Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Country Western artist Sherry Austin performs an on-air set as part of “Please Stand By,” a live radio show every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. hosted by DJ “Sleepy John Sandidge.” Photo by Morgan Grana.
Country Western artist Sherry Austin performs an on-air set as part of “Please Stand By,” a live radio show every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. hosted by DJ “Sleepy John Sandidge.” Photo by Morgan Grana.
“Warren T.” Sampson is at his best on air, picking songs one by one and taking requests. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
“Warren T.” Sampson is at his best on air, picking songs one by one and taking requests. Photo by Devika Agarwal.

Real vinyl records. Buzzing acoustic guitars. And live DJs all day. This is KPIG Radio.

The station’s studio, affectionately named the “Sty,” sits behind a Chinese restaurant on Main St. in Watsonville. Inside, every inch of wall and ceiling is plastered with pictures of country music legends. The office is adorned with pig knickknacks, pig stickers and even pig Christmas lights.

Launched in 1988, KPIG Radio, found at 107.5 FM, is not your typical radio station. The station plays a large amount of local advertisements, local artists, fake commercials, song requests, live in-studio shows and features an always eclectic music collection, ranging from Tom Petty to Willie Nelson.

It is a typical Wednesday afternoon, and dic jockey Elsbeth Lansman, known on-air as “Ellie Mae,” is sitting by the telephone and microphone, taking requests as part of KPIG’s “All Request Out to Lunch Hour.”

“We are friends playing music for friends, and we don’t talk down to people on the air like most DJs,” Lansman said. “It’s more a personal relationship. You can call me. How many radio stations can you call and get the DJ who’s actually choosing the music?”

KPIG is one of very few commercial, privately-owned radio stations that still uses live DJs to hand-pick songs. In 1995, broadcast companies were not permitted to own more than 40 radio stations nationwide. After Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxed the restrictions on how many radio stations a company could own, quickly altering the broadcasting environment. By early 2003, just four companies controlled approximately 70 percent of radio stations nationwide, with mega-companies Viacom and Clear Channel Communications at the masthead of 42 percent of those stations. These large companies cut costs, fired DJs, implemented new rules and standardized station playlists.

KPIG DJ Warren Sampson, known on-air as “Warren T.,” thinks Santa Cruz is the perfect place for a local radio station to survive amidst a sea of standardization.

“That basic idea, that basic profitability, is so much of what Americans hate today, so much of that mass-packaged, large-scale distributing,” Sampson said. “And doing that strips away personality — especially in a market like Santa Cruz which is increasingly hungry for local stuff, local stores, local foods, local whatever.”

Focusing on and involving the local community is an important part of KPIG’s mission. Every two hours the station plays “hog calls,” during which community members can call in and report a missing pet, promote an upcoming event or hock wares. They also host “KPIG Happy Hour” at Cilantros Mexican Restaurant, located down the street from the studio.

The number one radio station for adults 25 to 54 in the local market, KPIG pulls in 50,000 listeners a month in the Santa Cruz County and Monterey Counties, and gets 315,000 hits a month on its Web site. The DJs say it’s not uncommon for people to call in from other parts of the country — and even other continents — to request songs.

Sampson is a 23-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate who was hired to work for KPIG three years ago by the late Laura Ellen Hopper, radio icon and former musical and programming director. Sampson says that KPIG — which plays a unique blend of country, Americana, blues and rock music — has a distinct spirit about it that defies the normal musical boundaries characteristic of most other major radio outlets.

“KPIG’s a funny station because it’s not a classic rock station. It’s not a defined station,” Sampson said. “Laura defined it herself, so everybody that listens to it has their own sort of idea of what KPIG is. And that’s special.”

Why Live?

Since 1996, profits have become the bottom line for most radio stations. Many companies plan playlists in advance, often from a headquarters thousands of miles away from where the music actually streams. Lansman said that KPIG has essentially refused to let that happen based on a belief that live radio is truly something different and special.

“It’s good company. Here I am alone in this room, but I’m in the same moment with all these listeners, people who are listening and we’re all keeping each other company,” Lansman said as “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead played on-air in the background. “All the listeners are listening to the same thing, and here I am choosing the songs one song at a time instead of choosing the songs the day before or 20 minutes before even.”

Michael Keith, a radio culture expert and historian from Columbia University, said that radio stations once operated with the public good in mind. They tried to serve their communities in their news reporting, traffic and weather updates and even in their song choices. Though times have drastically changed, Keith says he is impressed by KPIG’s commitment to maintaining a live, local and community-focused enterprise.

“I think that’s when radio’s at its absolute best: when it’s spontaneous, when it’s live, when it’s genuine, when it’s not pitching,” Keith said. “It’s admirable.”

Though stations like KPIG remain the minority industry-wide, Keith said tides may soon turn. While broadcast companies may not view it as cost-effective in the short-term, Keith believes stations will ultimately have to return to live formats in an effort to develop niches that better serve local communities and win listener support. When stations can develop loyal fan bases and establish themselves as genuinely valuable to the cities they serve, profitability often follows, Keith said.

“For a long time, I’ve thought radio needs to get back to its stitching, needs to remember what it used to be and emulate that,” Keith said. “You know it’s gonna be Darwinian. It’s going to result in [the] strongest surviving. And [the] most creative, original and local will still continue to have constituency out there.”

KPIG station manager Frank Caprista said it can take a while for a radio station to build a meaningful relationship with its community.

Caprista, who said it took seven years for KPIG to financially break even, believes KPIG’s unique approach has become part of the station’s success.

“I think people can identify with it in a lot of ways, but I think it’s unique and it’s different, and we try to be entertaining, and we try not to be boring,” Caprista said. “The whole trick is they don’t know what’s coming next. So they’re listening to hear what’s coming next.”

Chuck McCabe is a local singer and songwriter from Los Gatos, and his song “I’d Rather Be in Redding” has received significant airplay on KPIG. McCabe says that he — and other local and small-scale artists like him — appreciate KPIG’s creativity and willingness to promote lesser-known acts.

“We get a lot of support from KPIG, and I hate to say it [but] if it weren’t for an off-the-wall station like that, where would we get air play?” McCabe said. “Having a live DJ — it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a personality.”

In addition to building a rapport with the local community, radio that features live DJs also has other less-obvious benefits.

In Keith’s book “The Quieted Voice”, he talks about the public-service holes that are created when radio is outsourced to locations many miles away from the cities where they are broadcast. Keith notes that in 2002 a train derailment occurred near Minot, North Dakota and sent a poisonous cloud of toxic fumes through the town. Because the most listened-to stations in the area broadcast from more than 1600 miles away in San Antonio, however, nobody at the studios could be reached to warn the community of the danger.

In today’s world, despite the fact that Americans have a greater variety of news sources than ever, radio is in a unique position since it can be accessed practically any time, any where, even in the midst of a disaster.

“Here comes a tsunami. Who’s gonna warn you?” McCabe asked, pausing briefly to drive the point home. “KPIG.”

Two Worlds: Local and Corporate

Headquartered in Los Angeles, Mapleton Communications owns KPIG Radio along with approximately 40 other stations in California, Oregon and Washington. While the company maintains a professional relationship with KPIG, it also keeps its distance from the stations, according to DJ John “Sleepy” Sandidge.

“The relationship is: they own us; they tell us what to do,” Sandidge said. “But they know enough about business to keep their hands off of us because they don’t know how to program it, they don’t understand it and they don’t live here.”

Adam Nathanson, Mapleton CEO and president, called KPIG “One of the great radio stations in the United States,” noting that the company is proud to be associated with KPIG radio.

“The people who have been working at KPIG have been there a long time and clearly know what they’re doing,” Nathanson said. “So we see our job as to let the KPIG DJs and Frank [Caprista] and the people who work there keep doing what they’re doing and support them.”

DJ Lansman, whose parents started the station 21 years ago, prefers not to give the headquarters much consideration.

“I like to pretend that I’m not a part of anyone or anything. I’m in this little room, doing what KPIG is supposed to do. I don’t want to think about pleasing some people who don’t ever show up here,” Lansman said, a hint of frustration in her voice. “They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know where the nearest 7-Eleven is. They don’t know the people who listen. They don’t hang out at Cilantros for KPIG Happy Hour.”

Nathanson concedes that part of KPIG’s success comes from their individualism and comprehensive knowledge of what local listeners want to hear. Nonetheless, the Mapleton company was forced in 2006 to cut KPIG’s live DJs between 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. and, last spring, the company cut the 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. live slot as well.

“It was a financial move, they say; it didn’t make much sense. If you cut out four hours, how much money is that? Is it worth it?” Sandidge wondered. “They seem to think it is. They’re a business. They’re in it to make money, and that’s not why most of us are in radio. We know we’re not gonna get rich, but we love what we’re doin’.”

With its large vinyl collection and seemingly tireless commitment to live radio, KPIG functions somewhat like a time capsule. But it was also the first radio station to go online in the summer of 1995, and over the past 14 years it has developed a following that spans the globe.

In an era of radio consolidation and an overall decline in radio listenership, McCabe admires the station’s demonstrated capacity for sustained success.

“I wish the whole country was KPIG. Maybe it will get there. But you know if someone puts the money behind them, they’re gonna want to start calling the shots and ruining the whole vibe,” McCabe said. “We’ve just gotta keep the PIG small and wonderful.”