By Daniel Kohn
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Photo by Matt OttoIt was a sonic fantasy come true when KMXN-FM 94.3 debuted its new alt.-rock-leaning format this past spring, particularly with its healthy spinning of local bands on the four-hour-long Sunday night Go Loco show. Here, finally, was an Orange County commercial station that acknowledged the huge number of OC and Long Beach musicians ready for their aural closeup. Some bands, like Wonderlove and Scarlet Crush, even managed to bleed into the station's regular daily rotation.
What could be better? How about a second OC commercial frequency, this one with a play list devoted to local music about half of every day?
Meet KUOL-FM 90.9, a Santa Ana station born in August on the Internet (and still there at www.kuol90.com) before making its way to real radio in early October. Nicknamed the Crush, after the eternally mobbed freeway interchange half a mile from the station (the broadcast studio is on the sixth floor of the Banker's Mortgage building on the corner of Main and MainPlace—the one flashing the time and temperature from its rooftop), KUOL proudly dubs itself OC's "no-frills radio station." It's truth in advertising: the staff numbers just five. It's not uncommon to hear mistakes like a different track from the same band revving up after the last one just finished. There are sporadic, brief spots of dead air. Last week, as a commercial played, a DJ didn't notice she'd left her microphone open, so anyone listening could hear her blurt, "We need another fucking mic in here!" Such is part of the charm. Infractions like these, which could get a DJ fired anywhere else, are no big deal, just part of the station's learn-as-we-go approach.
The station consistently plays local bands—Wonderlove and Scarlet Crush, but also Corday, Fuzzpop, Funhole, Mudbath, Mêlée, Exploiting Eve, the Dibs and others. The DJs have the freedom to play what they want and frequently bring in their own record collections. There's no strict format—when we tuned in Halloween afternoon, we heard a Tom Petty song followed by an old R&B ballad from the group Heatwave followed by some early Jimmy Eat World. Later in the evening, we heard some rarely spun Run-DMC and stuck around for Dub City, a reggae show hosted by local aficionado Chuck Foster. There are other specialty shows, too, giving KUOL a college-station vibe. There's a DJ mix show on Friday and Saturday nights. A Tuesday night Brit pop show hosted by Live magazine's Martin Brown is preceded by a Latin alternative show. A two-hour hip-hop show on Saturdays is followed by three hours of Phish and a two-hour block of Prince. The nightly Music Breakdown show is something of a history of selected bands (last week, it was all Dave Matthews, all the time). Sundays are turned over to classical music.
And somehow, KUOL intends to make money.
At just 300 watts, KUOL's range is about 12 miles in any direction, though pockets of Laguna Beach and Rancho Santa Margarita have been known to pick it up (drive west on the 22 freeway away from MainPlace Mall, and it starts breaking up around the Euclid offramp). Yet Thomas Miller, KUOL's owner/manager—he also has a regular DJ stint on weeknights and hosts the Prince show—is optimistic about his station's chances.
"Radio was never meant to be corporate," Miller says. "It should belong to the artists and the community. The biggest I want KUOL to get is 600 watts, so hopefully people will realize we're not trying to gauge them—we're just trying to pay the bills and the staff, all in the name of good radio."
Miller envisions KUOL as something like KROQ a quarter-century ago, when a nothing local band could knock on the station door, hand their demo tape to Rodney Bingenheimer, and have it blaring out across the airwaves 20 minutes later.
"I want bands to feel that this is truly their station. Bands like Scarlet Crush, Mudbath and Wonderlove could easily get to where No Doubt and Sublime got—they're just not getting a fair shake," he says. "A station like KIIS-FM can't know the vibe that's going on here in OC. They'd never play an independent band unless they were signed to Capitol, and I have a problem with that. Here, a local band like Mudbath could get played right next to an Avril Lavigne track."
Miller, a onetime bartender at the Cerritos TGI Friday's, had always wanted to be involved in the music industry. He started his own label in high school. After attending broadcasting school, he landed a job as a radio promotion man, hawking new records to station programming directors in the hopes they'd add them to their playlists. That's when disillusionment set in. "That's when I realized you need money for your record to get played on the radio, not necessarily talent," Miller says. (For the record, it's not called "payola" anymore, but "incentives.")
So Miller decided to start his own station.
Now he has to start making bank. Miller says it takes about $32,000 per month to operate KUOL, including the $1,500 office rent. There aren't many commercials right now, but that's because there aren't many advertisers, and the ones he has—like the OC Music Awards and a Garden Grove gear store—are music-oriented.
It's early yet, Miller knows, but he's a positive soul. "In a few months, we want to be a major player in the music community," he says. "Things are in place for us to start succeeding."