KFSR had its celebration of its 40th anniversary a couple of days ago, a night of jazz and blues. And while I’m still processing how I feel about all of that, I definitely know how I felt about it on its tenth anniversary, when I’d only been off-air for three years, and everything was fresher in my mind. I know it because I published an article in a long-gone underground Fresno paper which explained those feelings.
As published by Inside Fresno, October 22, 1992
It was raining at noon on October 30, 1982. A nasty El Nino had triggered one of the wettest seasons on record. A fall and winter of floods and fog; one last chance for the sewers to overflow before terminal drought set in. But I felt like Gene Kelly. And why not? After all, I was going to fulfill one of my childhood dreams: to be a DJ and turn people on to music. For October 30, 1982, was the day that 90.7 KFSR went on the air.
KFSR turns ten this year, and I’m sure that the current staff will celebrate it with the dysfunctional chaos that typifies what I’ll always call “the radio station.” Looking back, what with “alternative rock” the current flavor and bands like R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana being the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Who of our times, it’s hard to describe the initial impact of KFSR on the Fresno music scene.
I’d never go so far as to say that KFSR created the musical underground. Indeed, little pockets of people were already discovering and sharing what they considered secret knowledge all over the city. No, what KFSR did was make us realize that we weren’t alone. Suddenly, new connections were discovered, new friends were made and, like one of those sci-fi computers that garners too much memory, the scene became self-aware. And KFSR was the catalyst.
Naturally, it didn’t last. If, for one brief shining moment KFSR (and to be sure, the first R.E.M. album) galvanized the entire Fresno underground, it fell apart almost immediately. After all we were all self-styled “outsiders” who enjoyed that status. So when we all poked our collective heads up and took a good look around and saw others who didn’t fit our exact profile or liked our particular type of “alternative music,” we all sniffed in disgust, and scampered back towards our own little niches. The “underground” shattered into a thousand little sub-genres: hardcore, mod, goth, industrial, synth-pop, jangly guitar, et al, each claiming to be the one true faith and all sniping at the others.
This was inevitable. Once punk proved you could split rock-and-roll subculture once, then it followed that it could be fragmented an infinite number of times. Bands that catered specifically to a tiny but rabid fan base could have sustained careers, get paid, and still have basically nobody ever hear of them. This fragmentation, and the regimentation that each fan base demanded made our job at KFSR increasingly murky and difficult.
The end result was that we tried to please everybody some times, which meant that we often ended up pleasing nobody at all. All the time we were trying to cope with the scene’s unruliness, we were also having to deal with the university administration’s and community’s image of us as “that punk rock station.”
Not that we ever admitted it. In 1982, it was hard enough to get support on campus and in the overall community without having the added onus of being “punk rockers.” So we denied being a punk rock station. Hey, we had Jazz and Country and Reggae and World Beat and Soul and Oldies and Public Affairs and Sports and News and Tons of Other Stuff. But the very heart and soul of KFSR was always in what we for some reason termed the “progressive” music . . . you know, punk rock. We wanted to have it both ways: enough respectability to keep our funding and still be snot-nosed kids on the air and in public. The respectability was important; it was way more fun to be obnoxious.
And we were. We ignored radio convention. It often sounded like on big party on the air, and all pretense of professionalism was tossed out the window. It was almost guerrilla radio, trashing the rock radio cliches that we had grown up on: the generic FM voice; the coolness of the patter, and most of all, the distance between the god on the radio and the pathetic listener.
We were having none of that. We were the listeners. The best DJs were in it for the music, took it seriously, and — even in the midst of total insanity — never forgot that the music was the single most important reason anybody was tuning in.
At first, there really were no rules, with the possible exception of some of those silly Federal Communications Commission regulations. The Rules started appearing after people started screwing up, and the overall anarchy level subsided. It was inevitable. Everything becomes codified eventually (human nature, you know). Nevertheless, it was mega-enjoyable, and if for a lot of people it was maybe just too weird, for a lot of others it was the most exciting radio they’d ever heard. At least until the novelty wore off.
Within just a couple of years of the station’s debut, people were already saying that it wasn’t as good as it once had been. It’s been a mantra ever since. I doubt that is as much as a reflection on the station as it is on the universal human desire to be blown away by something so big and different and suddenly necessary that you couldn’t have imagined it not existing in the first place.
Once people got used to KFSR, its impact diminished, and the flaws — there from the start — were suddenly throwing shade on its still vital aspects. The novelty faded, the honeymoon was history, and wasn’t it better in the old days when we first heard R.E.M.?
This all coincided with the aforementioned scene fragmentation, and, even worse, a series of internal struggles for control of the station’s direction that ironically left it directionless. Politics and infighting and just plain meanness. It was inevitable. You had 40 to 50 people in their early to mid-twenties, few of whom agreed on anything and all of whom have that absolute certainty that their idea was the only correct one. The chaos that went out over the air was nothing compared to what regularly went on at staff meetings.
The upshot of all this was that the station was never to have much more impact than it initially had. This isn’t a terrible thing. Along with similar stations that sprouted up all over the country, it started the tiny snowball that eventually built up enough of an audience for “alternative” music to cause a station like KKDJ — which spent years ignoring and deriding the music (and indeed, whose obstinance at the very dawn of punk created a need for a KFSR) — to switch to their “Edge” format. Irony: did KFSR create enough of an audience to spawn a radio station that now renders it obsolete??
Hmm, I’ll have to explore that later. Right now I’d like to wish the radio station a big wet kiss happy tenth birthday.