He’s got the eyes of Frank Sinatra and the brain of Doogie Howser, and he started KX 93.5, a “Generational Alt Rock” radio station in Laguna Beach, in 2012. Chapman alumnus and Tucson native Tyler Russell’s broadcasting achievement even led the Laguna community to bestow upon him the “Community Hero” award alongside such local legends as the artist Wyland. We dropped in on das Wunder Kid during his morning show at the beachside station to see how the magic happens.
Q: Directors always seem to have that memory of the time they first fell in love with film and knew it was their calling. Is that something you had with radio?
Tyler Russell: I actually wanted to be an actor when I was really little. I was looking for what was going to make me the most money and get me the most fame as a ten year old. I would fly to Los Angeles for auditions. I got a part in a movie that was going to film in Hawaii, and I realized that I didn’t want to leave my friends. So I sat down with my family and decided that I wasn’t going to be an actor anymore. Then, when I was 17, I interned at a radio station in Tucson. Bobby Rich was a really well known jock at a radio station in San Diego on B100 in the ‘80s, and he works in Tucson now. I interned for him and I thought, this would be a perfect way for me not to have wasted all those years in acting but to do something that a lot of kids my age aren’t looking to do.
Q: You’ve worked at K-EARTH 101, HOT 92.3, and KIIS FM in Los Angeles, along with other radio stations in other cities – you’ve covered a lot of ground and more than a few genres. What important info did you gather from your time with other stations for use in starting your own station and programming?
TR: What I got from all of my time at other stations was an unfair bitterness towards radio at my young age. I knew that it was what I wanted to do, but all of these corporate stations, all the Clear Channel and CBS stations I worked at, in my opinion weren’t doing it the right way; but, they weren’t going to hear some 20-year-old kid tell them that. So, I got really jaded by it. You go into a radio station thinking the DJ is picking his own songs all day long, that he’s taking requests and taking phone calls; but that doesn’t exist anymore. A DJ hasn’t picked his own music since 1985 or something. I got my first on-air gig in Palm Springs at a rock station. I was told how long I could talk in an hour, how long I could talk about myself. If a listener called in and requested a song I had to pretend like I would play it. In most cases you’d say, “Oh sure I’ll get that song put on for you, ” but you never would, because you weren’t allowed to. Now, I’m not speaking about every station in the world, but all the ones I worked at were run this way. So my dad said, “Why don’t you start a radio station?” And I’m thinking, that’s not going to happen. But, we started browsing around and found this frequency. I knew that I wasn’t going to change the industry, but at least I’d have a stepping-stone to the direction that I think radio should be going.
Q: How would you describe what people get out of the morning show you host here, as well as the station in general?
TR: It’s very music heavy. Our driving force at the station is playing unsigned and underrated artists that you’re not going to hear on other big stations. But we try to make it fun too. Leo is my intern and co-host. He’s an extremely homosexual Venezuelan model, or wannabe model. We do a segment called “What is Leo Wearing.” Another one is called “Classic Theater with Tyler and Leo” where we act out little sections from classic plays. This morning we did The Sound of Music and Leo sang “I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen, ” so it combines stupid fun like that with very serious music; and, I do interviews with guests as well. We’ve had a lot of cool in-studio interviews with bands because we’re the only rock station that’s actually located in Orange County. Block Party was here, Kate Nash, people like that.
Q: With Spotify and Pandora and all the new radio alternatives that are out there and gaining huge popularity, do you feel like the impact of radio is changing as well as how you connect with listeners? In a way, radio is the “print” of audio media.
TR: It is, it definitely is. A lot of people say that audio is dead. That’s why a lot of kids my age don’t go into it. It’s like trying to get a job in print journalism. Pandora and Spotify are very real competition. I once saw a statistic that if Pandora were an LA radio station, it would be ranked number five in listeners, it has that many. When the internet gets in the car, which is already happening – cars have I Heart Radio in them and Pandora in them – radio almost seems obsolete. So there’s this idea that radio has to change to compete with the internet, which is very hard, because radio hasn’t changed in like one hundred years. The last time radio changed was when television was commercialized in like the 1940s. Radio changed from a story-telling medium, which was all talk, to music. A lot of people think that the answer is to make radio as internet-friendly and online-accessible as possible, or having an iPhone app that is interactive for the listeners. But I don’t think that’s enough. In my opinion, the only thing that makes radio stand out is the human element, the fact that a DJ is still able to be interacted with, that you’re not only getting music, but hopefully entertainment too. What’s odd, is that the corporate stations are taking more and more of that human element out. It should be more about personality, more about custom content. There’s two schools of thought in this business, the corporate method, which is to make the most money at whatever cost, and the mom and pop method of non-commercial stations like us and like KCRW, who are non-profits that are set up with the goal to highlight music and content that you don’t hear every day.
Q: Top 5 Bands you’re into right now.
TR: One of my favorite bands of all time, which I saw at Coachella this year, is Tegan and Sara. I love them. Let’s see, oh, Alt-J. Have you heard of them? You need to look them up, they’re great. Next…well, they’re a little commercial, not to sound hipster, but I do like Imagine Dragons a lot. I really like Neil Young, and he has a couple of new things out right now. And the last one, a medium old one – I just want to sound cool is all (laughs jokingly) – The Doors.
Q: You interview a lot of personalities. Who would be your dream interview?
TR: Hmmm. I’d really like to interview Ryan Seacrest. Well, I don’t really want to interview him, I just want to talk to him. I wanna ask him how he did it, ask him why he sacrificed his entire life for work and if it’s worth it? I’m interested in the man. I’ve been compared to him. I’m not going to give up my whole life like he did, but I’m curious.
Q: So you must be the ultimate party guest, since you talk for a living.
TR: Honestly, I’m a little shy in public. In here, I’m confident. I know what I’m doing, but in public I’m just shyer. My parents always criticize me for it, because they think I should always be selling the station when I meet people, but I just can’t do that.
Q: Who’s your hero in broadcast radio?
TR: Jim Lad. Jim Lad was the last free form radio DJ in the world. He was on KLOS during the 10pm to 2am time slot. He’s been on for like 40 years, and he was the last guy in the world to pick his own music, and KLOS still let him do it, until last year. Tom Petty has a song about him called “The Last DJ.” I’ve read his books, I’m a big fan of him.
Q: You have to be here by 6am in the morning. Any wake-up tips?
TR: Here it is. I woke up to the same iPhone ringtone for so many years, that I got numb to it. So I change it every two weeks now. Also, take a big drink of water when the first alarm goes off, then hit snooze. The water helps get your organs going–I read this online–and then in the next nine minutes of snooze, your body will wake up even though your mind is asleep.
Q: You pretty much have a dream job. You run your own radio station.
TR: Yea, when I tell people that I run a radio station in Laguna Beach, they always ask, what’s next? And I always think, what else could be better than this? I guess if I wanted to be on a big station and famous, this wouldn’t be the last stop. But I’ve been at stations like that and I created this station because I wanted something different. So I don’t like when people ask me that, because this is indeed where I want to be. It’s a dream come true.