Radio DJs find sound footing on KOXY's platform

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A spoken introduction tiptoes into the program’s opening song. He seems to start speaking at the perfect moment. The clear yet mellow rhythm of the song gives way to the DJ’s voice, which is deep, soft and in tempo. The speed is slow, easing the listener into the next segment.

These are the moments in which junior Ben Knobel’s knack for radio shines brightest. The focus of his program, “Against the Grain,” is squarely on the music he plays. When Knobel does speak, it is nothing like the inane radio talk that is the norm on many FM music stations. Though such chatter is intended to engage the listener, Knobel’s more judicious approach makes for better radio. Each transition is precise, and the way the levels fade and build seems totally natural with him in the booth.

This is the difference between tuning into a radio show and queueing up a playlist on Spotify. On Knobel’s program, which is streamed online through KOXY at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Knobel’s voice strings together songs more smoothly than gapless playback. He introduces a song, which he’s unearthed from the vast underground and online trove of aspiring artists. D.R.A.M, Keem.the.Cipher and Skepta, for example, are musicians Knobel plays who have Bandcamp pages but no major record deals.

Knobel hates the actual radio. He complains that there is too much talk and the music that does get played constitutes not much more than a combined 20 songs on most stations.

“Besides, a lot of music that they play is misogynistic. The industry that makes that music, I feel like they have ulterior motives,” Knobel said.

On KOXY, he consciously bucks these trends — hence the program’s name, “Against the Grain.” Fitted with a great passion for music, he is not inhibited by commercial interests, censorship and management. He is free to play what he wants, mostly chilled-out hip hop and R&B from relatively obscure artists.

For the third semester in a row, Knobel enters the booth with the hope of providing a musical education to listeners. After the show, he posts his playlist online for listeners to check out. But he also enters the booth for himself.

“It’s for my sanity,” Knobel said. “I let off a lot of steam. I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music as much as I’d like because of academic stuff. I like being forced to listen to some music. To dedicate time specifically for it. It’s a release valve.”

Mika Cribbs (senior) exhibits a similar professionalism which belies her inexperience. It is her first semester in the booth, and she has already fallen in love with internet radio. She hopes to pursue DJing after college. With her dedication, it may well be possible. Each week leading up to her show “West Coast $oul,” which airs Sundays at 9 p.m., she creates a unique graphic to promote the program.

She plays music she discovers in the days leading up the show, songs new and old that have attracted her attention. She uses the program to connect with listeners who have similar tastes.

“Through radio, I’m finding people that share interest in the music I like, which is awesome,” Cribbs said. “It’s a cool way to express myself.”

This usually includes decidedly modern and experimental fare, although occasionally she includes the more popular blues artists of decades past. She is particularly keen on trap R&B, which is a fusion of the newer electronic subgenera with established rhythm and blues stylings. She is something of an evangelist for the unique genre but is by no means restricted to it.

Like Knobel, she focuses on the music. When she does talk, the viewer can sense the smile that must be on her face. She laughs and engages with the silent listeners but does not get carried away with banter. At the end of the show, she sighs and the tone of her voice reveals the truth: she isn’t ready for the hour to end. The time has gone by too quickly, and she still has so much more to play.

KOXY has expanded in the past few years and pivoted its focus to providing a platform for events. The radio lineup is no longer the organization’s top priority, according to station manager Rounak Maiti (senior). Yet the DJs themselves appreciate the support KOXY continues to provide, including a recent revamp of the station’s website and improvements to the streaming service.

The site saw 1,369 unique visitors in October, an increase of 400 from September. Web technician Yinbo Gao (sophomore), who analyzes the data said over 80 percent of traffic on the site listens to the embedded player. Still, this often translates to little more than 10 listeners during some hours of programming. The DJs do not seem too bothered by their relatively limited reach.

“Hell yeah, I wish more people tuned in. I want the whole world to listen,” Knobel said. “But it’s more for me.”

Cribbs is not bothered by her limited outreach either. She knows many non-students who listen to her show and thinks that is more interesting than having a wide audience on campus. She, like many DJs at KOXY, is just happy to have the opportunity to explore her interest in radio and values the service it provides to her personally and the college as a whole.

“You are always going to hear the same songs at parties or on the radio,” Cribbs said. “On KOXY it’s different.”