News Column

Cal State Northridge's KCSN-FM rocks L.A. like no other

May 26, 2014

By Bob Strauss, Daily News, Los Angeles



May 26--Angelenos are discovering something unusual at the left end of the FM dial: great rock 'n' roll 24/7.

For more than two years, Cal State University, Northridge's KCSN (88.5-FM) has been quietly deep-diving into Adult Album Alternative in a spacious, third-floor studio complex attached to the campus'3-year-old Valley Performing Arts Center.

The 51-year-old station's current format has attracted such local radio legends as Nic Harcourt, Jed the Fish and Harry Shearer to host more than half a century's worth of music you just don't hear anywhere else on L.A.'s airwaves.

"A lot of people consider the left end of the dial to be the weirdo zone: 'Don't go down there, you're going to get all this crazy politics and wacky music,' " said KCSN General Manager and Program Director Sky Daniels, a veteran commercial-radio DJ and station manager.

"But what we've done is say you should come down here if you're not really satisfied with the commercial radio experience," he added. The towering, energetic 61-year-old has also worked in the executive suites at Universal and Sony Music, Best Buy and the now defunct trade publication Radio & Records. "What you're going to get is real variety and knowledgeable curation."

KCSN broadcasts and streams from three state-of-the-art studios, funded largely by industry veteran, former lieutenant governor and CSUN alum Mike Curb. There's also a 25-by-16-foot performance studio that has hosted live concerts by Alabama Shakes, Berlin, Drive-By Truckers, Imagine Dragons, Jackson Browne, Los Lobos, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Young, Neko Case, Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Ziggy Marley and, oh, about 200 others.

As that list, and the exponentially larger one of artists KCSN plays, indicates, there's a wide range of styles to be heard, with the station dedicating a whopping 57 minutes of every hour to tunes.

The station aims to provide "melody and message," Daniels said. "That speaks to the fact that we like melodic (as opposed to beat-driven) songs, and we like songs with good lyrical content."

Though Adult Album Alternative -- Triple A -- is growing in popularity, it was absent from such major metro areas as New York and L.A. until noncommercial channels established a foothold.

"It's a great format," said Billboard magazine associate director of charts Gary Trust, who recently added KCSN and seven other "noncoms" to the industry bible's Triple A compendium. "It's one of the formats that really cares about breaking new music and being a little more local, instead of just following national trends."

Trust locates Triple A somewhere between hard-core Alternative, Adult Contemporary and Classic Rock. But with weekend shows dedi­cated to Americana, bluegrass, new L.A. bands, blues, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, KCSN widens the definition.

"At KCRW, I could do whatever I wanted in (my) three hours," said former "Morning Becomes Eclectic" DJ Harcourt, a Woodland Hills homeowner who severed ties with the Southern California public-radio stalwart to come to KCSN, where he now hosts the weekday morning show. "Here, there are certain songs and certain artists that the station features throughout its programming. That's important for continuity. We don't want people turning on in the morning and turning on in the afternoon and thinking it's a completely different radio station.

"So there's a thread that runs through the programming ... Then I do the Nic thing around that."

Daniels said 30 percent of the playlists are dedicated to new local bands, citing Dawes, The Neighborhood and Haim as some of the acts KCSN has helped break. And compared with the tight, often computerized rotations heard on corporate-controlled stations, KCSN offers endless mutations of free expression.

Though the ad-free, nonprofit channel does not subscribe to Arbitron or other ratings services, Daniels said KCSN's listener base is in the 150,000-160,000 range, but he dreams of securing enough funding to expand the broadcast signal east of downtown L.A. and into Orange County.

As the station grows, Daniels -- who also serves as weekday afternoon drive-time DJ -- has every confidence the music will grow along with it, dismissing talk that good old rock is being snuffed out by today's urban, country, teen-idol and reality-TV pop sounds.

"It's ludicrous," he said. "It's driven by a tendency among certain bloggers and media writers to reject the past and represent only 'the next step' in the evolution of music. I can tell you right now, based on the variety of music I receive independently, locally and nationally, I am blown away by the amount of great music that comes out that you can associate with the rock idiom ... That doesn't sound like a dying business to me."

Harcourt agreed. "If you've been brought up on 'American Idol' and that's your only understanding of what pop music is, if you come to this station with your ears open, it's going to blow your f---in' mind.

"All of a sudden, you're going to hear real, thoughtful music and lyrics that come from a place of having to express one's creativity and art, rather than a place of 'How can we fit a chorus, a bridge and three words together that will catch people's attention and be put on a Cadillac commercial?' I mean, that's the difference."

For his part, Daniels exults in the daily "four-song commute" from his home in Box Canyon. "I take pride in creating a radio station that's an emblem of cool, not only for CSUN but for the Valley itself," he said.

___

(c)2014 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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