A gander at the adult album alternative charts isn't as unpleasant an experience as you might imagine. Recently the Jayhawks, Counting Crows, Jack Johnson, Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, David Gray and Nickel Creek -- everything from hipster folk to alternative country to quasi-bluegrass to straight-up rock -- have all cracked the Top Twenty. But charts are meant to be heard, not read. St. Louis's biggest AAA station, The River (WVRV, 101.1 FM) doesn't exactly inspire listener confidence in the format -- that is, unless you count a steady pretty-boy stream of Coldplay, matchbox twenty and Dave Matthews as crank-it-up music.
Further left of The River and further left on the dial, KCLC (89.1 FM) has managed to explore the advantages of the admittedly catch-all AAA chart. Mixing minor nuisances such as John Mayer, Jewel and Bush with major turn-ons such as Kasey Chambers, Tom Petty, Beth Orton, Elvis Costello and even the Bangles and the Flaming Lips, KCLC (also known as The Wood because its home is the Lindenwood University campus) follows the blurred lines sketched out by the fuzzy charts and then smears them ever more, sneaking in nonhits by Rufus Wainwright, Nirvana, the Talking Heads, Tina Turner, and Simon and Garfunkel. Juxtaposing No Doubt's "Running" with Randy Newman's "Sail Away" is bizarre, but in a test market, play-'em-safe radio world, such collisions sound absolutely thrilling.
KCLC's story begins with Martha Boyer, a mythic figure on Lindenwood's St. Charles campus. Part of the post-World War II humanities faculty, Boyer had a maverick vision for what was once little more than a finishing school for women. "Those who remember Martha," says operations manager Rick Reighard, "describe her as not exactly proto-feminist but as a crusty, take-no-prisoners lady who felt that women should not be white-gloved and sit in the background. She wanted to teach women to go out and have the skills that men did. You didn't mess with Martha."
In 1948 the Lindenwood administration decided to hone their students' professional skills by outfitting them with cash registers. Boyer had a different idea: She took the allocated funds and bought radio equipment. The station, located in the Memorial Arts Building (where it remained until November), pumped out little more than a watt, but it was the first carrier-current station -- transmitting over existing campus wiring rather than by way of an antenna -- west of the Mississippi. The main studio, built around a stage and a piano, broadcast live music by pop acts such as the Lindenwood Ladies. In the '60s the station began spinning records and moved to block programming -- dedicated daily slots for blues, country, folk, jazz and rock -- then switched to smooth jazz in the '90s until recently settling on AAA. After a lightning hit to the transmitter in 1997, the station restructured and boosted its signal to 35,500 watts, affording The Wood a 50-mile range. KCLC bargained with the FCC to make the signal directional, sending most of its waves westward so as not to interfere with the St. Louis market.
KCLC broadcasts 24/7, without commercials and without regular on-air fundraising. "The number-one mission is to be a learning laboratory for Lindenwood students," general manager Mike Wall explains. "People ask why we don't have a classical program. Well, our students aren't going to leave here and work at a classical station. We try to run KCLC, as much as we can, as a commercial station, the kind of place they might work at. The students know they can't bring their records from home and play them. There's a science to programming, and sometimes the science is wrong or right, but there are certain rules regarding the programming, and you have to abide by those rules."
With only three paid employees, a handful of community volunteers and 60-odd mass-communications majors, KCLC runs as a state-of-the-art digital studio, employing the popular and pricey Scott Studios touch-screen program, the same system found at commercial stations such as KSHE (95.5 FM) and The Point. Students learn every aspect of commercial radio: from writing press releases to running remotes, handling gear and recording public-service announcements. "The more hats you can wear, the better off you'll be," Wall says. "You have to learn one area more intensely, but even if you're interested in the public-relations end of things, you still have to learn to do a radio show. It's helpful for all the students to see what comes out at the end of the process."
With the exception of a few microphones and headphones, the KCLC studios barely suggest a rock & roll environment, let alone a college-rock environment. The music, stored as compressed audio on hard drives, is programmed by senior Brendan McGhee, who follows the AAA charts, corresponds with record labels and sets the weekday playlists. On weekends, KCLC still runs block programming, including electronica, blues, bluegrass and Christian-rock shows. During the school year, the station regularly transmits football, baseball, basketball and roller-hockey games.
"Many of the big names from Lindenwood broadcasting have gone into sports," says Wall. Some of those names include Randy Karraker and Dan McLaughlin, who now works Cardinals telecasts. "Here, the students learn on the air in a major market, doing college sports. If you were to send someone off to a basketball game with a tape recorder, they're gonna do a half-assed job, because they know it's just an assignment and no one is going to hear it. But, by God, when you're standing out there with your fly unzipped, in a live-remote broadcast, you have to give it your best shot, and if you don't, you sound like an idiot, and everybody knows it."
Even with all the high-tech consoles and logic boards, KCLC still feels like a college station. Dead air comes and goes, the kids stumble over traffic reports and DJs still get excited about a new Tori Amos or Wallflowers track. "The traditional large college stations, which are cash cows, air NPR and Corporation for Public Broadcasting," Reighard says. "The students don't get much of a chance to play; they get to look over someone's shoulder, and most of the radio is based around fundraising. Most of the time, students end up with a 150-watt coffeepot to play their music, and that's it. We've never taken that approach. Fundraising is secondary to getting the students on the air and getting their hands dirty. We kick them out of here as juniors so they can do internships and work in the market. Most schools don't even let the students touch things until they're juniors. From the beginning, we teach them how not to blow up the equipment or get fined by the FCC, and then we let them run."