KUCI at 50: The Radio Station’s Rebellious Roots Run Deep

KUCI’s walls are lined with vinyl—yes, vinyl. Photo by Federico Medina

“If my mom’s heard of it, it’s probably not something we’d play on KUCI,” Kevin Stockdale, the station’s broadcast-media director, says with a laugh. Jokes aside, this sentiment has been at the heart of UC Irvine’s FM radio station for the past 50 years and through innumerable changes. Sure, more than a few mainstream artists have ridden the KUCI airwaves, but it was always long before they “made it big.” And by the time that happens, the station’s DJs have moved on to the next batch of undiscovered talent. The station has also hosted countless talk shows and guest speakers over the years, covering topics that are rarely discussed by the mainstream outlets, making folks at the station pioneers and trendsetters.  

Stockdale, who’s managed the station as its only full-time employee for well more than half of its lifespan, believes KUCI has always stuck to its original mission. “I think in the ’70s, they played some stuff that, to me, looks mainstream, but in 1973 was potentially unheard of,” he says. “I think just doing something that maintains our independence and the freedom for the DJs to have the experience to research and program their own shows is invaluable. And I think that all along, we’ve been able to find things the audience isn’t going to hear anywhere else.”

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Photos courtesy KUCI

KUCI’s rebellious roots run deep. It started as a pirate radio station in 1967. UCI student Richard Privette recorded tapes, and with the help of engineering student Craig Will—who constructed a makeshift AM antenna—the two broadcasted from an Anteater dorm room. The signal was weak and had a range that spread only a couple of miles away from the campus. Two other students, Lee Sailer and Zack Zenor, soon began broadcasting a nightly talk and live music show from Sailer’s dorm room. 

Unfortunately, around that time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had begun taking illegal broadcasts more seriously, and the station was shut down. 

According to Stockdale, there are some discrepancies about who specifically put an end to KUCI’s pirate-radio days. “I’ve been here for 36 years now, and it was always [said to be] an illegal station in the dorms that was shut down by the FCC,” he says. “But this person who put together some stuff for KUCI and had a history portion came up with that it was shut down by the campus police, which is much less dramatic. Then I was talking to somebody from the communications office who’s doing a [similar] piece. He had done his research, and he had come up with the fact that, since they had strung wires through the dorm to make the AM antenna, it was the resident assistant who said, ‘You have to take this down.’”

Stockdale adds with a chuckle, “So perhaps the reality is that it wasn’t the FCC, and it wasn’t cops—it was just the dorm manager.”

Whatever the details of its initial shutdown, the result was KUCI (which remains entirely student-run) was forced to either become legit or fade into obscurity. Luckily, Will decided to undertake the task of legalizing the station. It received funding from the school’s student government and applied for registration with the FCC that year. When Will was unable to follow through with the process because of a combination of schoolwork and an injury from radiation testing, fellow Anteater Earl Arbuckle picked it up. In 1968, the station then briefly broadcasted out of another dorm room at 900 MHz on the AM dial.  

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Photo by Federico Medina

On Oct. 16, 1969, KUCI did its initial on-air test at FM 89.9. While there’s some debate about which song was played first, most agree that it was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies; other contenders include the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” The station had been moved to a storage closet in UCI’s Physical Sciences building, where two turntables, a tape deck and a low-budget mixing board had been installed; it broadcasted illegally for a month before it was granted a license by the FCC in November 1969. At this time, KUCI’s transmitting signal was only 10 watts. 

DJs could essentially play whatever they wanted and often spun records from their own collections. There was no set schedule, and the only real guideline was to stay away from the mainstream. As a result, the station offered an eclectic selection, ranging from jazz, blues and rock to the avant-garde and politically charged. Dean Okrand, who served as assistant station manager in the 1970s, often broadcasted “sound collages” late at night, in which he’d play two records simultaneously, sometimes spinning one backward.

The station moved in 1971 to a new studio space on the third floor of UCI’s Gateway Commons. In 1974, KUCI adopted a 24/7 programming schedule; later, the station expanded its broadcasting range. “We were given permission to amplify the antenna,” Stockdale explains, “so we were effectively 24 watts using a 10-watt transmitter.” 

In a 1979 Daily Pilot article celebrating KUCI’s 10th anniversary, then-general manager Bill Garrison said, “We don’t even know who our faculty advisor is. We run ourselves completely, which is the way we like it.” 

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Students at the mic. Photo by Federico Medina

While it seemed as if the station had reached a point of relatively smooth sailing, troubled waters lay ahead. In early 1981, Santa Monica College’s radio station KCRW also used the FM 89.9 frequency; it boosted its signal and ultimately overpowered KUCI. “KCRW moved their antenna to Mt. Wilson,” Stockdale says. “We were just a little educational station that didn’t have any real protection, so we got squashed to the point where you couldn’t even pick us up in the lobby.”

For five months, KUCI literally struggled to be heard while it waited for a response to its request for a new frequency. DJs continued to spin an eclectic mix of underground and niche music, with a playlist that showed a regular rotation of the likes of ambient producer Brian Eno, avant-garde ensemble the Residents, pop group Was (Not Was), and punk acts such as the Alley Cats and Blitz. 

The discovery that the government had lost the paperwork for KUCI’s request sparked protests and petitions across the student community—and beyond. 

KUCI resurfaced at FM 88.9 on Aug. 20, 1981. Stockdale attributes this successful move to a bit of luck and yet another determined volunteer. “Somehow—I guess he wasn’t a student anymore at the time, but still—somebody who was young and working by themselves managed to get the studies done to figure out what our options were,” he recalls, “and to find out that there was an opportunity to move to 88.9, and then to apply with the FCC and get permission and all that stuff.”

That KUCI was able to switch frequencies was nothing short of a miracle, considering how saturated the radio market is in Southern California. “UC San Diego and UCLA both have no frequency and never have,” Stockdale says. “UCLA is right in the middle of the second-largest radio market, so they got on the boat too late and didn’t get a frequency. Same thing with San Diego.” 

Today, KUCI continues to broadcast via FM 88.9. 

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Photo by Federico Medina

In 1983, the year he joined the radio station, Stockdale was a freshman biology student at UCI. “I kind of had a reputation for just being one of those kids that played punk rock,” he says. As he established himself as a connoisseur of heavy and extreme music, he supported many up-and-coming bands that would later become household names. He interviewed Megadeth when they were touring in support of their debut album. He escorted Social Distortion from the station to a performance at UCI’s Crawford Hall. A fellow DJ was able to bring punk legends such as Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag) and the Offspring to the studio for live performances and interviews. Metallica front man James Hetfield even recorded a station ID for KUCI at the end of a phone interview. “He does the ID, and then you hear this pause before he lets out this burp,” Stockdale recalls. “I’ll always remember that. It wasn’t a very strong burp, but the sentiment was there.”

Regardless of guest appearances and interviews, Stockdale says, there’s one failsafe way to tell which albums have received the most airtime over the years. “The more beat-up and the more times the jacket is taped, that’s the more popular band,” he says. “So you look at any of the first few TSOL albums or something like that, they’re just destroyed.” 

By the time Stockdale graduated in 1988, he had become the station’s student manager. 

Meanwhile, the FCC had been gearing up to make some regulation changes. As part of these changes, there was the opportunity for KUCI to increase its power from 24 watts to 200 watts. As a result, UCI “set aside a little money and created a part-time position called Broadcast Media Coordinator,” Stockdale says. “And I was fortunate enough to get that out of five applicants. One of the main things was working on this power increase, but we were also looking at working on just year-to-year, having some sort of institutional memory and some continuity. When students graduate, you reinvent the wheel every few years, so we didn’t have to do that anymore.”

After about two years at the helm, he was hired as a full-time employee, which allowed him to quit his second job at a Domino’s Pizza.

When he was hired in December 1988, Stockdale promised to provide that sense of consistency and continuity that was missing, and that’s exactly what he’s done for more than 30 years.  

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Photo by Federico Medina

KUCI finally increased its power to 200 watts in March 1993. Although it’s still considerably low compared to industry standards (KOST 103.5 transmits at 11,500 watts), the expansion allowed the station to reach a much wider audience. To celebrate, the staff played “Sugar, Sugar” while carrying Stockdale through the studio. This change also marked the first time in the station’s history that it could broadcast in stereo. “We had been mono all those years,” Stockdale says. “It’s crazy and embarrassing—plus, when you’re listening to garage rock or punk rock, for that matter, on a low-power station, stereo doesn’t really [make a difference].”

Of course, more issues came along with the power increase, the most notable of which was that KXLU, a low-power radio station based at Loyola Marymount, also broadcasts on FM 88.9. The increased power meant a higher risk of interference. “We were able to develop a new antenna that had a specialized pattern,” Stockdale says of the KUCI braintrust’s solution. “It’s kind of like a kidney bean, and the part that’s missing is where KXLU is. So we could increase our power as long as we avoided [Loyola Marymount’s] protected contours.” 

The following year, as UCI prepared Gateway Commons for seismic retrofitting, the station was again forced to move. KUCI found a home in a temporary building that actually became its permanent base. Most of that building’s walls are lined with CDs and vinyl records. 

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Photo and illustration by Federico Medina

Just a few years later, KUCI would again prove its ability to adapt, even to new technologies, as it became one of the first radio stations to webcast. In 1997, the station was one of three granted permission to use a small startup company’s technology to stream via the internet, free of charge. “It was a weird, primitive version of it,” Stockdale says, “but in ’97, before any of our counterparts were on the web, suddenly people in England could hear [us]. People who moved out of the area could hear [us]. UCI Anteaters sports fans could tune into our basketball broadcast. That was a huge benefit.”

Stockdale argues that the introduction of webcasting opened up possibilities for schools that hadn’t been able to get slots on the FM dial such as UCLA and UCSD. “They used to broadcast kind of like hot-wired into the dorms,” he says. “Then when streaming came along, that really put them out to a much wider audience, albeit an audience that had to know where to find them.” 

Streaming has also attracted sports fans to KUCI. The station broadcasts Anteater baseball, as well as men’s and women’s basketball games. Stockdale has noticed that a large portion of the station’s online audience is made up of the teams’ fans who are presumably too far away to tune in over the radio. “When the teams make the postseason, that’s when the listenership goes up,” he says. “I know that the year KUCI aired UCI baseball in the College World Series, we had 300 [to] 350 people [tuning in], whereas music shows got 10, 15, 20 people. For the series before the World Series, we weren’t on TV. So if you wanted to hear the game, [KUCI was] the only place.”

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Photo by Federico Medina

Of course, technology isn’t the only arena in which KUCI has been ahead of the curve. Countless musical artists spent time in the station’s studio and on its airwaves before gaining mainstream popularity. “We had No Doubt, Sublime and those kinds of artists playing in our lobby live in the early ’90s,” Stockdale says. “Usually, if we lose somebody, it’s because KROQ has picked up on them. We used to have the Airborne Toxic Event here; one DJ had a good relationship with them, so they performed a bunch of times over the years, and they would also come in and just guest host with her. Then, through the [Locals Only show] on KROQ, [Airborne Toxic Event] got picked up and became a KROQ band.”

No Doubt played at a 1990 radio conference that KUCI hosted in UCI’s then-new Student Center, which proved to be less than ideal. The crowd of students broke a few chairs and scratched the center’s stage. As a result, KUCI was banned from using anything in the Student Center for an entire year. Interestingly, all of this excitement occurred about a year or two before No Doubt’s self-titled debut album was released. 

A ton of artists have played live in the KUCI studio—among them, contemporary psych-rock gods Thee Oh Sees, ska punks Big D and the Kids Table, and indie rock icons Grizzly Bear. “We used to play the hell out of Modest Mouse,” Stockdale says. “We will play stuff, and it will become really popular here or just in college radio in general, and then it gets the attention of the bigger stations. As much as it hurts us to see that happen, we’re happy for their success, and there’s more undiscovered music to help us continue our mission of exposing that stuff.” 

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Photos and illustration by Federico Medina

Although the medium has changed (most of its current DJs play digital music from their laptops), KUCI is just as committed to underground music and opinions as it was 50 years ago. Playing mainstream music is prohibited, and a certain number of new releases must be included on each playlist. Most important, students are given the opportunity to learn and gain experience, whether it be from scouring the station’s collection of 40,000 vinyl records and 35,000 CDs or rehearsing commentary and playlist flow in the practice studio. 

Stockdale is both grateful for the station’s past and hopeful for its future. “We’ve been very fortunate to be so stable for many years now, and I just hope that continues,” he says. “I mean, the administration would be foolish to decide they don’t want our station anymore, and they’ll never get it back if they give up that frequency. So I’m hoping for at least another 50 years of prosperity and underground music and talk.” 

8 Replies to “KUCI at 50: The Radio Station’s Rebellious Roots Run Deep”

  1. I remember calling in during the 80s and requesting The Cure…
    The guy on the other end of the phone said ” nahhh, you can tune into KROQ and hear that”

  2. I loved the Spaz Show in the early 90’s! I would get up in the middle of the night to pop in a cassette tape so I could listen the next day. May still have one somewhere! I have the theme song stuck in my mind…No one likes him oh no no, but they gave him his own show…it’s the Spaz Show KUCI, Spaz Show 88.9 FM…

  3. KUCI keeps me going during my brutal afternoon commutes. I usually listen to Entrepreneur Nation and Change Agents. Both shows have exciting guests and I am always learning something about business and academia.

  4. I love the streaming, it has allowed me to listen to obscure and new music even though I now live in Texas. From SoCalNewwaver to Taillights Fade, there’s always something new to discover. Happy 50 years, and keep up the amazing work!

  5. Worked at KUCI 1970-1974 as a DJ
    The Solow Brothers comedy show
    The Nuss Brothers (Alan and Pete) Comedy
    Solowflight

    An amazing time with amazing people.-Engineer Dave, John Timpane, The Stone brothers, Ralph Hawkins, to name a few.
    And Mike Hingson, our old time radio Dj who was managed with the help of his guide dog to escape the Twin Towers on 9/11.

  6. Happy 50th KUCI. This article holds special to me after reading cuz this was the first place I heard punk rock back in the early 80s. Good job sticking to your roots and staying away from mainstream. Very rare!!!

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