Posters, stickers and other music memorabilia congest the four white walls of the cramped office, swelling onto the ceiling. CDs waiting to be listened to, categorized, timed or replaced explode out of narrow wooden shelves. Amidst the organized chaos of boxes and packaging sit two men listening to albums and making notes on an aged computer.
For the next year, architecture junior Paul Cambon and English senior Brian Cassidy will spend approximately 20 hours a week in this cramped office, sorting through mail, listening to albums, talking to promoters and record labels, keeping everything organized and holding music meetings for the 100+ DJs who make up KCPR, San Luis Obispo, 91.3 FM. They are the music directors for the radio station, and they come with a mantra: “Make KCPR the best station we can,” Cassidy said.
What started as a senior project in 1968 has morphed into one of the most widely respected college radio stations in the country. KCPR is one of 40 stations in the United States and Canada hand-picked to compile the album charts of Dusted Magazine, an online publication devoted to independent radio and new sources of alternative music.
This is in part due to KCPR’s diverse programming, which boasts a varied mix of mad jazz, sweet pop, underground hip-hop, dance break-beats and lots of indie-liciousness. “You can listen for 20 minutes and hear so much,” Cambon said.
Cambon and Cassidy were appointed by the previous music directors to sort through and add new music boasting a variety of sound generally not heard on mainstream radio. “College radio stands for ‘non-corporate, real art’ or ‘good music,’” Cassidy described. He doesn’t feel “good music” can be found on mainstream American radio, which doesn’t like to challenge its listeners with different forms of art. “America would rather see a Thomas Kinkade painting than something good,” he emphasized.
A true English major at heart, Cassidy cited Matthew Arnold’s 19th-century essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” as his motivation for ensuring culture prevails through KCPR. “KCPR educates the Philistines,” Cassidy jokingly emphasized. “At no other point in our lives can we risk being idealistic without compromise.”
Neither Cambon nor Cassidy have an interest in going into the music business, yet have taken on a 20-hours-per-week commitment as music directors, a workload about to increase with the impending fall and winter quarters, when most artists write, tour and release albums.
“We’re not in this for personal gain,” Cassidy said. “We’re both trying to sustain what we love.” Plus it’s fun. “There’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of fun stuff, too.”
What’s their game plan for balancing school and their roles as music directors? “No social life,” Cassidy said.
Cambon said the transition would be difficult, but that his work as music director trumps class work. To him, being a music director is more important than school. “Music has always been a large part of my life,” he said. “Music isn’t a separate interest or hobby; it’s more of a way of looking at things or understanding.”
Cambon and Cassidy sort through approximately 200 CDs per week, listening to each one, recording it on KCPR’s database, and writing a brief review of the recording. From these 200 albums, only 10 to 15 (“20 on a good week,” Cambon said) are chosen to be added to KCPR’s new music rotation, which will eventually be filtered into the greater music library.
What makes Cambon and Cassidy write off approximately 185 new albums each week as “bad” is what makes KCPR a respected radio station among aficionados of all musical categories. However, this willingness to chuck out bands is also what gives the station a bad reputation among record label promoters.
“We’re a very difficult station to get an add with,” Cassidy said. “Promoters generally think we’re assholes and difficult to deal with.”
As Cassidy explained, KCPR is one of the only college radio stations in the country where DJs could have a debate over whether to add the newest album from Interpol, a band with a major label and a reputation for producing hits glorified on popular television shows such as “The O.C.”
At most other college radio stations, the CD was an automatic add. “We have a high standard,” Cassidy said. “We don’t just add everything they tell us is good.” (For the record, they added the album.)
Cassidy can tell if an album is going to be notable in the first 30 seconds of its first song. For him, the opening moments of a CD reveal its value, image, genre and production. “The first note of an album is akin to the first sentence of a short story,” the English major described. “I can tell if it’s going to be worth my time.”
So what makes an album addable in Cambon and Cassidy’s book?
“There’s no template,” Cassidy described. “What’s great about one album is what’s terrible about the next.” For example, he said the quality that made recent albums from New Young Pony Club and The Klaxons great was how catchy they were; yet that’s exactly what drives Cambon and Cassidy to dismiss other albums.
They described an addable album as one that does something different, uses interesting influences (usually older than 10 years), challenges listeners and has a lot of interesting things going on.
“Good or bad isn’t really our job,” Cassidy said. “We deal more with relevance, pertinence and progressiveness.”
Cambon said, “The most challenging part of the job is determining what’s good and interesting compared to what music you like.”
When Cambon listens to music he focuses more on the “sounding of everything,” not necessarily on the song aspect. “What I think is a beautiful CD may not be that interesting and could be a task for the average San Luis Obispo listener to listen to,” he said. “A lot of it doesn’t have a place in regular format radio,” which he emphasized could do more harm than good if added by scaring away potential listeners.
Cassidy described Cambon’s preferred genre of music as electronic, himself favoring blues and experimental. “You couldn’t get two people coming from two (more) different spectrums,” Cassidy said.
But adding music isn’t about their personal tastes. “We can’t just add everything we want; that’s not our job,” Cassidy emphasized. “It’s not about making ‘Paul and Brian’s playlist dream’ every week.”
While going through their pile of albums each week, Cassidy will often say, “I don’t like it. But, it’s good. We should add it.”
Although they have no qualms about turning down bad music, it seems to be harder for them when the artist is DIY.
“Sometimes people call and want to know what we thought of their album, and you can’t tell them the truth,” Cassidy said. “You just tell them it’s not for us.”
“If you think about how much time and how much of their lives it takes to make an album, it’s crazy,” Cassidy said. “It gets put in a pile and it gets a minute of our time, we put it on the computer, write a note about what we think, and send it to Boo Boo’s,” he described of the rejection process. Boo Boo Records generally takes and sells albums not worthy of KCPR’s stamp of approval.
But not everyone always agrees with Cambon and Cassidy about what’s worthy and what’s not.
“So far there have been several DJs that have criticized what we add or like an album that we don’t think would fit into the station’s programming,” Cambon said. “With programming as diverse as KCPR, it’s bound to happen. . That’s one of the drawbacks of having a diverse station.”
But even though Cambon and Cassidy have the final say on what gets added, Cambon said there’s still a sense of equality between DJs and music directors. If someone wants them to add an album, they’ll take that suggestion into account. “We definitely give it another listen, and sometimes we think there are good qualities to it and maybe we didn’t spend as much time on it as we should have,” Cambon said. “Other times it reaffirms our initial opinion of the CD.”
The pair has added albums they initially rejected at the requests of DJs. “If you’re in a bad mood and listen to 30 CDs a day, you might make a bad judgment,” Cassidy said. “The whole idea is to be open-minded about every CD you put in the CD player.”
But sometimes questioning DJs can get annoying. “It’s easier to deal with people questioning why we didn’t add something than questioning why we did,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy compared his job as music director to that of an art director at a museum. “I like art, but I don’t know what art is good for me,” he explained. DJs and listeners alike may like or even love music, but may have trouble knowing where to begin when tackling the huge array of new, available music. “I hope they trust we know what we’re doing,” Cassidy said. “Critics be damned.”