus Rosario, the IBS would provide much-needed technical and legal advising services to the station. The next chance for current KSDT staffers to submit an application to the FCC is February 19-26, 2010. If approved, the station would receive a construction permit to build a Low Power FM radio tower to broadcast as a Noncommercial Educational station. But with 50 pages of technical jargon, filling out this application is no Scantron exam. “It’s basically a huge fatty-looking tax document,” said Rosario. Part of the process is determining whether any FM frequencies in the Noncommercial Educational range (88.0 FM – 99.1 FM) is even available. Rosario claims that he has identified at least three open frequencies that are currently owned by religious organizations but don’t offer programming, which means they could be open for the taking. Associate Vice President of Student Services Meredith Madnick is also involved in the search for a potential KSDT home on the airwaves. Madnick will be hiring an engineering consultant — probably from within the UCSD community — and has already approached ACMS for consultation. In addition, a location for the proposed radio tower also needs to be determined. An option would be to construct the tower in Tijuana and broadcast the to La Jolla region from there — a common practice of San Diego radio. Scan the stations at midnight and you’ll be able to identify which ones transmit from across the border — just listen for the Mexican national anthem. The more likely case would be to find a location on University territory, but according to Wong, campus land is in high demand. If the application is approved and the construction permit granted, the real work begins. According to Rosario, KSDT would have only 18 months to erect a tower, update its equipment, hire the necessary personnel, and renovate its spaces. And costs could range anywhere from $10,000 to 25,000. Lucky for KSDT, A.S. is fully on board and willing to draw on its reserves to fund the expensive price tag. “This wouldn’t take away from any other services or orgs. [The funding] would be taken from the mandate reserves,” said Madnick. Despite all the steps — and legalese — involved, KSDT and A.S. remain determined to see the process through, as they consider a KSDT FM station a value to the University and community as a whole. “We’d model ourselves after public radio like NPR or KCRW in L.A. They have a strict format but they still play music that isn’t found elsewhere, they still have special interest programming, they still have public news segments. I figure we’d have more news programs that cater to the campus as well as the greater San Diego area, and even sports, in addition to music. It would be definitely way more campus-based radio.”