Nowhere does the truism that your college years are the happiest ones in your life seem truer than at KACC/89.7 FM, Alvin Community College's "Gulf Coast Rocker." This radio station doubles as the training school for virtually all would-be Dayna Steeles and Rod Ryans in the area.
It may not look like much -- a low brick structure amid ACC's Air Force base-like cluster of buildings on a sun-baked Brazoria County prairie in suburban Alvin -- but it's where just about every radio station in town gets its fresh young talent. And the weird thing about it is that it is also the best rock station in town. (Or at least it is in the parts of town where you can pick it up -- primarily on the south side.)
" 'Whatever goes' is a pretty good idea of what we do," says Mark Moss, KACC's operations director and local rock radio veteran. "There are so many genres of rock, so we try to avoid just being classic or new. We try not to play the stuff that's been rubbed into the ground. Like, if we do play classic, we get a little deeper in the disc library. From the Floyd library, we'll play 'Sheep' or 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' instead of 'Another Brick in the Wall.' And Hendrix is not just 'Purple Haze.' We'll also play 'If 6 Was 9' or 'Castles Made of Sand.' "
Believe it or not, most kids have never heard those cuts, which have long vanished from the Arrow's playlists. "To younger listeners, deep-catalog stuff from those bands sounds like new music," Moss says.
Moss also wants to stamp KACC's sound with a Texas feel. "Nothing you hear on the dial really sounds identifiable as Texas anymore," he says. "It's an old theory of programming, but it makes us geographically different from anything else on the dial."
Take Los Lonely Boys, for example. Most Houstonians don't know it, but "Heaven" and the rest of the Grammy-winning trio's official debut album had been out for many months before the song became ubiquitous. KLOL was too busy spinning Tesla and crap like that; the Buzz had to make sure their daily quota of Marilyn Manson spins had been reached. Neither would give LLB a chance.
But KACC did. "I was goin' to see Los Lonely Boys when they were playing over at the Saxon Pub in Austin," Moss says. "We had four or five songs by those guys on the air long before they were ever on the commercial radio. And a few months later, 'Heaven' started getting airplay in Austin. I never really thought it should have been the single, so we never did add that song, but it did end up winning them the Grammy. At any rate, to me, those guys epitomized Texas."
Moss also spins (drumroll, please) local music. (And why we wouldn't he? In his spare time, he strums guitar in the Clear Lake-area trad-rock bar band the 4 Barrel Ramblers.) "We'll add the good local rock, and even the stuff that has a country flair. To me, that's where a Texas station should be. And the funny thing is, I get so many people that hear something and call in and ask, 'Who was that? That's a great song!' And I'll tell 'em it's [local rockers] Dune*TX or somebody like that."
No, KACC isn't the edgiest station in town, so if you're looking for Pitchfork-anointed flavors-of-the-month, you'd best stick with KTRU. But if you dig the kind of old-school or new-but-traditional rock that Little Stevie Van Zandt revs up in the Underground Garage, this is your kind of station.
But KACC is not just a radio station, it's also a radio school. While Moss handles the stations operations, ACC's radio/television department head Cathy Forsythe heads up the more academic side of the outfit.
Forsythe, a tall and slender blond with a kindly face and a motherly bearing, has been at the station since it signed on the air in 1978. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer and was told that she had only a 5 percent chance of surviving five years. A couple of years of aggressive therapy later, Forsythe had apparently beaten those long odds, but just after doctors had pronounced her cancer-free, they discovered that the tumors had spread to an area near her heart and to her lungs.
This time she was given a scant two years, but those have already elapsed, and Forsythe seems as spry as any other 49-year-old mother of two. (To find out more about her battle, check out www.friendsofcathy.com.) I intended to ask her about it, but the subject never comes up as she takes me on a tour of the mazelike station's facilities: the advanced control room, the simplified, baby control room for freshmen, the room where hometown hero Nolan Ryan records his commercials, and so on.
Along the way, Forsythe -- whose teaching motto is "Work hard to teach what's real" -- tells me about the makeup of her student body. "I am not the story here -- that's the kids," she says. Which, she adds, range from high school kids who attend the school for community service projects all the way up to doctors and lawyers who are pondering career changes. Not to mention radio vets from elsewhere. "We also get a lot of experienced radio people from other markets who want to 'Houstonize' themselves," she says. By which she means, among other things, to learn how to pronounce some of our treacherous local landmarks and street names so they don't sound like a moron on the air.
"Like 'Kuykendahl'?" I ask. "Yes. And Fuqua," Forsythe replies with a smile. "That's always a fun one for us." (For the record, it's "FEW-kway," not "FUCK-wah." And "KIRK-in-doll.")
Radio is a brutal business -- and it is getting more so by the year. You can be on top of the world one week, and one crappy quarterly ratings report later, you're fighting for your survival. If the suckitude continues, you're on your ass. Again.
Hmmm. How did that WKRP in Cincinnati theme go again -- "Got kinda tired of packin' and unpackin' / Town to town, up and down the dial?" Yep, that's the radio biz.
Or, more accurately, that was the radio biz back in the good old days. You can't go up and down the dial the way you used to, because virtually all of the thousands of small companies that owned radio stations have vanished into the maw of the Clear Channel, Cumulus and Infinity behemoths.
And neither did the radio of 1978 have to cope with so much competition. Today, the whole medium seems to be in a battle for its very existence. Home listeners were already a thing of the past by the '90s, and car CD players and satellite radio have eaten away at the formerly captive commuter audience. In more crowded cities, the future is even bleaker: New York-based Houston Press DVD reviewer Jordan Harper told me that hardly any Big Apple train commuters bother with the stodgy old box. "This is iPod Nation, man," he said. "I don't know anyone up here who listens to the radio."
I ask Moss what their program is doing to prepare the kids for this brave new world. First and foremost, Moss says, you have to learn to mind your manners. "Fewer companies own more stations now," he says. "So you can't piss somebody off, because if you do, you've pissed off not just that person but every station that they own. Whatever you do, you do with integrity so you don't burn any bridges. Always leave with a good reference and a positive memory."
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Moss also senses that a lot of today's dwindling radio audience is tired of inane DJ chatter. "If you have something to say on the air, make sure it's important, entertaining or funny. Or don't say anything at all."
And the kids under his tutelage bear those words out: They exude a wide-eyed, puppy-dog charm. Since they are in radio for the long haul, there is none of the dead air and mumbled, detached pabulum you hear from KTRU's hipster-jocks. (I've told this one before, but the first time my then-seven-year-old son heard a KTRU jock, he laughed and said, "What's this guy's problem? Is he new or something?") The KACC jocks aspire. They come up with goofy gags and little contests and the like. It's all good fun, and the station's not above stirring the pot. When KLOL flipped formats to Latin hip-hop and reggaetn, KACC came out with a new slogan: "KACC. Keeping the salsa in the fridge, where it belongs."
Later, I ask Moss how they plan to woo back iPod Nation. "You have to create a radio station that's a lot different than what's out there," he replies. "So what we're gonna do is take radio full circle -- you know, it used to be that radio stations had live orchestras on the air. By sometime this summer, we will have a performance room, where bands can perform live on the air. We're not talking just a couple of guys with an acoustic guitar -- whole bands. We've already had Gene Kelton and the Die-Hards in here, and the phones just lit up. People were saying how great it was to hear live music on the air, how refreshing it was. That's something you're not gonna hear much of on satellite radio. And this is gonna have a huge local feel, especially if the band is gonna be playing a show later that night. And we're not just gonna have them play -- we're gonna record them and add that to the library as well."
Who knows? Maybe one day some local band will go out to Alvin -- yes, Alvin, by God -- and record The KACC Sessions, and Zeppelin's classic BBC Sessions will have some Texas company. And the Ryan Express won't be the only thing Alvin is famous for anymore.