KDVS: Free Form Radio

In less than seven hours, KDVS has scheduled radio programming that covers the ground of bile-worthy local bands, news, Sounds of Africa, radio theater, Aggie (sports) talk, psych, punk, garage and experimental music. And that’s just Tuesday. Yet, the long-standing local college station does much more than mere radio. In addition to its normal scheduled programming, KDVS puts together two biannual concerts featuring the best of independent music, they operate a recording studio, manage a small video production, print a quarterly publication, provide a mobile DJ unit for local events, and all of their radio broadcasts are available as online streams or podcasts. It’s a lot for anyone to do, and primarily college students and the culture of Yolo and the surrounding areas provide it all.

KDVS started out as an AM station in 1964, and its first broadcast was in the laundry room of a men’s UC Davis dorm room. The first words spoken on air were, “Watson! Come here! I need a quarter!” Because the dorms were unisex, the university had to make a special arrangement to allow women to participate in the early broadcasts. From its inception, KDVS has been a force of progressive views and perspectives while also keeping strong ties to the community around it. Over time, the station moved from AM to FM, finally landing at 90.3 megahertz. But the history of KDVS, as are all histories, is a story of struggle.

Neil Ruud, the newest general manager of the station, explains the struggle to keep KDVS a non-commercial station. “In the ‘80s they had a career staff guy come in to clean up,” says Ruud. “He actually shut down the station for the summer and tried to make it a Top 40 station. There ended up being a popular revolt. From that point on, the bylaws mandated that the general manager has to be an undergraduate student.”

Ruud, who just stepped in as GM this summer, has had to adapt to managing the station quickly. “Right when I started the job, our transmitter wouldn’t power up because moisture got into the line,” he says. “And in June, which is the last month of our fiscal year. So I kind of hit the ground running.” This became a learning experience for Ruud, who has been affiliated with the station since the fall of 2008. “It showed me in my first month on the job [as general manager] how many people value the station. I got a lot of calls. People were offering money. They were offering help. It showed me how many people really cared that we actually were on the radio.”

The defining feature of KDVS is its role as independent community-centered radio, which then leads to their moniker free form. While the station is mainly student-operated, it’s also open to the public. “Anybody can come to KDVS and put in 50 hours of volunteer time and end up with a show in the middle of the night,” says Ruud. “For a music show the only rules we have are that it has to be educational. If it is mainstream music, it has to be educational or you have to be pointing out something educational about it. Mainly because we have an educational license.”

It’s the educational aspect of KDVS that enables such a broad range of programming. Ruud explains: “KDVS is in the unique situation where it’s exactly what the community wants it to be. KDVS is an unfiltered source for bands and others publishing work that wouldn’t be heard elsewhere. A lot of people are saying radio is going to die because [companies] like Clear Channel are having a hard time. But I don’t think that’s true of radio as much as it is about the commercial model.” Because KDVS doesn’t need to appease to advertisers and mainstream radio playlists, they’re able to provide a space outside of the pay-to-play model. From poetry to blues to prog to discussions of agriculture, atheism and politics, KDVS provides a safety net for the programming that commercialism has pushed aside. As Ruud says, “People want to hear about their community.”

On a recent visit to the station, Submerge was able to sit in as Simi Sohota broadcasted his show, Esotericism and the Occult in the Western World. It features an eclectic mix of garage, psychedelic and punk, which plays every Tuesday between 8 and 9 p.m.

“This is pretty much what keeps me sane between school and stuff,” says Sohota. “It’s a great escape.” Sohota is graduating this December with a bachelors in biological sciences, emphasis molecular and cellular biology. As a musician and music enthusiast he hopes to stay associated with the station after graduating.

The station provides an outlet not only to listeners but to the DJs themselves, a place to clear their heads from school, work, life. Accordingly, Sohota points out the longevity of community radio participants. “There’s people here that have been DJs since they were undergraduates. They’ve graduated and stayed on as DJs since the ‘80s, now they’ve been here 20 years.”

Brian Ang, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a masters in English, just completed his final transmission for KDVS before moving to Oakland. His show, Farewell Transmission, aired on Sundays.

“It was really pleasurable to transmit to the immediate and the wider community,” Ang says. “It kept me interested in the experimental music and radical politics that I already enjoyed and let me share those things with others.”

Upon leaving KDVS Ang notes, “It was a milestone. I’m not sad to leave because that phase of my life is thoroughly completed, and I’m beginning a new phase.” Most importantly the station continues to provide an important platform for emergent sources. “It’s hard to imagine where else anyone could find those things,” Ang says. “It opens a lot of doors for fascinating and challenging things that get totally effaced in the mainstream channels. I think that’s of extreme value.”

As is the nature of all things, college radio included, when individuals leave new spaces are opened up for others. KDVS is always in need of people who are eager to be part of independent radio. “We’re trying to get more volunteers to blog for us right now,” says Ruud. As the station moves forward in maintaining a larger online presence to accommodate their podcasts and flash streams, KDVS still needs people. Despite KDVS using the Internet alongside its radio broadcasts, that doesn’t mean they will be going online-only anytime soon.

Ruud is adamant about this last fact, “I think it’s premature to say that the radio station will be dead in 10 years. KDVS is going to stay FM for a really long time.” Long live college radio; long live KDVS.