My College Days
(in the 1970's)
at KCPR 91.3 FM

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On The Air sign

The old master control board
1975 KCPR control room equipment

I went to Cal Poly starting in the fall of 1975 along with two very good friends from high school.  Within a very short time of arriving in San Luis Obispo we made our way to the studios of the campus radion station, KCPR, and began to learn about the wonderful world of radio.  It became our passion almost immediately.

Sign outside KCPR at Cal PolyWe had an old high school friend who was KCPR's Chief Engineer, so we started helping him with engineering stuff and learned the station from an engineer's perspective.  My two buddies were electronics majors and a hell of a lot smarter than I was...  they showed a talent for monkeying around with the transmitter and wiring things in the studio.  Personally, I was always a lot more interested in programming...  the music and the DJ's...  than the technical stuff.  My friends happily remained behind the scenes for years, but I had my eye on being "on the radio".  Eventually one day I befriended one of the DJ's and he allowed me to sit in the control room during his show.  It was the coolest thing I had ever seen!  Before long, I had a show of my own.

Here I am in front of the record library By my sophomore year I became Music Director of the station.  It was an interesting time at the station because of two facts which pulled the station in opposite directions:  First, this was a college radio station.  College radio stations ROCK, and they don't play mainstream artists.  But at the same time, you have to consider fact #2:   This was the seventies!  The hottest American pop music at that time were acts like the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, KC & The Sunshine Band, and also the mellow side of the 70's like Barry Manilow, John Denver, and Olivia Newton John.

The staff at the station kind of polarized itself in to two distinct camps:  those that thought we should be playing hard album-oriented rock, and those that wanted to play the hits.  And the leading proponent of playing the hits was me.  The station's temporary solution during 1976 was to play both.  It was all up to whatever DJ happened to be on at the time...  he could play whatever the heck he wanted.  So listening to KCPR was kind of a gamble that year...  you could hear Frank Zappa and Rick Derringer and then tune in an hour later and hear Seals & Crofts and Donna Summer.  Tune in the next day and it could be the Metropolitan Opera.

Mustang Daily Front Page

Another reason 1976 was such an interesting time at KCPR was because we had finally raised enough money to buy new control room equipment and to convert the transmitter to stereo.  The engineers set up a temporary control room in one of the production rooms, and then gutted the master control room and spent months installing all the new equipment.

By the Spring of 1976 the work was completed and we went on the air, in stereo for the first time, from our new and improved control room.  Ron Spaulding was the DJ at the controls when we switched to stereo, and he made it on the front page of the Mustang Daily the next day in a gigantic full-paged picture.

How we raised all that money was an interesting story, too.  We had gotten a few pieces of the electronic equipment donated to us, but most of it we had to buy, and that meant we needed to come up with a good idea for a fund-raiser.   It was decided that we would have an on-air auction.  We got local merchants to donate some really nice items, then we auctioned the items off during a special broadcast.

For that auction to work, we had to make it in to an event.  Of course, we promoted the heck out of it.  But we needed to make it sound a lot more interesting than it really was:  a couple of guys sitting in a studio taking phone calls and announcing bids.  So the first thing we did was make a tape loop of crowd noise so that it would sound like we had a studio audience.  (Which we didn't.)  Actually we made about 8 copies of that crowd noise tape loop because they would only play for about 15 minutes before physically wearing out.  Of course, today we just would have done it digitally with a computer.  But this was the 70's!

The headline and pictures inside the Mustang Daily We also had a tape of the sounds of telephones ringing, so that even if no one was calling in to bid on something it would sound like the whole county was!  And we had applause and laughter on tape so "the crowd" would react to our announcers.

Our final trick was to occasionally send the announcers to our "bargain basement".  Of course, we didn't have a basement in our studios, so we really just had them walk across the hall to the men's room...  which had an amazing echo in it that made it sound like our "bargain basement" was about the size of a large cavern.

Apparently our special effects work was convincing because a number of our listeners showed up at our door that night trying to find the auditorium where we were holding the auction.  In reality, it was all just some radio magic coming from a little room not even the size of your average bedroom.

the newly refurbished KCPR main control room
Here I am in the Control Room after the 1976 remodel

As the 1976-77 school year came to an end, it was time for the station's faculty advisor to make a decision about who would control the station the next year.  I had applied to be Program Director, and one of my fellow mellow-music proponents had applied to be Station Manager.  But the album-oriented-rock faction had their own applicants, too.  It was up to the faculty advisor to decide.  Remember again were talking 1976 here and some professor with a crew-cut and a tie...  so you can probably figure out pretty easily how his decision went!

Doing my best to be Mr. Personality
A college radio station that played Johnny Mathis?!?
That was my KCPR in 1977

So in the fall of 1977 I began my Junior year of college and found myself the Program Director of KCPR.  This was the beginning of what many later KCPR staffers surely view as the darkest days in KCPR's history...  the days when you could tune in to hear Neil Diamond's latest album...  and the only screamin' electric guitar solo you'd hear would be the one on "Goodbye to Love" by The Carpenters!

Actual phonographs and actual 45 rpm singles
Not exactly state-of-the-art technology by today's standards...  but it was in 1977.
Note the 45 rpm records, an important programming source during our top-40 days.

OK, I admit it, I was the idiot that programmed top-40 on KCPR and banned rock music!  Go ahead and send your hate mail to me!  My email address is james.zimmerlin@gmail.com  It was 25 years ago, and the statute of limitations has long since expired on 70's stupidity.

Most Dedicated Broadcaster Award It's interesting to see what became of some of the KCPR staff from those days.  I, of course, had visions of grandeur...  wanting to become a professional broadcaster...  which I did...  leaving KCPR after my Junior year and eventually becoming Music Director of a commercial AM station, and later Program Director of a commercial FM station.  Not to leave you with the impression that I became king of all media.  No, no.  By 1990 I managed to get fired from the best job I ever had and went on to become a used car salesman and later a Homer Simpson clone at the local nuclear power plant.

But there were those among KCPR's class of 1977 that did actually have some broadcasting talent.  My girlfriend from those days became a TV news anchor in Tucson, and later won three Emmy awards!  She is now a producer for NBC.

Brian Hackney The fellow who became Program Director after me, Brian Hackney, is a very successful TV weatherman in San Francisco, as well as being one of the co-hosts of the PBS science series, Newton's Apple.  He's been nominated for 18 Emmy awards and won seven.  He's also won two Golden Mikes and two Press Club awards.

Randy Kerdoon, who was the Station Manager while I was Program Director, is now one of the sports anchors on Channel 11 in LA.  I've seen a number of other people from KCPR news make it to Los Angeles TV, too.  And I've even seen reports on CNN from some people I knew from KCPR.  The guy that was KCPR's Chief Engineer had many successes, including becoming the Director of Engineering at the NBC flagship TV station in the number one market in America at the age of 32.  He also built a string of FM stations in northern California and sold them in 1999 for some major bucks.  And there are many more KCPR success stories.

Weird Al Not the least of which is a gentleman I worked with at the station in 1977 by the name of Al.  He was quite a character then, and he still is.  He was always making up goofy lyrics for popular songs, and trying to get on the syndicated Dr. Demento radio show.  One day he decided to make a spoof of a popular song called "My Sharona" by a group called The Knack.  He threw a tape on a machine in our production room, hauled his accordion and a microphone over to the bathroom with the great echo, and pounded out "My Bologna".   He sent it in to Dr. Demento, and it actually got played...  and became a hit.  "Weird Al" Yankovic had started his strange and wonderful career as a comic singer, and it all began in the bathroom across the hall from KCPR.

And yes, I was his Program Director in 1977 at KCPR and I liked him because he followed the rules and never played that damn rock music.  Go ahead and flame me...  that email address again is james.zimmerlin@gmail.com


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