In the basement floor of Barrows Hall, appropriately situated amid the colorful hub of sociology and ethnic studies classes as well as the home of the gender and women’s studies department, is a coalition of unique backgrounds and eclectic tastes in music that thrives on dedication, independence and over 500 watts of power.
This month, KALX Radio, a freeform student radio station broadcasting at 90.7 FM, will be approaching its 55th anniversary and will be holding a fundraiser from Oct. 23-30 in celebration of its milestone achievement. And although the station has long moved past the days of using a cigar box as a makeshift mixing board, KALX has vehemently made sure to preserve its “independent spirit” and to curate an environment that is as inclusive and diverse as the music that’s aired.
“Nobody thinks twice about who’s who. You’re all here for the same purpose, and there’s something special about that,” says Elena Mateus, a student working on her first semester as a news reporter at KALX. “It’s like a little support system.”
And this system is certainly visible the moment you step foot in the station to peer into every room that is responsible for contributing to KALX’s unique sound.
In one room, Kendra Levine, music librarian, DJ and graduate of UC Berkeley, organizes the endless inventory of different genres and styles within KALX’s vast music library. And while she works in one of KALX members’ most favored spaces, she gravitates toward her cherished ‘60s and punk music category and might take the time to challenge her own tastes — or, as she explains it, expose herself to “someone else’s point of view.”
Across the library, Tesla Monson, a DJ and a postdoctoral researcher in the department of integrative biology, hosts “The Graduates” — a talk show in which fellow graduate students can come in to talk about the research they’re currently working on.
“It’s really gratifying to be able to see a problem in science, like the need for outreach and diversity, and take things into your own hands to make an immediate impact,” said Monson.
Allowing students the freedom to choose however they want to impact their audience was a common theme at the station.
For Robin Doll, also known as “Carlos Kowalski” on air and a graduate of UC Berkeley in English, she is most satisfied when she feels she is “letting the music speak for itself” putting herself in the background.
In contrast, Monson takes advantage of the medium in order “to offer a platform for science outreach and education that promotes diversity in the sciences.”
And with the hodgepodge of different projects being pursued in KALX, everyone has developed a strategy that helps them reach their goals in the most efficient way.
For music DJs, the eclectic sound of KALX is curated through “The Grandmother Test.” Doll shares how three different genres must be played every hour and that “if you showed the music to a grandma, she would be able to distinguish between the genre.” In addition, she might sling back and forth from mainstream music to an obscure “crazy noise song” for the effect it creates.
“It’s all about putting music into a new context,” Doll says.
Similarly, Monson makes it a point to delve outside of her own department of integrative biology and has had many episodes with people from the departments of music, anthropology, theater, dance and performance studies and many others.
News reporters, such as Mateus, Saffron Sener and Nick Murdock, are constantly keeping their heads on the swivel for important local news. While Murdock makes sure to watch and listen to news publications such as NPR earlier in the day, Mateus has found the the perfect reason to latch on to Twitter — finding hot topics she can talk about.
Ultimately, the station has found an art to and value within having a “laid-back” environment that Sener and many other staff members depend on. Abby Stiris, publicity director of KALX and a junior at UC Berkeley, emphasizes how people can choose to contribute however much they want to.
“We have some people who are really committed to the department like how I was, and then we have people who just want to help out at some point,” she noted.
It’s the same kind of flexibility that attracted people like Mateus to KALX in the first place and will probably continue to do so.
Though the radio station is colored by a wide range of programs, departments and responsibilities, all members are united in their singular hope to continue to expand KALX and attract more students to radio.
Despite the aggressive advent of digital music and podcast streaming services, there is no mystery as to how this station has managed to maintain their unique presence on the airwaves. What they have to offer can only be found and made in Berkeley, and for as long as there continues to be people living in this strange yet vibrant city, KALX will remain alive and move forward to its next anniversary milestone.