Ten years ago, if you happened to be scanning around the left end of your radio dial, you most likely would have run across the blistering sound of wailing heavy metal guitar in the neighborhood of 88.1 FM. Hair metal was falling out of vogue--bands like Poison and Warrant were on their way out and the Pacific Northwest's grunge assault was about to take the country by storm. The N.C. State students twiddling the knobs at the campus' radio station, WKNC, loved their music fast, furious and cranked up to 11. While some listeners derisively referred to the format as "Chainsaw Rock," the programmers at the station wore that label with the utmost pride, rockin' out the way their predecessors had, shamelessly raising the roof with classic Zeppelin and Iron Maiden mixed with the latest Metallica and Guns 'N' Roses.
But somewhere along the way, as MTV and other media outlets widened their demographics to include other musical styles, the students on the NCSU campus decided that it was time for a change. Based on polls conducted in 1996, the station decided to alter their format to include a wide variety of sounds and styles that encompassed the diversity of cultures and tastes on campus. Most WKNC's changes came about in the '99 school year when current general manager Arielle Menges had just come on board. The idea was to continue to play generally harder music during the day and have evening programming feature a myriad of genres.
"The poll on campus said that loud rock and alternative were equally wanted" says Menges, a fifth-year senior from Raleigh. "That's when the format of daytime (shows) and 'nightwave' programming was implemented and eventually, it all just melded together."
Nowadays on the station's Web site, (www.wknc.org) you can check out playlists for each DJ and even get a schedule for the entire week. Most weeknights, the evening programming consists of electronica from 8 to 11 and underground hip hop from 11 until 2 a.m. Weekends you can catch everything from a jam band show or hippie hour to bluegrass, a cappella, Christian rock, world music, gospel and reggae. There's even a late night slot on Fridays devoted to ... you guessed it ... Chainsaw Rock. Toss in a sports talk show and the popular campus forum, The Andrew Payne Show and it's obvious how far the station has come in just a few short years
Menges speaks with an animated enthusiasm born of a true devotion to music as well as a desire to get the good stuff out to an audience starved for variety. A few of her fellow KNC staffers chime in with their thoughts on the state of the station as well as the business behind radio. There's Neeraj Sharma, the current programming director, Jen Meriano, head of after-hours programming and Kevin Tice, a champion of the local scene known to devout KNC listeners as DJ N-Tice. Besides sharing a common love for music, each has an interesting story about how they got involved with the station.
Sharma has a lot of friends in bands and figured the best way to get their music played was to become a DJ, a sentiment shared by Meriano, who also enjoys providing a comfortable environment for up-and-coming DJs to try out something new. "I really like giving my DJ friends a forum to just go off, without the atmosphere of a club holding them back," she says.
Integrating the local music scene into the playlists has always been a part of college radio, and KNC does its best to provide area bands with some prime time play. N-Tice hosts a Friday afternoon show called Smash Hits that consists exclusively of cuts from Triangle groups. "Every Friday I get calls from guys requesting certain songs by local acts. Most times I can figure out that they're in the band, but that doesn't stop me from playing their song," he says. "There are bands out there that are struggling, and there needs to be a station that has the balls to play stuff that won't make it on commercial stations. How else are they going to get their music out there?"
But some musicians have a phobia and a justified reluctance toward aiming for the big time. In the eyes of many in the local music scene, having a hit or becoming a household name carries the stigma of "selling out." Meriano scoffs at this notion, saying, "Everybody wants to have that original sound, and there's pressure to be what other people expect. But what is selling out? Making a living at what you love to do most? It sounds like a jealousy thing. What about the people who do things they hate to make money? Isn't that a worse way of selling out?"
"We don't stop playing something just because it becomes popular," Sharma adds. "If it's good and people want to hear it, why should we stop playing it just because it's caught on?"
He then points out one of the true advantages of being an independent station free of advertising concerns. "We're breaking songs that commercial stations sometimes take six, seven, eight months to finally get on the air, and that's a disservice to the average radio listener in Raleigh."
"If (a local commercial station) finally starts playing the new Tool single, well that's great ... but we're going to play all the other good tracks on the album," Tice adds, leading to a discussion between the DJs about the "indulgent" nature of other college stations.
"Radio is not your own personal jukebox," Menges says. "It's stuff that's supposed to appeal to other people, so if you're going to play things that you bother your roommates with all the time, then no one's going to listen. That's selfish. It's not radio."
The formula these students have arrived at is pretty simple: Trust your instincts, pay attention to your listeners and strive to play the stuff they want to hear. Sharma emphasizes: "We don't need to pretend we're something we're not."
All four express more than just a passing interest in staying in the DJ booth after graduation. Menges already has a show on G105, but she's finding that the differences between college and commercial radio are markedly different. "It's two separate worlds," she says. "G105 is a job. You're playing this and that and promoting things for the station, but at KNC I can crank up whatever I feel like playing."
Meriano, who has also dipped her toe in the commercial rock radio world, agrees. "I found out quickly that on commercial radio, there's really no freedom to play what you want. You have a list provided for you. On our after-hours shows, we play whatever we feel."
Sharma sums up his wish for the area music scene, saying, "I want people to be able to be proud that they're from Raleigh. I'd like Raleigh to become a smaller version of what Austin is like. We want people to realize that there's great music going on here." And the best way he and the other students behind WKNC can do that is spread the word. With the FCC poised to boost the station's wattage from 3000 to 25,000, the ability to reach people all over the state lies within their grasp. Somewhere out there, in some small country town, there's a kid listening to their local classic rock station who is about to get the surprise of his life.