Radio Free Los Angeles
KXLU liberates listeners from the status quo
By Will Theisen
If you’re holding a copy of The Argonaut right now, you’re likely within the 3,000-watt signal range of KXLU 88.9-FM. If you happen to be reading this online, you could be listening via kxlu.com.
The point is you could be listening along as you read this, and maybe you should be.
Unless, of course, it’s a Monday night and you don’t like opera.
Or it’s the weekend, and you don’t like Latin music.
Or it’s Friday afternoon, when “Ultimate Sadist” is on, and you don’t like … well, sadism.
In the tradition of classic college radio programming, Loyola Marymount University’s student-run station can be a bit scattered, to say the least.
“You’re taking a gamble whenever you turn on KXLU,” says LMU alum and longtime KXLU deejay Mukta Mohan.
That’s less of an admission than it is a statement of intention.
In a confining commercial radio landscape that tends to pigeonhole musicians and audiences by genre, KXLU’s weekly mix creates room for opera, Latin and sadism alongside programs that feature new and cutting-edge hip-hop, electronic, classical, punk, metal and folk.
Then there’s “The Kids Are Alright,” an hour-long show featuring children’s audiobooks, which might be the strangest thing on American airwaves. Cult followers tune in Wednesday evenings to hear Mitchell Brown (aka “Professor Cantaloupe”) and former Germs drummer Don Bolles play absurd literary gems. Hearing Sterling Holloway, the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh, reading an African adaptation of “The Farmer and the Viper” is about as bizarre as it gets, and yet it’s nearly impossible to turn off.
I was no stranger to the self-described “only true independent radio station in Los Angeles” when I started working on this profile. In fact, I’ve had a long relationship with KXLU, with varying degrees of intensity.
Worried that this assignment was going to feel a little like interviewing an ex-girlfriend who’s moved on to someone a lot cooler, I called up to see if it was OK for me to stop by sometime.
They told me to stop by anytime. I had butterflies in my stomach by the time I hung up, just like I used to.
My love affair with KXLU started fast, and I fell hard.
Within a week of moving to Los Angeles, I had a T-shirt and bumper sticker. I wanted so badly to be associated with that little splatter logo. I wanted people to think I had been listening for years.
In that first month, I washed my T-shirt about eight times, trying to fade it before anyone could see what a poser I was. I left my Mitsubishi Eclipse parked with its butt facing south, hoping my bumper sticker would fade faster and that no one would notice my Pennsylvania license plates. I was in love, and it was kind of pathetic. I started going to station-sponsored club nights every week, namely Part-Time Punks at the Echo. I was trying too hard, but I was having fun and discovering a lot of new music. I tried to listen around the clock, but I couldn’t always get the signal in Pasadena and they weren’t streaming online yet.
I was also learning that KXLU could be difficult to listen to, even when the signal did come in crystal clear. The wildly meandering programing that I once found adventurous was starting to test my patience. What kind of maniac follows a tranquil Smiths song with an unlistenable Squarepusher B-side? Bikini Kill followed by Chopin?! Art Laboe doesn’t mess around like that.
Fifteen years later, that finally faded T-shirt doesn’t fit anymore. I sold the Eclipse long ago, and the teenage punk who drove it cross country would be ashamed to know how much talk radio he’d be listening to in 2016. That wild-eyed vandal wouldn’t have been able to pick Warren Olney out of a lineup if he was wearing a “Which Way L.A?” tank top, and now I’m a card-carrying KCRW book club member.
But here we are, 15 years later, and I still haven’t stopped listening to KXLU.
I’ve changed, and so has radio, but one thing has remains true. Whether you crave hardcore punk played by unpaid college students or nationally syndicated public radio, you can have it all without going north of 90 megahertz.
There are a lot of beautiful college campuses in Los Angeles, but there’s something special about LMU. Walking toward the Malone Student Center, where KXLU lives, requires passing through the Sunken Gardens in the shadow of Sacred Heart Chapel.
With 150 hilltop acres for fewer than 10,000 students, no other campus is so serene. Did I make the correct turn off of Lincoln Boulevard? It’s hard to believe I’m in the right place — KXLU makes way too much noise.
After a slow ride up to the fourth floor of the Malone Center, the elevator opens to a quiet hallway. There are a few rooms in both directions that house student organizations of various types, but
there’s no mistaking the direction of the studio. Decades of station-sponsored concerts and festivals have been memorialized with framed posters, and large black letters next to the iconic splatter logo offer assurance that this is the place: “KXLU 88.9 FM, LOS ANGELES.”
Through a door that an intern keeps leaving slightly ajar, the hypnotic reverb of a My Bloody Valentine song is oozing its way down the hall.
This music is called shoegaze, and station manager Marina Aguerre plays a lot of it.
The 21-year-old film production major is just settling into the second hour of her three-hour show when I walk in. Wearing a soft, white sweater and seated behind a large desk, she’s reading a playlist from her phone so the listening audience can follow along. The afternoon sun is smiling elsewhere on campus, but not in Aguerre’s studio. She keeps the room dark during her set, which makes sense when I learn that her other show starts at 2 a.m. and ends right around the time the sun starts to rise.
I take a seat on the other side of the desk and wait my turn. When she’s off the air, I can confirm that I’m the guy from the paper who’s here to snoop around.
“Hi! Let me show you around the studio,” Aguerre says after setting up another block of music. She’s as charming as she is friendly, but it’s impossible to say whether she’s happy or sad. That’s what shoegaze does. It’s incredibly powerful stuff, this moody music, but she’s used it before and seems to know what she’s doing.
The station is much larger than I’d imagined. Aguerre takes me down a hall to a room with a Pac-Man arcade game and an old soundboard. It isn’t obvious which machine gets used more, but both seem to be functional. There are band and record label stickers everywhere, some new and some long defunct. Every kind of music is represented, and every available space is filled with it — vinyl, cassettes, CDs, flash drives, EPs, LPs, singles, maxi-singles and even a few musical instruments line the walls.
Aguerre throws open a door to a large room and flips on a warm, orange-red light. She’s looking for something — something she “just saw the other day,” something they “need to find a better place for.”
While she looks under scattered record sleeves, many of them imported and rare, I’m taking in the large, carpeted room. This is the live studio, where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (allegedly) set a mannequin on fire after Nirvana recorded a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Once again, it seems impossible that this space should exist here. The names of artists who have recorded or been interviewed here — Beck, Jane’s Addiction, the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Flag, to name a mere fraction — are firmly cemented in the history of music in Los Angeles. Going beyond indie and punk, programs such as “Alma Del Barrio” and “The Brazilian Hour” have had an enormous influence on salsa and Latin music. This studio has featured legendary musicians like the late Celia Cruz and up-and-comers such as Changüi Majadero.
Music history is still being made here. During a recent event that proves the greater student body isn’t completely unaware of the station, nearly 30 people jammed the studio to its capacity to watch Father John Misty perform his critically acclaimed blend of indie and folk.
I feel like I should have to pay admission to be here.
Instead, I’m watching Aguerre try to find “that thing.”
“Ah, here it is,” she says, pulling out a makeshift record sleeve made with two squares of cardboard taped together. On one side of the cardboard sleeve there’s a crude rendition of the album cover for “Nevermind,” sketched by the Nirvana frontman himself. In his unmistakable, self-deprecating style, Cobain scribbled the words “wow, neat new innovative cover.”
Yes, Marina. You should find a better place for this.
Driving away from the station, I feel renewed. Music sounds better on my radio. I’ll keep listening to KXLU, even the parts that hurt a little.
In the weeks before my next visit, some of my old frustrations with the station started to resurface. During one long commute up the 405, I hear a deliciously satisfying black metal song. I ask Siri to Shazam the song, as is the custom of the day, and I’m dismayed to hear that she has no idea. She wants to tell me that this kind of music is un-Shazamable, that if I’m so concerned with knowing what band is playing, I’m listening to the wrong station. If Siri were more talkative, she’d have told me to turn to KROQ, where they’ve been playing the same Sublime songs for a couple decades.
But KXLU has never been that kind of station. There’s no easy way to determine what this is, with its barely audible rhythm section, chords that are crushing and borderless, and vocals that can only be described as inhuman gurgling. Siri tells me, in not so many words, that Shazam isn’t going to know who this is. So I pull off the 405 at Manchester Boulevard, park my car in the shadow of Randy’s Donuts, kill the engine and wait for a college student on a hilltop in Westchester to read me a playlist from his phone.
It turns out the band is called Funerary, and they have a show coming up at Perez Tire Shop in South L.A. I went from not knowing what I was listening to, to being a fan and having plans for the following Saturday.
As I restart my car and drive away from that iconic ceramic pastry, I can’t say that KXLU is the easiest way to discover new music. But it’s usually worth the effort.
The next time I’m at Malone Student Center, it’s to meet two fan favorites. The aforementioned Mukta Mohan (just “Mukta” here at KXLU) defines the emotion and professionalism the station is capable of, and Bennett exemplifies the quirky gusto that makes it unique. The latter is known for his idiosyncratic interviews, including a memorable Q&A with the pilot of the Goodyear blimp. Whatever the radio equivalent of a local Emmy is, Bennett should be nominated for even thinking about interviewing a blimp pilot.
Mukta frequently comes up in response to the question, “What’s new at KXLU?” She isn’t new to the station, having hosted a show since her time as an LMU student five years ago, but this was the week she found out she’d be getting her own specialty show.
At KXLU, as with other radio stations, there’s a difference between the general shows, which are loosely formatted and typically between three and four hours, and specialty shows, which are shorter and feature a specific theme.
The most famous of these shorter shows is “Demolisten,” which has been showcasing unsigned artists for 32 years, and is now broadcast live every Friday from Timewarp Records in Mar Vista.
Mukta has wanted a specialty show for a long time, and she’s fighting the urge to break the news to her nearly 5,000 Twitter and Instagram followers. Her exuberance is palpable, which only has a little to do with today being her birthday. Apparently, she’s this cheery every day.
“When I got my first show, they called me DJ Cupcake because I was all sweet and fresh and not hungover when I walked in every morning,” Mukta says, adding that her show started at 6 a.m.
She already has the dream job that most Communications Studies majors want. After working for NPR’s “Marketplace,” Mukta now produces podcasts for MTV. She knows she’s blessed, but she just can’t quit KXLU.
“This is my favorite thing that I do,” she says. “My condition with every job is that I have to be able to keep my show, until I find something that replaces the feeling that I get from being here. But I think that’s impossible.”
Mukta’s new show, called “Persistence of Memory” will broadcast Thursday nights, and programs are already streaming at muktaonline.com. In it she plays recorded messages from callers talking about a particular song and the memories they associate with it. Then she plays the song.
Many of her callers are unknown or even anonymous, but some are notable artists and musicians. Much of it is deeply personal. Mohan recently contributed a touching memory of her mother playing Chopin for her as when she was a child, and her dad is scheduled to be a guest on an upcoming episode.
Back in the studio, it’s time for the transition between hosts. Mukta is taking phone calls, mostly from people who didn’t catch the name of a band, and others who call to wish her a happy birthday.
One caller, who definitely remembered that it was her birthday, called to let Mukta know how nice it was to have met her at a show a few years ago. He did not have a song request — the ones who do tend to be grumpy and brusque, and this one sounds like he might be blushing. Mukta hangs up before he can ask if she’s going to the Wreckless Eric show on Friday (she is) or if she was playing “I Love You Like The Way I Used To Do” by Rocketship for anyone special (she wasn’t).
Just as Mukta is cueing up her last song, “Here Comes the Regular” by The Replacements, a woman in a pencil skirt walks through the door and says, “Hi, I’m Bennett.”
This is Cassandra “Cass Monster” Marquez, co-host of “She Rocks” on Wednesdays. What she means is that she’s filling in for Bennett, who took to the private KXLU Facebook group last night looking for an assist.
“I’m really shy, and I don’t really like to talk on the air, you know,” Marquez says as her first block of music comes to an end. “That’s why I growl.”
Station rules require the occasional air break, so, like it or not, she will need to get on the mic and identify some songs.
She does, indeed, start with her signature growl.
On “She Rocks,” which showcases music made by women, lead host Melissa McAllister does most of the talking.
“I tell [McAllister] I like being the Andy Richter to her Conan,” Marquez says. She has a habit of nodding her head after she says something that could be taken as a joke, as if to say “that wasn’t supposed to be funny, that’s exactly what I meant.”
But for someone who doesn’t like to talk, Marquez is an unassumingly skilled raconteur. She’s seen nearly every band worth seeing, but she can talk about them without a hint of that I-liked-them-before-they-were-cool pomposity. Watching Marquez work the studio, one would assume she doesn’t talk much because she’d much rather be playing music. She plays more vinyl than most of the other DJs I’ve watched, which means she has to move around the station more.
It’s impossible to ignore the influence that women have had on the station’s history and current direction. Demolisten was started in 1984 by Solana “Agent Ava” Rehne, when she started playing reel-to-reel demos from then-unsigned Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More. Among the current wave of deejays, many of the most popular are women.
There’s plenty of gender equality at KXLU. Michael Stock’s “Part-Time Punks,” as well known for its Sunday night party at the Echo as it is for its three-hour radio session on Thursdays, is still one of my favorites. I’m also partial to the “Zoo Croo” on Tuesdays, when Ryan and The Rattler host their demented semi-satire of a “Kevin and Bean”-ish morning show, with occasionally outrageous political commentary in the vein of Michael Savage. It’s wild, bizarre and irreverent. Perfectly at home on KXLU.
Certainly there’s enough airtime for both boys and girls on an around-the-clock radio station, but there is something decidedly feminine about KXLU — at least to me. After all, the station really was my first love in Los Angeles. Perhaps I can’t disassociate it from the girl with the pixie cut at the Echo who was over the Arctic Monkeys before I’d even heard of them. KXLU will always be that for me.
Driving away from the station for the last time, it occurs to me that Mukta may not have been playing that Rocketship song for anyone in particular, but I was hearing it and thinking about my relationship with a radio station.
I love you like the way I used to do.
It might be time to buy another bumper sticker.