Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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Radio Archeology
As KSPC turns 50, sometime deejay David Scott digs through old documents, picks the brains of alumni and gets just a little bit obsessed with the station’s past.

By David Scott

Fact // February 12, 1956 // Pomona College student station KSPC FM first signs onto the radio

 
Radio is a live moment between deejay and listener, leaving no trace except perhaps a lingering melody, a moment’s picture in the mind’s eye, or, every so often, a bit of recorded data. Fleeting in its very nature, a radio transmission is gone the instant it’s heard. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the sci-fi theory that broadcasts do remain as airborne surfers content to ride the waves of the universe’s expansion. Which means that something, somewhere on the far side of the Milky Way might at this very moment be getting down to yesterday’s sounds of Martha and the Vandellas — or Martha and the Muffins.

Down here on Earth, where KSPC just turned 50, I’m left to obsessively sift through whatever artifacts I can get my hands on -- play lists, program guides, press clippings, pre-recorded jingles, letters, record jacket notes – along with the memories of the people whose voices and music choices filled the airwaves over the decades. I’ve done my best to sort out the station’s storied (and sometimes murky) history, where the cast of characters – ranging from Richard Nixon to Frank Zappa -- is as eclectic as the music.

February 23, 1959 // The Richard Nixon Letter

“It is indeed a pleasure to send greetings to Radio Station KSPC on the important milestone it has attained in increasing its power from ten to one thousand watts,” begins a letter to student station manager Charles F. Waite ’59 which ends appropriately enough “Sincerely, Dick.”

Three years earlier, it had required Nixonian ambition to get the station on the air. “Pure ambition was the driving force,” said Randall Fischer ’59, the station’s program director in 1958–59. He comes right to the point when he describes the genesis of KSPC and the motivation that led five Pomona students — Terry Drinkwater ’58, Ron McDonald ’57, Ed Smith ’58, Fred Wolf ’58, and Waite — to devote large chunks of their days and nights to creating a full-blown classical, jazz, and public-interest station. The founding five worked just as hard to make their new station “legit,” raising funds for equipment and power upgrades; producing detailed plans, presentations, and reports for the College’s administration and board of trustees; and garnering letters of support from Vice President Nixon, several California congressmen and assorted mayors and commissioners.

   
Terry Drinkwater '58 delivers the station's inaugural broadcast.

The birth of the station was abetted by the intoxicating allure of showbiz and a push from the long arm of the law. The student body of the late ’50s had been raised on radio, and the temptation of broadcasting to similar starry-eyed collegians led Lockwood Haight ’55 and a group of others, including McDonald, to establish carrier current station KPCR a few years prior to KSPC. KPCR was “broadcast” over the electrical currents of the school’s dorms, which meant that Sagehens could tune into it if they put their transistors next to their coffee pots and turned the dial all the way to the left. KPCR caught on despite the fact that it often was either faint or choked with static, so its crew increased its wattage to attract more listeners — among them the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose triangulation trucks determined that the station signal was spilling out of the College and needed to be curtailed.

Along with filling the need for Pomona students to create their own broadcasting platform, KSPC also filled a programming void in the radio desert. Fred Wolf recalls the group looked at the broadcast schedules of other area stations to determine what was missing and develop a niche for KSPC: “There were very few classical programming stations in the L.A. area in those days. The students liked it and I suppose from pragmatic point of view, that was what many of the students had in their own record libraries which, of course, furnished the material.” Jazz, easy-listening dinner music, and radio subscription service programs from the UK, Canada, Europe and even the Soviet Union filled out the station’s broadcast day. Wolf notes that Ed Smith was the man behind KSPC’s music; his love for the baroque classics and African gumboot chants was already widely known on campus thanks to the sounds often coming from his legendary dorm room, which contained a superior sound system and preserved bats that hung by threads from his ceiling and danced around to the breeze and vibrations.

Ambition met showbiz when Fischer devised a scheme to help KSPC stand out in a big way at the annual freshman activities fair, eventually garnering an impressive 18-percent participation from the student body. Fischer recalls recruiting “the three sharpest looking guys on the staff to sit behind a table in jacket and tie. This is a hot September night; everybody else is in shorts and in sandals. Not my boys. [Over] an array of speakers, and we played back – much too loudly – ‘Anything Goes,’ a very funny student comedy show. In effect it drowned out the spiels of all the other tables.” Once lured by the laughs, the students were encouraged to fill out participation cards and even troop over to the studios and take an on-air voice test. One freshman who passed Fischer’s audition was Tracy Westen ’62.
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