FOR THE last decade, 88.5 FM has been the best stop on the radio dial for listeners in Los Angeles and beyond to discover new alternative rock without commercial interruption. In a medium increasingly dominated by satellite networks and subscription streaming services like SiriusXM and Spotify, the existence, let alone popularity, of a freeform, ’70s-style FM radio station seems miraculous.
But KCSN, recently rebranded “the SoCal Sound” because of its Orange County reach, is riding a wave of record-high ratings and revenue. “If you said three years ago we’d be in the position we’re in now, I would tell you you were crazy,” says program director Marc “Mookie” Kaczor.
In 2019, the station, owned by California State University, Northridge, was on the brink of being sold. “We were all told to look for other jobs,” says Nic Harcourt, the former music director of KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” who co-hosts 88.5 FM’s flagship morning show. “It seemed like the station was just sort of treading water for so long” during a decade when it was overseen by three different CSUN administrations and program directors. “University handlers didn’t think it was economically feasible to continue,” says Kaczor. “We needed to turn the ship around quickly.”
Then came COVID-19. No one was in the market to buy a marginal radio station amid the pandemic’s economic uncertainty. “COVID saved the station,” Harcourt says.
Beloved 88.5 FM went from near-death to record ratings.
The crisis forced the DJs to form stronger bonds with their audience—a crucial connection, as the station is largely listener-supported and had to secure donations at a time when the radio industry was in disarray.
“L.A. is a car town,” says Brian Corona, head of national radio promotion for Atlantic Records. “There’s something about radio in the car. When the pandemic hit, all those people were staying home, and that changed listening patterns tremendously.”
While commercial radio scrambled to regroup as ad sales cratered, 88.5 FM actually thrived. “People dug deep and kept us on the air,” says Andy Chanley, the station’s music director and afternoon host. Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, forced off the road by pandemic restrictions, hosted a Saturday program in a show of support.
“This radio station serves the community I live in and is funded by listeners,” Walsh said. “I like that men with ties don’t decide what music I listen to.”
Corona is encouraged to see the station rebound because it represents “a huge part” of his label’s artist development and promotion. “They play a lot of the artists that we represent that nobody else plays,” he says. Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith credits the station for growing his band’s L.A. fan base and acknowledges its “beautiful job of representing and supporting the community of L.A. musicians.”
In 2021, afternoon host Chanley quietly battled lymphoma through six rounds of successful chemotherapy but didn’t miss a single show. “I was pretty scared,” Chanley says. “But one thing throughout that kept me motivated was a sense of accomplishment and pride for not letting people down.”
As 88.5 FM continues to turn heads in the country’s second-largest radio market, the coming years may be its greatest voyage yet. Says Jet Raskin, marketing director and Harcourt’s cohost, “Every single person that works at the station is passionate about what they do.”
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This story is featured in the November 2022 issue of Los Angeles