Public Radio Station 88.5 FM Enters a New Era with Major Coverage Expansion Across Southern California.
After years of work, negotiations and engineering, officials at California State University, Northridge and Saddleback College in Mission Viejo in early September announced an unprecedented shared programming agreement for the Southland between their public radio licensees, KCSN-FM and KSBR-FM.
Both stations have been operating on the 88.5 FM frequency. By working together in this unique expansion partnership, KSBR and KCSN will dramatically expand their combined signal reach through Los Angeles and Orange Counties and parts of Ventura County, providing a single station to a potential audience of 11.5 million listeners, a huge boost from the stations’ previous combined reach of 2 million.
The merged station, dubbed “The New 88.5 FM,” can now be heard from Santa Clarita to San Clemente. Broadcasting from campus studios in Northridge and Mission Viejo, as well as a remote studio at The Village at Westfield Topanga, the station also streams online at www.885fm.org.
To celebrate the expansion, multi-Grammy winner Sheryl Crow headlined a special benefit concert on Oct. 23 at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. Crow, a longtime listener and supporter of KCSN, said she was thrilled to help the station.
“There’s something magical on the dial at 88.5 FM,” she told Billboard magazine in September. “The station’s passionate dedication to supporting artists, providing them a home on the airwaves and introducing listeners to the best of new local talent is unmatched. It’s wonderful that listeners all over Southern California will now have a chance to hear what they’re doing.”
CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison called the union historic.
“This partnership is being hailed by broadcast engineering experts as providing the largest increase in service area in public radio history, and it will be one of the largest non-commercial coverage areas in the country,” Harrison said. “Beyond the expansion in coverage, more importantly, this is an expansion of our service to the region, our students and the arts.”
Sky Daniels, co-general manager and program director, lauded the current and past leadership of Saddleback College and KSBR for their vision in developing the partnership, including Saddleback College past President Tod Burnett, former community college district Vice Chancellor C.M. Brahmbhatt, current interim Chancellor Debra Fitzsimons and former KSBR General Manager Terry Wedel. Bart McHenry, former dean of fine arts and media technology at Saddleback College, also played an active role and now serves on the station’s oversight board, Daniels said. “When people look at the map and see the population growth of the signal expansion, they all use one term: game-changer,” he said. “Now we have to go out and realize that potential. One of the things we want to do is to be strategic — we need to be in Orange County for the musicians, engaged in the lifestyle, the concert and club performances. We are going to have to plant flags — both here in the Valley, in the LA Basin, which we’ve been doing, and extend that down to Orange County. We have to create more of those event partnerships, so people come out and see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears, ‘Wow — this station is really making things happen.’
“In the last few months, we’ve had five or six presidents of the major record labels come visit because they feel something is happening here,” Daniels continued. “When you add the expanded signal and the ability to reach 8.5 million more people, that increase is the size of the third-largest market in America, which is Chicago.”
Robert Gunsalus, president of the CSUN Foundation and vice president for University Advancement, who oversees 88.5 FM, praised the expansion and the work of Daniels and his team.
“Los Angeles and Orange Counties are vibrant communities that are the home of so many creative artists, many who have been supported by these great institutions,” Gunsalus said. “The station has already gained the respect and support of some of music’s most influential artists. This partnership and the expanded coverage area will only grow its impact. Our commitment to supporting new, local and legendary artists serves not only the region but the needs of the music community in a powerful way.”
Daniels credited the many broadcasting engineers and consultants who helped 88.5 FM tackle the technical aspects of how exactly to synchronize the two stations’ frequencies.
“These engineers had a passion for finding the answers, the same way that it’s my life’s mission to support musicians,” he said. “They determined that by taking these two relatively low-powered signals — and mitigating the co-channel interference and synchronizing the two 88.5s — we could increase our coverage area.
“I remember the engineers said, ‘Don’t expect us to offer hyperbole. We’re going to be very pragmatic about what we tell you,’” Daniels said. “And then when they completed their studies, they were all flipping out! They were literally giddy. And I said, ‘What happened to the pragmatists?’”
Perched on the third floor of CSUN’s architectural jewel, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Valley Performing Arts Center), the CSUN 88.5 FM studio boasts large windows and expansive studio rooms decorated with souvenirs from grateful musicians, such as an album autographed by the late Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and a guitar signed by Rachael Yamagata.
At the campus studio, in addition to the 88.5 News space — where countless broadcast journalists have gotten their start and students continue to train daily — student interns are learning more than how to operate equipment, Daniels said. “Part of the internal education is getting the students who come here as interns and employees to realize, this is once how radio was — it was this inclusive environment,” he said. “That’s when we see the light go off over their head, and their affinity for radio increase.” The driving force behind the station’s format, Daniels carries a reputation as a rock music visionary. Billboard magazine, one of the music industry’s leading publications, named Daniels as one of the top 25 “most influential” rock radio programmers in 2016. He has a proven track record in radio: He helped develop KFOG/San Francisco, WLUP/Chicago, KISW/Seattle, KMET/Los Angeles and other stations during his career. CSUN snared him in 2012, hiring him as program director of the public radio station, which has built a loyal listener following in Southern California and beyond.
“Having worked in the record industry as long as I have, and having worked in radio before that, I learned the challenges that musicians are facing to earn a living, to get out in the marketplace and to be able to do this as a profession,” Daniels said. “For performing musicians, this is the most brutal time in history. “The thing about KCSN that touched me is that university officials entrusted the radio station to me,” he said. “I told them that I wanted to build a radio station that really cared about and was devoted to helping musicians make their way, both legendary artists to sustain their careers and new artists to establish their careers. “Dr. Harrison in particular, she understood that we are serving contemporary arts,” he said of CSUN’s president. “They’ve given me a lot of latitude in building this station with that as our mission. Our mission is to support musicians. Being in Los Angeles, I know the impact an LA radio station has on the sensibilities of the record companies, because they hear it first-hand in their hometown.”
With the expanded reach throughout Southern California, Daniels said he’s pumped to share and discover truly authentic music.
“We do represent a cultural change,” he said. “We represent a status quo change in how broadcast radio can be. It’s the car culture here. What most people would view as the biggest downside of Southern California life, traffic, helps retain a great affinity for radio.
“We’re in it for the long haul, and we’ve been rewarded — we’ve had Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Sting here,” to record live, perform and just visit, he noted. “Because I was there for them at the beginning of their careers. There’s a trust. They in turn stand by our side at 88.5.
“There’s nothing bigger than when the two surviving Beatles (Paul McCartney, in Billboard, and Ringo Starr, in Bloomberg Businessweek) proclaim their love for this radio station in publications,” Daniels said, with a sigh. “I can’t describe how humbling, gratifying and overwhelming that is. The two Beatles say they love our radio station! We’re doing something right.”
The New 88.5 FM is unlike any other station in Southern California, said Saddleback College’s Jim Rondeau, a radio industry veteran.
“Southern California deserves better radio,” Rondeau said. “The triple-A format (Adult Album Alternative) is probably the hardest to describe to new listeners, but delivers a standout listening experience. Our mix of legendary, local and new artists is one that can carry you from your commute through your workday.”
“We do represent a cultural change. We represent a status quo change in how broadcast radio can be. It’s the car culture here. What most people would view as the biggest downside of southern california life, traffic, helps retain great affinity for radio. radio is still meaningful, particularly in the car, and we should seize this opportunity.” — Sky daniels, the new 88.5 FM co-gM
Rondeau and Daniels are serving as co-general managers of the new station, with Daniels as the program director. KSBR’s jazz programming will be carried on the new station’s HD2 channel, and KCSN’s Latin Alternative programming will be carried on HD3.
The New 88.5 FM offers a 24-hour, commercial-free blend of rock, alternative, soul, blues and Americana. It features a wide range of artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Alabama Shakes, The National, Bob Marley and David Bowie. The station’s programming also is available on KCSN’s HD1 channel and online at www.885FM.org.
—Carmen Ramos Chandler and Olivia Herstein at CSUN, and Chloe Walsh and Shane Greenberg at Grandstand contributed to this report.