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The Old College Try

CU radio thrives on the AM band.

To say that KVCU-AM, known as Radio 1190, is in the bowels of the University Memorial Center on CU's Boulder campus is no exaggeration; it's located in the UMC basement at the tail end of a crowded labyrinth of corridors and is so near an open-air loading dock that DJs must move quickly to avoid being run over by workers making deliveries to the nearby university bookstore. Its offices are similarly lacking in luxury: Tattered posters cover up the few patches of wall that aren't lined with compact discs or well-worn albums, and much of the furniture looks as if it should be waiting on a curb for the Salvation Army. But to the dozens of bright, hip, eager students on Radio 1190's staff, it's both a fabulous chill-out zone and a cultural oasis that allows them to share -- with friends and strangers alike -- intriguing music that's not being played anywhere else in the area. And their enthusiasm is a big reason that Radio 1190, which is celebrating its first anniversary this month, is by far the freshest spot on the Denver-Boulder dial.

The birth of the outlet lends credence to the Jungian theory of synchronicity. CU-Boulder got its first station, dubbed KUCB, in 1978, but instead of sending its signal through the air via a tower, it used carrier current that wormed into the school's dorms through the electrical system -- and because the sound was so lousy, few students bothered to listen to it. "Some of the programming was a little self-congratulatory, because usually it seemed like nobody was listening," admits Mark Von Minden, a onetime KUCB staffer who now has a show on Radio 1190. "I remember getting calls a couple of times, and I was so surprised."

In the early Nineties, certain elements within the school administration wanted to pull the plug, but energetic lobbying kept it percolating, and in 1994, students voted to establish a fund to buy a broadcast-worthy station. Over the next few years, around $320,000 in student fees was earmarked for this purpose, yet the prices of radio stations had escalated so quickly that the amount fell far short of what was needed. Fortunately, Jacor, the corporate giant now known as Clear Channel, entered the picture. The firm wanted to buy KTCL-FM, but FCC regulations forbade it from doing so until it unloaded one of the eight properties already in its portfolio. So in exchange for some good publicity and a nice tax deduction, Jacor gave CU-Boulder KHOW2-AM/1190, a station that had been idle for some time.

The gift led to debate over whether the station should continue to be a music-intensive, student-run broadcaster like KUCB or a comparatively stuffy public-relations arm of the university. In the end, the former proposition won out, and administrators hired Jim Musil, who'd previously helped start up a station at the University of Minnesota, to oversee the operation as general manager. The 29-year-old Musil says that for a while, he was "the enemy" in the eyes of some KUCB students because he wanted to establish a rotation of songs that would be played more often than others. "But I certainly didn't come in here with an iron fist. What forms a station's identity is the listeners and the staff, and I was receptive to what the staff wanted, and tried to help them turn it into viable radio."

What Musil and the students came up with is an effective compromise between free-form musical anarchy and the sort of anti-spontaneous structuring that can make commercial stations so redundant (Radio 1190's slogan is "Destroying Corporate Rock Since 1998"). Music director Denise Rogers explains that jocks are asked to spin between six and ten songs an hour from designated albums, with certain cuts suggested but none mandated; otherwise, the show is theirs. "Doing it this way really helps students who come in with a good amount of passion for the music but not a lot of knowledge of different things," she says. In addition, the station spotlights a slew of specialty programs, including a local-music program co-hosted by KVCU training director Sharon Gatliffe Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m., a Brit-pop undertaking assembled by Lisa Wallace from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays, and Basementalism, a hip-hop extravaganza from 9 to11 p.m. Tuesdays that's quickly earned a reputation as the finest show of its type in the state. Basementalism co-host Mike Merriman, who's frequently joined on the air by skilled local mixers such as DJ Vajra and DJ Resonant and touring hip-hoppers such as Slick Rick and members of the Jurassic 5, has a busy November planned; he's put together what he calls "a hip-hop miniseries" that will explore the artistry of emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing and graffiti art in successive weeks. "We want to teach people the difference between real hip-hop and the corporate trash you hear on other stations around here," he says. "It sounds great, but it also has an educational aspect to it."

Incorporating more traditional forms of instruction appeals to the CU administrators charged with keeping an eye on the station. Philip DiStefano, vice chancellor for academic affairs, is solidly behind Musil's plan to provide opportunities for theater students interested in producing radio dramas and hopes that members of business and entrepreneurship programs will get involved as well, while Stewart Hoover, dean of the school of journalism and mass communication, is eager to see the fledgling news department develop. But on the whole, both seem thrilled with the station thus far. "In talking to our students and members of other constituent groups in the area, it seems that listenership is up and people are enjoying what they're hearing," DiStefano says. "I think the station is doing a great job of carrying our message." Hoover agrees: "Everything I've heard from people has been very positive, and if we're doing something people are interested in and it's identified with the university, that's good PR for us."

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