The current state of KWCW

Madelyn Jones, Feature Writer

Anyone with an FM radio in the greater Walla Walla area can listen in to KWCW, and anyone can listen in online: helicopter parents, conservative grandparents or your best friend living in New York City. Someone is even listening from Bellevue, Washington — the KWCW station has gotten fan mail. 

KWCW has gotten other fan mail too. A letter pinned to the corkboard in the radio station reads: “Dear KWCW 90.5, I am doing a life sentence here at Walla Walla State Penitentiary. I listen to the dope music that y’all play. It helps on the bad days being away from my kids and the rest of my family. On behalf of the fellow inmates here, I wanted to write y’all and say thank you for what y’all play on the air … Much love, Rico.” 

Pinned next to Rico’s letter is an envelope from Allixzander D. Harris, another Washington State Penitentiary inmate. 

When current KWCW general manager Parsa Keshavarzalamdari showed me the number of people streaming KWCW online, six people were listening. KWCW’s all-time high for online listeners is 31 — no more than 31 people have ever listened online simultaneously. 

Keshavarzalamdari is responsible for reviewing DJ applications and Policy Council applications, creating the station’s schedule, managing nearly 120 DJs and over 70 shows and making sure that the station is Federal Communications Commission (FCC) compliant. 

“KWCW is just standing there, waiting to accept anyone coming in,” Keshavarzalamdari said. “The problem is staffing … this is not a one man show.”

Keshavarzalamdari hopes that ASWC will provide more funding to KWCW for more paid positions on the station’s Policy Council and possibly a summer internship to work through the station’s catalog of physical media. Currently, the general manager is the only paid Policy Council position. 

The station also struggles to exist in between the constraints of the FCC’s non-profit educational radio station designation and the bounds of Whitman’s status as a non-profit tax-exempt private college.

“Last year, we wanted to [reintroduce] a news show [called “Democracy Now!”] … However, the administration was worried that it was a partisan representation, and because Whitman is a tax-exempt organization, we aren’t allowed to adopt those positions,” Keshavarzalamdari said. “It’s an obstacle to free speech.”  

When KWCW filed for license renewal at the end of 2013, it was discovered that the station hadn’t submitted the FCC-required biennial ownership reports or quarterly program lists since its last license renewal in 2006. The station signed a consent decree with the FCC during the summer of 2014, and since then, the station has moved forward under increased FCC scrutiny and four-year licenses instead of ten year licenses. 

The 2015-2016 KWCW Station Manual, written by then-general manager Carolyn Erving in response to increased FCC scrutiny after the license renewal crisis, reads: “No promotions or contests are permitted on air. Period.” 

What qualifies as a promotion is a gray area, and its definition can change as students cycle in and out of KWCW’s Policy Council positions. 

Community member Laura Hall has been a KWCW DJ since 2011. She was encouraged to DJ by bandmate Jon St Hillaire, who hosted a bluegrass show on KWCW. Since 2011, Hall’s show has featured Professor Doug Scarborough, Interfaith Chaplain (and Rogue Lobster guitarist) Adam Kirtley, Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician Sierra Hull and Walla Walla Symphony conductor Yaki Bergman. 

For over a decade, KWCW has been a way for Hall to engage with the greater Walla Walla community and connect with some of her musical idols. She’s featured Terry Rob, a finger-style blues guitarist of personal importance to Hall and critical importance in the modern blues scene on her show twice. 

“The first time I saw him [live], my chin was quivering through his whole performance because he’s so good — I’m choking up just thinking about it,” Hall said. “To have him on my show is huge for me.” 

“I feel pretty fortunate that KWCW is a free-form format where you can play what you like, [what] you think is important and still be a really important connection with the community,” Hall continued. 

The ways in which KWCW has stepped into its role as a community resource has evolved. 

“Hey Man,” KWCW’s former monthly zine, was born in 2010. KWCW’s then-general manager Matt Bachmann and then-music director Cecily Foo were inspired by the 30th College Media Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon and Film Festival, a now-defunct event, in New York City.

In 2015, five years after “Hey Man” began, its editors called it a “forgotten publication” that “fell by the wayside when its editors and illustrators graduated.” This year, CMJ’s Music Marathon isn’t back, but “Hey Man” is — at least in spirit. The magazine, revived by KWCW’s head music director Rohan Press, is now called “Close Range”.

Its submission call abandons the style of “Hey Man,” but still seeks “pitchfork-style album reviews, original creative work, letters, playlists, re-worked album artwork, lyrics and chord sheets [and] gushing essays about favorite artists.” 

“Hey Man” was one part of a larger effort to, according to Bachmann, “put more focus on getting more new music to the Whitman and Walla Walla community… [and to] help us spread the word about KWCW.”

Beyond “Hey Man,” Bachmann and Foo worked with Hot Poop Records to add a “KWCW Recommended” section and contributed music reviews to the Walla Walla Valley’s Union-Bulletin. 

Now, there’s only one record of KWCW music reviews on the Union-Bulletin’s website. Even if KWCW Union-Bulletin music reviews didn’t stick, KWCW has always had a presence in Walla Walla: in 2021, the Union-Bulletin featured KWCW as a “rainbow format” freeform station joyfully returning to the studio post-pandemic. In 2014, they featured a Whitman senior’s KWCW program (“Invisible Walla Walla”) that aimed to amplify the conversation about homelessness and poverty in Walla Walla. In 2019, they featured Hall’s show calling it a “potpourri of acoustic music.” 

Brand-new KWCW DJ Evelina Nesseler-Cass (a.k.a. “Evil Lady”) remarked on the ever-growing collage in the KWCW booth — the same booth into which Hall has crammed six-piece bands complete with upright basses, Riley Cooper told the story of Claude during “Method Acting Hour” and the same booth with which all KWCW DJs have become intimately familiar. Nesseler-Cass has added a pink and purple felted man to the bulletin board. Her favorite poster?

“[It’s] the one for Elf Power … they’re the most random band, [so] I wouldn’t think a poster of them would exist in the KWCW studio,” Nesseler-Cass said. 

While visiting a friend in Seattle, Nesseler-Cass found a copy of Linda Shear’s 1977 album “A Lesbian Portrait (Lesbian Music For Lesbians Only)” at Pike Place’s Holy Cow Records. She can’t wait to play it on her KWCW show. 

“The back has this whole personal manifesto about how lesbians should run the world, and at the end it says: ‘this will never be played on the radio until lesbians run the airwaves,” Nesseler-Cass said. “It’s not even on Spotify.”

As for KWCW’s fight to stay broadcasting for the indefinite future, Nesseler-Cass put it best herself:

“Radio is alive and kicking. Video didn’t kill the radio star. I don’t know if I would describe myself as a radio star, but radio isn’t dead.” 

Tune into KWCW on a Wednesday morning to hear the theft of Whitman student’s beloved skeleton Claude on first-year Riley Cooper’s “Method Acting Hour!” The tragedy inspires TOPS “Way to be Loved,” Donnie and Joe Emerson’s  “Take It” and Bedouine’s “Dusty Eyes,” which follow on the radio show. 

Tune in on Thursday evenings to hear Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Kyle Peets (a.k.a DJ MFA) play Bauhaus, Sublime and Jessica Pratt on “Hi, How Are You?”

Tune in on a Sunday morning for “Portland!” a show about Portland’s music scene, sent in pre-recorded by a community DJ actually living in Portland. Following is Whitman alum Gregory Schnorr’s educational recipe-music hybrid show, “The Cookie Dance with Chef Schnorgonoff,” which has been airing since 2002.