The studio at KX-FM 93.5 in Laguna Beach is abuzz on a recent Sunday evening even before the "on-air" light switches on. The host of the eponymous Inner Journey With Greg Friedman hurriedly checks in with phone-interview guests slated to promote the Bhakti Fest held in Joshua Tree. Five minutes before his show is scheduled to begin, his producer waves him into the studio. The New Age-flavored theme music begins sharply at 7 p.m. Friedman clears his throat, shuffles around a bit, then finds poise just as his mic goes live.
The next two hours of higher consciousness, spiritual awakening and healing talk meshes perfectly with the vibe of Laguna Beach. But if not for the bold dream of Tyler Russell, a 26-year-old radio upstart, KX-FM would have been just another static skip on the radio dial. "Laguna Beach is such an artistic, eccentric town," says Russell, the station's program director and founder. "We have such an eclectic mix of shows, everything from spirituality to reggae and ska music to surf culture to yoga. These are all very Laguna Beach things."
And now so is KX-FM, a low-power, community-radio gem resting just on the outskirts of downtown Laguna Beach's bustle. The white walls of the second-story office suite where the station makes its home are scrawled with messages from all its on-air guests.
The broadcast studio overlooks South Coast Highway. The back patio offers a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean's rippling waves. Its signal strength caps at 10 square miles from a 100-watt transmitter tower, allowing its programming to reach around 110,000.
Long before building the station, Russell managed Chapman Radio while a student at the private university in Orange. During his senior year, the Tucson transplant interned at corporate radio stations such as KIIS-FM, HOT 92.3 and K-EARTH 101.
After graduating, he pursued a career in radio, eventually landing a gig at the Palm Springs station KKUU-FM 103.9, where he learned some management chops. "It was that transition where I slowly got disenchanted with what I thought radio was going to be," Russell says in a radio-ready voice. "I couldn't talk about myself or play listener requests."
Feeling dejected, Russell relayed his experiences to his father in Arizona; he suggested Russell start up his own station. Though the idea seemed far-fetched, Russell called around until he found a dormant frequency owned by a Laguna Niguel church that was eager to unload it. After buying the license in 2011, Russell set up an office space. "The day we went on air, we got so many compliments," he says of the station's October 2012 launch.
Russell filled the programming grid with three full-time workers, including himself, and 30 volunteers. Ads calling for radio talent yielded hundreds of disaffected corporate-radio folks looking for an open mic by the beach.
Before joining the team, Friedman was a guest on Russell's morning show. "It was instant chemistry," Friedman says. "I love the energy because, as differs from almost every other radio station I've found, everybody gets to play their passion."
New to radio, Friedman got to hone his skills Saturdays from 11 p.m. to midnight before moving to Sunday nights. He has netted some big names in the spirituality world, including The Four Agreements author Don Miguel Ruiz. He also regularly features local OC musicians and artists. "There's not a week that goes by when somebody doesn't write or call to say, 'You have no idea how this has affected me in a positive way.'"
Earlier on Sundays, TNN Radio brings a different vibe to KX-FM. Filling the slot from 2 to 4 p.m., Jimmy Alvarez spins an eclectic mix of alternative rock alongside Christina Preiss and Mike Berault. Alvarez got his start at KROQ in the late 1980s. "I was there when Nirvana put a new sound in music, which was a great time to be in radio," he says. His new home gives him a platform to play cutting-edge local music, as well as retro jams. "You will always find something at KX 93.5 that's engaging."
Though it began broadcasting online in 2006, TNN Radio has been at KX-FM for the past two years. "I appreciate that Tyler lets me do a live show," Alvarez says. "We've interviewed just about everyone in town." The host still has friends in corporate radio and, without naming any names, says they envy the freedom he enjoys. "A lot of them do complain about the playlists, the rotation and the inability to do an instant request, which really fucking blows, to be perfectly honest." The show also brought Alvarez to the Orange County Music Awards. "I will try to do everything that I can to put the word out about a lot of these bands, especially from Orange County," he says. "New bands have to have an outlet where somebody's going to believe in them other than having to sell their souls to the devil and hope they get signed to a big label."
The three-year KX-FM 93.5 experiment propels forward with the help of volunteers such as Friedman and Alvarez. "They both have brought a ton of visibility in their respective worlds to KX," Russell says.
The non-commercial station fuels itself through membership programs, underwriting and on-air drives, but without flooding the airwaves with incessant pitching. But concert fundraisers are what rake in the big bucks. Last year, a resurrected Irvine Bowl hosted a Beach Boys performace that put more than $100,000 into the station's coffers. This month's KX Fest at the House of Blues sees the Colourist headlining a bill of local bands who've come through the station's doors.
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Russell finds his rewards in creating a community station that matters to residents. There are live remote broadcasts of local high school football games, art festivals, holiday events and nonprofit shindigs. "I wish more people who are dissatisfied with their radio job would take the kind of risks that we did," Russell says. "If people don't, the Clear Channels of the radio world are going to continue to monopolize it, and everyone's going to think that's what radio has to sound like."
KX Fest, featuring the Colourist, Open Air Stereo, FMLYBND and more, at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.houseofblues.com/anaheim. Sept. 26, 7 p.m. $30-$90. All ages.