Jackson Browne performs at the KCSN-FM benefit concert. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
A year ago Cal State Northridge-based radio station KCSN-FM (88.5) began to promote its "Smart Rock" format, programming that incorporates the eclecticism of the far more established public station KCRW-FM (89.9) with regular doses of pop music's "heritage" acts. Within months, audience donations nearly doubled.
Now if only the station's signal, which barely makes it from the San Fernando Valley campus to Griffith Park, had increased by as much.
"If I get one more email from somebody who tells me precisely the corner they're at, people literally telling me the precise longitude and latitude where they lose the signal…," said KCSN general manager Sky Daniels. "Believe me, I get it. I've got human GPSs out there reporting back to me."
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But the little station now has some big engines behind it to help support increasing KCSN's signal across the region.
Jackson Browne headlined and hosted a four-hour benefit concert Sunday for KCSN, lauding the tiny noncommercial outlet for its freestyle programming and saying station officials "really have their ears to the ground."
He told the crowd of about 1,700 packed into CSUN's shiny new $125-million Valley Performing Arts Center that the station was "a treasure in our community" for its efforts in establishing a broad-based format that champions young, niche acts such as the Watkins siblings, Jonathan Wilson and rock band Dawes, but which also plays veteran performers such as himself, the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (the last played last year's first KCSN benefit, serving up a pair of shows in 2011 at CSUN's smaller 500-seat theater).
"I had such a good time watching the Petty show in that intimate setting," Browne said Monday morning. "Aside from having been turned onto KCSN by the benefit that Tom did, they deserve to have a larger area that their transmitters can hit. We feel really proud to be a part of that because of the kind of radio station they are."
Browne guided the concert on Sunday with similar enthusiasm for the station and the artists it champions. The benefit began with Wilson and two musical accomplices playing a handful of his gentle James Taylor-influenced folk rock, moved on to Sara Watkins and her spirited bluegrass-country-folk-rock amalgam before Browne took the stage for a 45-minute set that segued into a segment featuring Dawes — which Browne called "my favorite band" — and then all 10 musicians returned for more songs from Browne and the obligatory all-hands-on-deck benefit finale.
In his own time on stage, Browne, a still boyish-looking 64, reminded anyone who needed reminding of his even-handedness on the playing field of life, offering songs filled with perceptive and empathetic observations minus recriminations or cynicism that have become commonplace among writers and singers of songs that dominate Top 40 airwaves today.
The additional funds from the benefit (and from seasonal pledge drives, one of which just concluded), are supporting KCSN's ongoing campaign to reach across larger portions of the region. A booster that aims to bring KCSN's signal to downtown Los Angeles, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Eagle Rock is expected to be up and running in the next few weeks, Daniels said, as is another in Camarillo that will spread KCSN's reach to more parts of the northern sections of Los Angeles County and into Ventura County.
The size of KCSN's staff has doubled since last year, and has made notable moves including promoting former KCRW "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host Nic Harcourt from his weekly show on Saturday afternoons to full-time status anchoring KCSN's weekday morning programming from 6 to 11 a.m.
But Daniels chuckled when he was asked about the expansion. "We're an army of eight now," he said, noting the David-vs-Goliath aspect of the KCSN challenge. "They've got 58 at KCRW and 85 in the CBS [Radio] cluster in Los Angeles — and that's just the music cluster. We've still got a long way to grow.
"We're just starting to get in some qualitative research, which I can't share openly yet, but what I've seen is really incredibly positive," he said. "The people we're indexing with are educated, engaged listeners. We're indexing through the roof in people who go to concerts, people who are engaged in the entertainment media.... That makes me realize we're hitting the target, and that's reassuring to me.
"It does get back to what I've always believed: It's got to come out of the speakers," Daniels said. "If it's coming out of the speakers, you've got a fighting chance."
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