KZSU Turns 60 with a Marathon

Rod Searcey

They’ve held blues marathons and electronica marathons, often timed to the solstices. So there was little surprise when the DJs and managers of KZSU, 90.1 FM stereo, decided to throw a 60-hour marathon, to celebrate 60 years of airtime.

Oreos, Tostitos and Triscuits were waiting in baskets on a small table in the hallway between the main studio and the chief engineer’s lair, as the first of more than 30 alumni returned to campus to play hour-long shows, starting on January 4. One hour for each year, get it? “And at 9.01 minutes past each hour, they’d play the hit of the year,” says Kathryn Todd, a graduate student in physics who divides her time between being program director at KZSU and investigating the properties of condensed matter.

The little-station-that-could began life in January 1947 (“possibly on the 4th,” Todd says) as a carrier current broadcast, running over the wiring in the dorms. At “some point,” it switched from AM to FM, and campus broadcasting history was launched. Today, more than 50 people, about evenly divided between students and members of the community, hike five steps down a stairwell near Pigott Theater, key in a code for admission at the locked door, and make their way through a basement in back of Memorial Auditorium to get to their posts. DJs sort through hundreds of incoming CDs weekly for shows that run between one and three hours. Would-be sports broadcasters undergo rigorous apprenticeship training.

If things look a little funky in the basement, that’s fine with chief engineer Mark Lawrence, who’s been on the job, part time and full time, since he graduated in 1967, with a major in electrical engineering. Lawrence keeps the transmitter in the Foothills running—“the power amplifier was bought in 1971, and has the only vacuum tube still in use at KZSU”—and cleans CD players, replaces needles on turntables, fixes headphones that DJs mangle with their chairs, and repairs all manner of equipment, from signal generators to distortion analyzers.

Lawrence welcomed the latest marathon as an opportunity to see old friends and pick their pockets. “We sell them a T-shirt, put them on air for a few minutes and try to beg money from them,” he says with a wink. But instead of fending off queries from “dozens” of E.E. majors who used to pound on his door, looking to learn the business, Lawrence says all he gets these days are looks of incredulity. “People in E.E. come down here and say, ‘Soldering irons? Plugs? Copper wire? What, it’s not all digital?’”