From an anemic, mostly automated college radio station to an adult alternative format with big-name DJs, KCSN earns its place on the FM dial.
Written byMichael Ventre
Sky Daniels—disc jockey, program director, former record executive, friend to artists—is an unabashed music guy. His DNA strands are basically twisted bars of music. So it was a bit odd when, several years ago, he went on a job interview at a major radio station and discovered that his qualifications essentially disqualified him.
“I didn’t even sit down in the chair yet,” he recalls. “The guy says, ‘So I hear you’re a music guy.’ I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘I hear you’re really tuned in to the music, you know music, you’ve worked on the label side. You’re really connected in the music business.’ I said, ‘Yeah I guess so.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s a liability for us.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘I don’t want you to get all hung up on the music. Your job is to get ratings.’”
It is no surprise that didn’t work out. It would have been like hiring Mario Batali and telling him not to get all hung up on the food. But the story has a happy ending: Sky wound up in Northridge and at KCSN 88.5 on the FM dial.
KCSN is an independent station located on the campus of and supported by California State University Northridge. The spacious, spartan, window-filled offices are located inside the university’s crown jewel—the new, state-of-the-art Valley Performing Arts Center.
The format had gone through numerous incarnations including country-western, roots, classical and opera—with some Americana at night. Like a lot of creative types in Los Angeles, it was searching for its identity and its close-up.
About three years ago, while Karen Kearns—a professor at the university’s arts, media and communication school—was serving as the station’s general manager, she switched to triple-A (not the organization that rescues you on the freeway but rather the format that saves many musical souls: adult album alternative). At first the station was jockey-less, using a pre-programmed format and projecting an erudite, public radio vibe. Then in July 2011, Karen brought in Sky as program director.
His long journey to Northridge was like a sweet ride in a convertible along a sunny California highway with great music blaring, albeit with a few bumps. He had been a disc jockey at the legendary KMET (“The Mighty Met”), which signed off the air in 1987.
Sky worked as a DJ and program director at other stations until 1990, when he went over to the label side of the music business. Then, like KCSN, he had various incarnations, doing everything from running a trade publication called Radio & Records to working as a marketing executive at Best Buy.
A health scare—a bout of acute pancreatitis—rearranged his personal dial. “I got sick,” he says. “I got hospitalized. It was the age-old revelation with tubes up your nose, realizing what really matters to you. I developed a chronic disease and didn’t realize it at the time. Stress exacerbated it to the point where I really wasn’t in good shape. Fortunately I made a lot of money in the record business and invested well. I said to my wife, ‘I just want to go back to radio. I just want to be a disc jockey. I love radio.’”
Sky recuperated through rest, a change of diet and medication. And the gravitational pull of a tiny college radio station landed a career radio man essentially looking for love. Although the pairing was serendipitous, Sky didn’t spend much time swooning in a honeymoon phase.
One of his first major moves was to bring in Nic Harcourt, the well-respected program director and disc jockey at public station KCRW. At first Nic was interested in doing a weekend show on KCSN and wanted to split his time.
“I was still doing KCRW,” Nic explains matter-of-factly. “I told them, and they were really snotty about it and told me to pick one. So I picked the people who weren’t going to do me like that.”
Nic is one of only five full-time salaried employees at KCSN. Sky Daniels is another. By comparison, “KROQ has five full-time van drivers for Orange County alone,” Sky shares.
The hiring of Nic, one of the most influential DJs in the country, announced an intention to raise the profile of KCSN beyond the confines of its anemic signal and make a splash in the radio business, the music business and among listeners in the 35-to-55 demographic. This key group listens to a wide range of music—anything from David Bowie to Dawes, Van Morrison, Mumford & Sons and beyond.
Why would someone like Nic make the move? “I love the underdog,” he explains. “I’ve been fortunate in my radio career really not to work at a lot of stations. In the old days, a lot of people who worked in radio for 20 years would probably work at 20 stations. I was working out of a station in Woodstock, New York, and then in LA for the last 15, 16 years.”
He adds, “I like the fact they (KCSN) were starting up with not a lot of money or resources other than passion. That’s really what got me interested. At the end of the day, I’m a fan of the music. Having the opportunity to be somewhere that, first and foremost, has the consideration of what goes on the air makes it special.”
Next Sky reached out to another old friend, Tom Petty. Since KCSN is a non-commercial station supported by donations, Sky thought a benefit concert might be in order, and he swung for the fences.
“One of the biggest lightning bolts any radio station has had in the last 20 years was when Tom Petty agreed to do our first benefit show 60 days into my tenure here,” Sky says. “That sent a signal internationally. The same time Tom was going to do our show, U2 was giving us a guitar, Coldplay—all these superstars were throwing their support behind us. And it was framed locally as, ‘What’s going on at that little radio station in Northridge? Why are these artists doing it?’ That got a lot of attention for us.”
Sky was able to call on and get the heavy hitters—Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills have also done KCSN benefits—for the very reason the aforementioned corporate suits turned him away: the music.
“That stems largely from when you’re in the business for 35 years, and you always worked with a sense of good purpose,” he says. “I have had good intentions on the programming side. I’ve fought for artists. I lost a lot of jobs because of my commitment to artist development. I got a lot too. It was a blessing and a curse.”
And more luminaries have come on board, including Jed the Fish (formerly of KROQ) and Robert Hilburn, former longtime chief music critic at Los Angeles Times and a graduate of CSUN. Both personalities do weekend shows. Neither is paid.
“It’s interesting to me,” Robert notes, “that rock radio started off on maverick radio stations and gradually worked (its) way onto the mass market, mainstream stations, and that led to a cultural revolution. But in recent years, rock—and ‘meaningful’ music of all kinds—has pretty much disappeared from the mass-oriented, mainstream stations because American Idol-type pop and/or celebrity/spectacle pop now dominates those mainstream airwaves. But it’s stations like KCSN that have re-lit the torch for all of us who believed in the power of radio. And that’s essential, from my standpoint, for spreading the message of meaningful, artful, exciting music.”
KCSN, which heavily relies on student interns for everything from recording engineering to on-air news breaks, has plans in the near future to expand its signal by placing “sticks” in Camarillo and in Orange County. The university is not content to merely sit and listen to praises being sung.
Cynthia Rawitch, a high-ranking CSUN administrator to whom Sky reports, has been with KCSN for 30+ years. She says the current format is the most successful the station has had, although KCSN does not subscribe to the Arbitron ratings service. The gauge is mostly word-of-mouth and anecdotal—and that it is doing an excellent job of reaching private and corporate underwriters who like to shell out donations.
Cal State Northridge, with its impressive performing arts center, is already on the map. And with the positive buzz about KCSN, the map looks even cooler.
“Having a station that is listened to, that is appreciated, also then means people are aware of the university and what we do for the community,” says Cynthia, who counts herself as an avid listener. “Currently we don’t use it a great deal—but we will more—to promote Cal State Northridge.”
Sky is candid about the challenges of growing an audience with a small budget that doesn’t include much for marketing and promotion. And, like so many other executives who work in media these days, he wears several hats. He has recently also taken on the role of general manager.
And as with all public radio stations, there are other hurdles. “Unlike private radio stations, which rely on ratings to sell advertising, public stations like KSUN are passion-driven. Listeners can tune in for free. So they really have to love you to reach into their pocket and donate.”
Still Sky has high hopes that the current path will not only take KCSN to a special place in radio annals but also influence rivals. “The bigger we get, the more we’ll be on the radar of the other stations politically and otherwise. You can’t make a station like this going into a market without realizing you’re going to be an agent provocateur. If you grow to a certain point, it’ll be good for all radio listeners. As we grow, we’ll challenge some of the stalwarts to reconsider their position in the marketplace.”
And he hopes the corporate suits are watching.
More On The Music
The Play List:
“We go deep into critically acclaimed legends. But we’ll also play local music; about 30% is from local artists. What’s an LA artist? If you’re a musician with a mansion in Malibu, you are not a local artist. If you live in a bungalow in Los Feliz, you are,” Sky Daniels laughs.
A recent Nic Harcourt sampling:
• Dave Matthews Band, “The Space Between”
• R.E.M., “Fall on Me”
• Band of Horses, “Knock Knock”
• St. Vincent, “Birth in Reverse”
• The Kinks, “Come Dancing”
Keep the music going by making a donation at kcsn.org/donate.