Good reception for KFJC: Foothill College's radio station named best in the nation

Photo By: Elliott Burr/Town Crier
Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Justin Lazar, a.k.a &#8220Abacus Finch,&#8221 discusses the music he plays during his radio show at Footill College&#8217s KFJC last week.

Eric Johnson’s eyes systematically graze shelves chock-full of vinyl record albums with tattered cardboard covers. Waves of nostalgia ensue.

Scanning the inventory at Foothill College’s KFJC radio station, he focuses on a disc he recognizes, prompting an oration on the finer points of grunge music’s history. While Kurt Cobain may have rendered the genre mainstream, Johnson said, several acts predated the late rock legend.

“What was grunge music – or ‘sludge’ – was this heavy, distorted guitar thing,” said the mild-mannered station manager, holding an Original Sins record. “And that sort of evolved into Nirvana. Not a lot of people know that.”

KFJC 89.7 houses a vaunted music collection in its cramped quarters in Los Altos Hills – from the obscure and dated to more accessible contemporary stuff. The station introduces listeners to new and interesting bands in large part because commercial stations don’t.

And it does it with real people, 24/7.

In a nod to its commitment to a singular mission in the community, the storied Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, which represents roughly 1,000 college stations across the U.S., named KFJC – and its roughly 100-person staff – the best community college station in the country earlier this month.

Volunteers, management and DJs at the mostly donor-funded radio station contend they’ve cultivated an experimental-type outfit in the station’s 53-year history at the far left end of the dial. They give plenty of exposure to new independent performers – some from as far as New Zealand and Japan – who can fly under the conventional radar. The station even livestreams bands directly from its studio.

“It’s an oasis where you can still hear something magical,” said station volunteer Jennifer Waits of what sets the station apart from more commercial operations. “It’s adventurous. … It feeds our soul.”

Making musical magic

Down a narrow hall in a nondescript building lined with cassette tapes of bands whose names rarely make it into conversation – Melt Banana, Godspeed, Acid Mothers Temple, Lenguas Largas – sits a booth where the magic that Waits mentioned happens.

Justin Lazar, whose on-air moniker is “Abacus Finch,” told a reporter during a recent visit to the station that he plays “just about whatever.” Waits and Johnson are proud of that kind of laissez-faire attitude.

Disc jockeys at KFJC – not all of whom are college students but are required to take a broadcasting course at the college prior to going on the air – exercise a great deal of “creative freedom,” according to Waits. Margaret Purdy, one of the station’s DJs and a fundraising volunteer, said it’s that envelope-pushing that makes the station what it is – and keeps people tuning in.

“Listeners really support us,” said Purdy, who once played a song created with instruments made from an old car engine.

The station never runs on autopilot. Ever. When asked why they couldn’t just broadcast an iTunes playlist during the wee hours of the night, Waits said such a shortcut would compromise the uniqueness employees strive to foster.

“The appeal is that the DJ is creating his or her own playlist,” she said. “Sometimes people use (automation) as a crutch.”

Johnson characterized KFJC’s niche as “thinking outside the box.” And that, to him, is a mantra that can transcend other areas of life.

“It appeals to independent thought and encourages you to be challenged,” he said of the station’s unconventionality. “It helps with math, English, creating essays. Usually (in solving a math problem), you follow a formula. But sometimes that formula doesn’t work. When you think creatively, it creates clarity.”

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