Wallace Baine: K-Squid proving that radio still has staying power
The tide seemed to be going out on radio when KSQD launched at 90.7 FM in 2019, amid growing audiences for Spotify and its ilk, but the community-focused station with distinctly local voices has proved Wallace Baine’s skepticism wrong and carved out a niche in Santa Cruz.
KSQD, Santa Cruz’s scrappy independent radio station, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week …
Hold on a sec. I’m being told that’s not right. Fifth anniversary? No?
The calendar tells us that it has indeed been exactly three years since KSQD first went on the air at 90.7 FM. But, as anyone who has not been in a coma can tell you, those three years have felt much longer. Indeed, February 2019 was a different era — different decade, different president, different world. Pre-COVID, pre-fires, pre-January 6.
In fact, even the media environment in which KSQD was born has changed. In 2019, who was using Zoom? But since 2020, Zoom has become a new form of media communication, a technology that will outlast the pandemic and shape news, arts, entertainment, and education far into the future.
Which is why it’s a bit weird, but entirely appropriate, to say that, even though it’s just three years old, KSQD (K-Squid, to its friends) is a model of stability, even tradition, on the local media landscape.
For the record, I was a participant in the beginnings of KSQD, as a volunteer programmer. Back then, many in the community saw KSQD as a kind of offspring of KUSP-FM, the longtime Santa Cruz public radio station that folded in 2016 after essentially losing a battle for National Public Radio listeners with KAZU-FM in Pacific Grove and sinking in debt. Many of the familiar names from KUSP signed on at K-Squid, and KSQD’s programming philosophy — minus the NPR elephant in the room — was similar to KUSP’s.
But nowadays, you just don’t hear much about KUSP. The Squid has become its own thing.
This week, KSQD will reflect on its first three years on the air, and that makes for a lot of material. The goal of the staff and volunteers at the station was to be a touchstone for locals — the signal doesn’t carry too far outside Santa Cruz County — a live, in-the-moment resource to stay in touch with the community. This happened to be at a time when an unfolding pandemic raised alarming questions about what people could or could not do in their daily lives. K-Squid couldn’t have predicted that it would be thrust into that role back in the innocent days of 2019, but it was.
The fires that ravaged Bonny Doon and the San Lorenzo Valley were also a moment of truth for the young station, and it did what it could to connect people with the information they needed as the crisis unfolded.
Rachel Goodman, the station’s co-founder and board chair as well as a proud Bonny Dooner, had to evacuate from her home during the fires. Not knowing exactly what was going on at her own home, she poured her restless energy into the station: “We got on the air and just started turning around whatever we knew and gathering what we knew and passing it on.” KSQD had interns and volunteers out at places where fire refugees were gathering, the county fairgrounds and Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, to find out what they knew and hear what they experienced. The station allowed Cal Fire a line of communication to its listeners, and largely because Goodman had roots in the mountains, she was able to report on many of the locals who defied authorities and lingered to fight the fires.
“Trial by fire” doesn’t get much more literal than that.
The station’s experiences over the past three years have seemed to confirm what I found myself to be skeptical of back in 2019, the enduring power of radio. When the station launched, the tide really seemed to be going out on traditional broadcast radio. Podcasting, Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, there were any number of newer and more interactive technologies available that had been drawing ears away from radio for years. But KSQD has proved that radio, especially community-focused radio with distinctly local voices, has staying power.
One of those eye-opening experiences for me came after I had invited a guest who had never heard of KSQD on my interview show, “The Golden Hour.” After the show, my guest started asking questions about the station. In the hallway, outside the air booth, I could see the programming ideas practically sparking off his brain. In no time he had his own show and now provides a significant jolt of volunteer energy to the station.
For anyone 40 or older, radio has always been a given in the media environment. But that’s not so much the case for many younger people. Yes, K-Squid’s demographic tends to lean in the direction of those, like me, with direct experience with legacy media — how’s that for a nice way to say “old folks”? But the station is also attracting younger programmers as well.
Every Saturday night, for instance, 23-year-old Kimberly LaChaine arrives at KSQD’s offices in the Harvey West area of Santa Cruz to begin her midnight-2 a.m. show called “The Basement.” She had zero broadcast experience before signing on at K-Squid, and was, in fact, new to town. Now she curates a playlist of indie rock, live on the air.
Kimberly credits her father for instilling within her a love of radio. As a young athlete, she was traveling a lot with her dad. “I feel like radio was a huge part of all that,” she said, “all the different stations, depending on where you are, and how different they can be.”
Munnerah Abdusshahid, 26, is the newly hired operations assistant at KSQD (which has only two and a half paid employees). She’s originally from Washington, D.C. In fact, NPR headquarters was part of her neighborhood growing up. “Radio has been a big part of me just keeping my ears open and being alive,” she said.
More so than any other form of media, radio — especially on the commercial-free end of the dial — has always been able to create a true-believer energy of volunteers. Credit K-Squid with understanding radio’s appeal and using it to keep itself afloat in a volatile environment.
Congratulations, K-Squid, for making it through your first three years. May your next three be a bit more uneventful.