by Arash Ghadishah
Chalk up another national best for Berkeley. KALX, the university's FM-radio station, has won the Gavin Award for Best College Radio Station.
Sandra Wasson, the station's general manager, attributes its success to its commitment to "being on the cutting edge. We try to be an alternative to what you are going to get elsewhere. Our music challenges both the DJs and listeners."
Gavin is a radio trade journal whose members include college and commercial stations of every format. The award was accepted by KALX music director Lawrence Kay Feb. 15 at a ceremony in New Orleans.
Launched in the early '60s by Berkeley engineering students, the station, 90.7 FM, located in the basement of Barrows Hall, has grown to become a leading influence in college radio.
Unlike commercial stations that offer a single genre of music to listeners, KALX has a wide open format that explores virtually every type of music -- blues, international, folk, salsa, hip hop, rock, jazz and more -- along with news, public affairs and Cal sports broadcasts.
In college radio, DJs choose the music they play, a freedom not available at commercial stations. The result at KALX is a programming philosophy based on diversity. Kay sees this view as central to KALX's role. "College stations are educational. We institutionalize change and experimentation."
Some 250 volunteers including students, alumni and community members donate their time to put KALX on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Each day features a minimum of two half-hour talk programs discussing campus and local issues. Other offerings include gay and lesbian programming and shows focusing on women's issues.
KALX sports offers play by play coverage of Cal games. The station is the only source for Cal baseball and women's basketball.
"We offer an alternative in sports coverage," says Wasson on the strength of the sports department. "Our broadcasters go to Cal, so they are much more connected and familiar with the teams. They really know what's going on."
News broadcasts cover national and local news, and offer students a training ground to pursue careers in journalism.
Being at Berkeley is a distinct advantage to the station, says operations manager Xandy Buckner. "Cal students are smart. They are the people who were the doers in their high school class. They bring that with them to Berkeley. We have a lot of people with good ideas who know how to get what they want done."
Over half of the music played on KALX comes from independent and non-major labels.
Independence from commercial influence is important to DJ Beni B, who has been with the station for over nine years. "Having an environment to be free to play what you want means a lot in this corporate age. College radio is the last frontier for underrepresented music."
The station shifted from a punk rock and reggae format to its current "diversity" model in 1985. Buckner said the change was an outgrowth of KALX's continuing strength as an alternative source for music.
"We're definitely not more mainstream. I would say we are more open to everybody. We still play what punk used to represent, the type of music that commercial stations don't know how to grab a hold of. We welcome everybody that wants to push that edge."
Kay believes the Gavin award is an affirmation of KALX's ground-breaking musical format, one which has taken root in college radio. "Dozens of stations across the country are experimenting with the sort of unpredictable musical diversity that KALX has pioneered since the mid-'80s. Now, we're sort of a role model."
"It's fabulous," says Buckner of the award. "I observe KALX inside-out and I know how hard our volunteers work. The programs you hear on the air represent just the tip of the iceberg of what the people here contribute. The volunteers totally deserve this."