BERKELEY -- When John Lennon and Yoko Ono called UC Berkeley radio station KALX on May 30, 1969 to promote their Bed-In for Peace on air from Montreal, the station was just seven years old and broadcasting with 10 watts of power.
This week marks 50 years of broadcasting at 90.7 FM and the station is celebrating with retrospective recordings through Oct. 24 like the Lennon-Ono interview and a treasure trove of others in addition to hosting two upcoming concerts at the Berkeley Art Museum.
The station has come a long way since it started broadcasting in 1962 out of a Heathkit transmitter housed in a cigar box. Today, it pushes 500 watts and can be heard in Berkeley and Oakland while Internet broadcasting brings it to the world. It has more than 100 disc jockeys playing all kinds of music imaginable and runs on a $250,000 budget.
Some of the broadcasting gems likely to air over the next month include a live April 18, 1978 Talking Heads show recorded at Sproul Plaza; a 1976 interview with Eric Idle of Monty Python who speculates on a rumored Beatles reunion (he thinks not); an Aug. 24, 1982 live show of REM on campus; an April 30, 1976 live show with the teen group, The Runaways featuring Joan Jett; and recordings by Iggy Pop and The Ramones.
There's even a song recorded just for KALX by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, who, according to the station's website, spent a lot of time hanging out at the studios before making it big.
In addition to the numerous genres of music played from the 100,000 piece music library, the station hosts student news programs, current issue programs and Cal sports. In a world where music services use computer programs to tell people what they should listen to based on past preferences and where commercial stations play music based on how much advertising they might sell, KALX is a kind of throwback to a "curated" experience where the DJs offer up what they like to share.
"The great thing about KALX is that you may not like this particular song you're listening to at the moment, but you don't want to turn it off because the next song may be the best thing you've ever heard," said general manager Sandra Wasson, who has worked at the station since 1988. "We are not as concerned about our demographic audience as commercial stations are, so we can play what we think is relevant, great music and not have to worry."
Wasson said the station has a rigorous training program for young disc jockeys that results in a culture of education and exploration that avoids the feel of condescending audiophile or some of the awkward amateur moments you get at some other college radio stations.
Melanie Mentzel, of San Pablo, who works in member outreach at Berkeley Community Media, said KALX serves as a good alternative to a corporate world.
"It's local and a different kind of music than you hear from the standard pop station," Mentzel said. "That's what I look for, tuning into something you wouldn't mistake for being commercial. They talk about their passion and turning you on to the next thing you wouldn't find anywhere else." There are DJs at the station with names like Carnacki whose online profile promises "Scandinavian folk, classical ghost stories and cod surrealism" or Leftfield Lance who offers "Psychedelic guitar freakouts, free jazz blowouts, and anything and everything in off-kilter pop, soul, funk."
Erin Prunchak, known on air as Rubberband Girl, said in a world saturated with information, radio listeners benefit from a "curated" experience like the kind KALX DJs are trained to give. Each three-hour show has to span at least three music genres and play tunes from a new music bin.
"There's a flood of information out there, so a human curator is even more important than ever," Prunchak said. "A DJ is a filter, that means a lot to me. What average person has the time to sort through it all? On KALX you find stuff you wouldn't have found on your own."
Nineteen-year-old Lorraine Petel, who just got her own show and who also is the station's publicity director, said when she came to UC Berkeley she knew she would gravitate to the station.
"I wanted to open up my eyes to new music and I knew KALX was the place," Petel said.
She came to the station with a love for punk rock, but recently found she adores funk.
"I don't know how that came about," Petel said. "I dug through the library and found so much awesome music. You learn something here. It's not just about the music, it's about the community."
Albany resident Heike Abeck, who tunes in now and then at home, said she likes listening to young students read the news and the community calendar, some who are very obviously doing their first public speaking.
"They sound like they are getting some good experience," Abeck said.
That's what Wasson said she is aiming for with her work at the station. "I get to see lots and lots of people come in without experience and provide them training, you see people develop and grow," Wasson said. "KALX provides that transformative experience for people."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
UC Berkeley radio station KALX (90.7 FM) is celebrating its 50th birthday in October and hosting two concerts at the Berkeley Art Museum and rebroadcasting retrospective snippets of notable recordings of bands like REM and the Talking Heads. Live shows at Berkeley Art Museum begin at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, October 5
Young Prisms, a five-piece dreamy shoe gaze rock group with dark, driving rhythms; and Astronauts, Etc., UC Berkeley's own electronic dream pop artist.
Friday, November 2
Shotgun Wedding Quintet, a four-piece ensemble of multi instrumentalists blending hip-hop and jazz to make a big funky sound.
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at noon through Oct. 24
Retrospective programming covering 50 years of live shows and interviews
For more information visit www.kalx.berkeley.edu/50th-anniversary