Once a new band gets added to the library, KFJC does its best to promote the music in any way that it can, said Liz Clark, the station's promotions manager. Bands are invited to come by for live performances in KFJC's studio "The Pit," and DJs give away tickets to upcoming shows. Station staff has a running tradition of creative wordsmithing during the verbal, on-air preview of the shows called The Concert Outlook, which runs every day at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Bands never "perform" somewhere — they "honk and hoot" or "yuck it up," depending on their name.
"I'm not sure when it started, the fun wordplay," Clark said. "They used to incorporate songs or song titles into the concert outlook, and now they just kind of get as weird and crazy as possible."
John Saint-Pelvyn, an experimental guitarist and vocalist, performs live on April 22 in "The Pit," the station's recording studio, while Eric Johnson adjusts the audio in a nearby room.
Keeping alive all the recording equipment, the turntables and the perpetually breaking CD players is Brian Potter, KFJC's chief engineer. He remembers arriving in San Jose from England in 1992 and seeking a degree from Foothill College, where he found the station by accident while walking around the campus. He was excited to embrace the engineering aspects of KFJC. The music? Not so much.
"I was perplexed," he said, describing some of the tracks as flesh-peeling noise. "I spent a lot of time sitting here in the station on my first project, scratching my head saying, 'I just do not understand.' I would wonder what I was even doing here."
"I came around eventually, and I can handle skronky jazz now, which I had never been able to do before," he added.
On the tech side, KFJC has always punched above its weight through a combination of personal connections, dogged determination and a willingness to push the envelope in ways college stations had no business doing in the early 1990s. Determined to do a live remote broadcast of South by Southwest in 1994, Potter said they were able to convince the powers that be at NPR in Austin to hook up KFJC's equipment to its satellite feed. They set up the VHF data links in a hotel room and plopped a rented satellite dish down on a nearby field, Potter said, and KFJC was able to play live performances from more than 1,400 miles away.
Many more remote broadcasts would follow, in England, New Zealand, Iceland, the Netherlands, Japan, Italy and Germany, all successful in their own right despite a handful of messy glitches. The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia was particularly rough when the KFJC crew found out not long before the show started that they couldn't get venue's the satellite connection working. Turns out the neighbors across the street had a lightning-fast connection, prompting Potter and his crew to use two Wi-Fi microwave links to bridge the connection across the road. All they needed to do was find a place to plug in.
"Turns out it was in the bar," he said. "We ran cables all around, up the stairwell and put this little antenna up pointed out the window. By then we're already two hours late and the festival has already started."
Foothill's administrators seem content, as they have for decades, to let KFJC do its own thing and manage its equipment internally. Doc Pelzel, the station supervisor, described KFJC as being in a sort of "bubble," a self-sufficient, independent unit at the school with a tacit understanding that if a computer breaks, it's going to be up to KFJC's volunteers — not the campus IT staff — to go fix it. Pelzel said he appreciates the hands-off approach and the aged, rectangular brick building that holds the station together.
"We do have to pay rent for (the) transmitter site and electricity, but that's a small price to pay for the facilities we've got," he said.
Counter-culture underpinnings, then and now
Keeping with the station's rebellious reputation, KFJC today is largely the product of revolution and a perpetual rejection of playing any tunes that come near Billboard's top 200 chart.
Institutional memory gets hazy prior to 1980, but the story goes that the general manager at KFJC tried unsuccessfully in 1978 to move toward a tight format that cloned the mainstream rock stations of the day. The move threatened to narrow the focus to hit singles, muting less popular bands, Pelzel said.
"It doesn't allow for a lot of creativity or experimentation and it was already available elsewhere, and the crowd that came in 1978 sort of voted out the guy who was running the station," Pelzel said.
It wasn't the first time KFJC blew off the rules. When college students on the Peninsula were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, Pelzel said a crush of students on campus turned the station into a "hotbed of activity" running 24 hours a day. As a result, requirements to play dry, pre-produced public affairs material were impossible to enforce, and student DJs drifted away from what Pelzel described as "1950s Pleasantville-type shows" to rock 'n' roll.
Charting a new course, the student-led insurrection plunged KFJC deep into the world of underground radio in the 1980s, bringing in a focus on new wave and gritty hardcore punk. Rap was also starting to take off as a genre, but Pelzel said it was unfortunately not part of the station's descent into underground music.
KFJC keeps its history close at hand with old photo albums and records dating back to the 1960s and the 1970s. Here is a picture of DJ Cy Thoth, who died in 2013, and one of many records donated by the late DJ Jack Diamond.
For some in the Bay Area, it can't be overstated how much the station's counter-culture airwaves meant to them. Clark, now on KFJC as DJ Maybelline, said she remembers moving to Foster City in 1980 and feeling an awful sense of isolation. Happening upon a station that was doing something so different turned out to be her salvation.
"I didn't know anybody and, I swear to God, I found KFJC on the radio dial and it saved my life," Clark said. "I had a new job, I didn't know anyone, I didn't know anywhere, and I found a station that was playing punk rock."
Counting himself among the newcomers-turned-devotees is Simon Pennington, a British transplant now working as an administrator at Foothill College. Pennington told the Voice he was a high schooler when he arrived from England in 1979 and struggled to fit in. It was a tough transition, he said, made even harder by a lack of shared musical interest. KFJC kept him sane, he said, and probably helped save his life, too.
"I was listening to The Ruts and reggae and rap while everyone at Paly was listening to Led Zeppelin and Rush," he said.
Pennington said he vividly remembers hearing the station for the first time at 1 a.m. It was exciting to hear new sounds, intently listening to jot down the name of the artist and song, hopping on a bus to the record store and potentially meeting like-minded fans while searching for the album. "As fantastic as the internet is, it takes away from the romance of discovery," Pennington said.
As fate would have it, Pennington would later land a job as the dean of fine arts at Foothill College, ostensibly overseeing KFJC. Johnson said he was nervous about how the new hire would react to the unusual music, only to find out Pennington was a die-hard fan, a former British punk and had even performed at a KFJC live studio event. Pennington said he hopes the station doesn't still have the recording.