WALKING INTO Stanford’s own KZSU station can feel a bit like walking into a time machine. You casually stroll out of 2018 and step into 1972. The KZSU station is Stanford’s hidden treasure trove. Tucked away in the basement of Memorial Auditorium, the station’s ceiling is lined with Christmas lights year round. Pictures—from old Polaroids to developed film—cling to the walls, showing off an eclectic and goofy range of grinning faces that could belong to nearly any era. The hallways themselves, covered in old murals and bits of hand-painted art, ooze an easy-going coolness that all but begs you to shed your anxieties in pursuit of a tune worth dancing to. Often denoted as “the Zoo,” Zebras litter the station as well—one stuffed specimen, in particular, hangs from the ceiling, pointing towards a mounted speaker, advising you to check out whoever it is live on air. Beyond these charmingly endearing tidbits, however, exists a space that lives and breathes alongside one thing: an insanely large, physical collection of music.
Lining the walls and packed into multiple drawers is a serious amount of sound: the station boasts thousands of CDs and over 100,000 vinyl records. Besides the overwhelming nostalgia the sheer sight of so many records together produces, the wide range of possibility existing there, within finger-tip-reaching-distance, is enough to make any music-lover grin ear to ear. Indeed, the chances of KZSU not having a song you’re in the mood to hear is seriously slim. The place screams opportunity—as a DJ, you have the space to explore every genre of music you can literally conceive of, and moreover, share that exploration with others.
What’s so special about the KZSU station changes depending on who you’re asking. For me, it was the nostalgia (What an atmosphere! What a venue! What an incredible place to give me the space and time to listen to music as a job!). For some, like radio-veteran Gary, a PhD and the producer of the long-standing classical music show, The Music Treasury, it’s a way of cultivation, of producing an organized production that is valuable and reliable. For others, radio is just another way to connect to whomever it is who might be listening in.
KZSU Program Director and DJ, Christian Badillo, first got interested with the idea of radio because his brother was a college music DJ, already. However, Stanford’s KZSU attracted Christian with the “good tunes” at the station’s classic activities fair booth. Interest piqued, he enlisted in the training classes and came face to face with one of the most magical parts of the station: it’s enormous, physical music library. For Christian, “seeing that amount of music for the first time in [his] life did it” for him. He was, as I was, hooked.
A long-time lover of music, the radio brings Christian something more than just a space to listen. “Hearing a song that you love on the radio is so much better than listening to it on your phone,” he states, “because you know someone else is hearing it with you. You get a connection you would’ve missed out on had you not tuned in.” It is this connection, this ability to reach across airwaves and into the lives of everyday people on their way to work, to school, to the movies, that makes radio a surprisingly intimate endeavor. Christian’s favorite KZSU moment is one which reflects just that intimacy: on a normal, lonely day, his playlist was “more uplifting than usual, and luckily so,” as he received a call from a listener who seemed to be in low spirits. The caller told Christian that his show gave them a that little bit of necessary motivation to make it to tomorrow. Reminiscing, Christian mused, “I’ll never forget the connection I felt with that listener, and I hope they still listen whenever they’re feeling down.”
Aaron Brackett, another KZSU music DJ, found the station by chance. “I accidentally stumbled into the station looking for an acting audition,” he said, when “I ran into the then GM (General Manager), Emmerich, and he explained what he was doing in this old retro style basement place.” After going to KZSU’s open house, Aaron applied for the DJ position and got a spot on live air. Distinctly disliking commercial radio, which he calls “trash," in his set, Aaron aims for a late night drive aesthetic (a really quite relatable mood, if you think about it). For Aaron, the reason radio remains to be so special in the Digital Age is that it offers the listener a rather rare experience: the chance to listen to someone else's curated collection of songs and thoughts that they happen to be sharing with you, as you’re stuck in a car or a bus and forced, to some extent, to simply listen. “We get caught up in our own little bubble, reading, watching, and listening to only what we want to,” Aaron says. “With radio, you get the chance to pull someone else into your bubble—if only for a little while.”
In a tone similar to Christian and Aaron’s, the radio for me is a place to share my own love for music with a seemingly invisible audience. Sitting in the station booth, I feel comfortable in the act of sharing a part of myself with people through a medium I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The great delight of radio is that despite my inability to see who exactly is tuning in, I know someone, somewhere, is listening to my voice, to my playlist, to the hour of Sunday evening airwaves I oversee. And it is just the act of knowing that alleviates the loneliness some people may associate with the medium of radio.
So if you’re ever in the mood for music worth wandering campus, riding a bike to class, enjoying a second and a half of free unstructured time to, KZSU can provide that soundtrack. And if you don’t like what’s on? Wait a bit—I guarantee the next DJ may just gift you with something absolutely beautiful.
Next time you pass MemAud, strain your ears. If you’re lucky, you just might hear the faint vibration of Stanford’s own treasure trove rising through the sidewalk cracks. Or just tune into 90.1fm.
By: Mac Taylor
Photography by: Lexi Neilan