Neil Ruud—Keeping Freeform Radio Thriving

Claire Maldarelli

Writer’s Comment: I originally wrote this essay for my UWP 101 Advanced Composition class. We were asked to interview a person of our choice and write a profile based on that interview. I chose Neil Ruud, the current General Manager of Davis’ student-run radio station: KDVS. Throughout the entire initial interview, Neil repeatedly spoke about how unique KDVS was for being a “Freeform” radio station. Although I left this out of the initial documentary report I did of him, I knew that in order to accurately capture the essence of Neil’s character and passion for his job, I had to include this aspect of KDVS in his final profile. Thus, in writing this profile, I attempted to weave together Neil’s journey to becoming General Manager with KDVS’s struggle to remain an independent “Freeform” radio station. I owe many thanks to Neil for telling me countless stories about his experiences at KDVS as well as allowing me to see first-hand how a radio station runs. With his help, the essay basically wrote itself. I would also like to thank Professor Demory for helping me understand how to be a true documentarian. After finishing this essay, I came away with great respect and a strong appreciation for KDVS and Freeform Radio. By reading this essay, I hope readers will do the same.

Instructor’s Comment: In “Doing Documentary Work,” Robert Coles writes: “The heart of the matter for someone doing documentary work is the pursuit of … ‘human actuality’—rendering for others what has been witnessed, heard, overheard, or sensed.” He goes on to argue that while documentarians must always be in pursuit of truth, they will also necessarily be reporting that truth from a particular point of view. In other words, a documentary is never a completely objective, bloodless, recording of facts; it is always a creative endeavor—revealing as much about the author who composes it as it does about the subject who comprises it.  Claire’s documentary essay on Neil Ruud does exactly what I’d hoped students would do: it focuses its attention on the “human actuality” of this one, interesting person, and at the same time, it very subtly reveals something about Claire as well.
—Pamela Demory, University Writing Program

image_mini.jpgStanding in the doorway of the Memorial Union amidst a sea of college students, Neil Ruud drops his backpack full of books haphazardly on the floor in front of him and plops himself sheepishly into an empty chair. He has curly blond hair which unless properly combed could resemble a cumulus cloud. Dressed in faded blue jeans and an American Apparel bright red zip-up hoodie, Neil initially blends in with the crowd.

“How are you, Neil?” I ask. 

“In need of caffeine!” he states bluntly and gestures toward the coffee stand, acknowledging that he will need a decent cup of coffee to get through this interview. 

But, as he walks back to the table, coffee in hand, Neil’s extroverted charm does not go unnoticed. During the 30 seconds it takes to get back to the table, he manages to run into three people he knows and to exchange brief conversations, all ending with laughter on both sides. Neil sits down and takes off his generic hoodie, revealing a t-shirt that says “KDVS 90.3 FM.” 

Taking a sip of his coffee and straightening up in his seat, Neil appears friendly, relaxed, and self-assured. “Ok, what do you want to know, ask me anything.” 

Neil Ruud, a 3rd year Political Science major at UC Davis, is the General Manager of KDVS, the UC Davis on-campus, student-run radio station. Broadcasting live out of Lower Freeborn Hall, KDVS reaches listeners (on-air at 90.3 FM or online at KDVS.org) not just within the UC Davis community but throughout the Greater Sacramento Valley Area. KDVS is a fresh voice with a distinctive attitude independent from that of other commercial radio stations. But for both KDVS and Ruud, getting there was not an easy feat. Many challenges along the way have tested the endurance of both the station and its general manager. Relaxing in his seat, Neil takes a sip of his coffee and begins to recount his start at KDVS. 

In the fall of his freshman year, Neil never imagined that he would end up becoming the General Manager of KDVS by the end of his second year at Davis. “I wasn’t even interested in radio before I came to college,” states Neil; “I saw a flyer about volunteering at the on-campus radio station and I thought it sounded interesting so I gave it a shot.” 

To his surprise, Neil learned that KDVS is anything but your typical radio station. KDVS is Freeform. Freeform Radio is an approach to programming in which the DJ has complete control over program content. As Neil explains it, commercial radio stations normally receive playlists from corporate headquarters and therefore do not have much leeway in programming their shows. Freeform shows on the other hand are as different as the personalities of the DJs, but they all share a tendency to play music and information that cannot be found on the rest of the dial (wfmu.org). If you randomly tune in to KDVS, you will likely hear music from a local band you probably never heard of, a talk show about world events such as the crisis in Egypt, or even news about other radio stations such as KUSF, a fellow freeform station affiliated with the University of San Francisco. 

image_mini (1).jpg“That’s what got me hooked,” Neil explains. “It’s not your typical radio station playing Lady Gaga a thousand times a day. It is unique and distinctive, a true reflection of what the town of Davis as well as the University represents,” he adds, his voice a smooth, medium pitch, each word seeming to melt into the next. Neil attributes the success of KDVS as Freeform to the Davis community. He is convinced that the independent and liberal values that the Davis student population and community uphold help to make the station especially rare and offbeat. For example, DJs at KDVS are much more inclined to choose local bands, or new, independent artists such as The Gorillaz. “They may even choose older artists such as Duke Ellington, played earlier this week, who are likely to stir up a good conversation,” adds Neil, revealing that playing Ellington was his idea as it is one of his father’s favorites.

Although Neil had no experience working in radio prior to college, his strong leadership abilities and a love for student-run activities began when he was young. Starting in junior high and later in high school, Neil had been actively involved in student government. He initially began by running student-wide events such as football rallies and spirit weeks, and ultimately became class president during his senior year. 

“Many of the leadership skills I learned from high school student government I use on a daily basis to keep things running smoothly at KDVS. Without that background, I don’t think I would be able to do this job effectively,” affirms Neil. And these skills seem to be working for KDVS. “Things have definitely smoothed out since Neil started up as General Manager,” chimes in one volunteer I interviewed on a recent visit to KDVS. “He’s an all around great guy. He gets the job done but keeps the mood light and fun,” he adds, giving Neil a brotherly punch. 

Just as he worked his way up in high school student government, Neil began to work his way up within KDVS. “When I first started, I had one show a week: Wednesdays at 2:00AM,” he laughs. “That was the only time I could get on air, so I took it. One week, I even got my entire dorm room to stay up and listen to it,” jokes Neil. But, by July of 2009, after volunteering for almost a year, he became the station’s webmaster. “I was really happy when I got that job,” Neil eagerly adds. “I enjoyed taking on a leadership role and being able to play a larger part in the development of KDVS,” Ruud states. Finally, after countless hours volunteering and a year of being a webmaster under his belt, Neil applied for the job as General Manager and was chosen out of a plethora of applicants. When asked how his first week on the job went (which also happened to be finals week), Neil replies bluntly: “It was a nightmare!”

“Well, basically the antenna fried,” exclaims Neil, still astonished that that had happened. “After the initial shock wore off I realized something: I had to be the one to fix it. So I kind of hit the ground running,” he states. He continues to explain how he studied for his finals at KDVS in Lower Freeborn while simultaneously solving the antenna problem so that KDVS could get back on air. “I believe I got about 20 hours of sleep that whole week,” Neil remarks. But the antenna did get fixed and KDVS was back on. That incident not only highlights his “take on everything” personality, it also defines the level of commitment that Neil has for KDVS. 

Things have definitely calmed down since his first week as General Manager. Neil says that a lot of his job right now involves answering emails, mailing copyright subscriptions, and working one-on-one with his paid staff of 20 and his volunteer pack of over 200. Although this aspect of the job may seem monotonous to many, it does not to Neil. “This is the best part,” he says. And he adds, “KDVS isn’t run by one person, but through a collaborative effort by all involved. Each piece of creativity coming from our paid staff or our volunteers represents KDVS.” 

As General Manager, Neil has been able to effectively team with his staff to make things run efficiently at KDVS. “The key to running an organization like this is not to get in a staff member’s face and tell him or her what needs to be done, but rather to listen openly and represent your workers. Because they are working just as hard as you,” states Neil.

The mood as you walk through KDVS proves his point— there are people walking busily from one room to the next, records being shuffled around left and right, and on air lights frequently flashing red—but in the midst of all this excitement, no one is yelling, wandering aimlessly, or walking into a room with an on-air light flashing. It is an organized chaos that is certainly a result of Neil’s adept leadership and poise. “Neil has a way of keeping things calm in the eye of a storm,” states Brian, one of Neil’s 20 paid staff members.

Just as Ruud has made his way to the top of KDVS, the station has also made many upward strides over the years. KDVS started as an AM radio station named KCD, broadcasting out of the laundry rooms of the now defunct Beckett-Hughes dormitories in late 1963. From its inception, KDVS has embodied the definition of Freeform Radio. According to its official website, KDVS has been a force of progressive views and perspectives while also keeping strong ties to the community around it. Some of its first programs dealt with the public affairs issues of poverty, student power, racism and the Vietnam War. By the 1970s, KCD had been officially renamed KDVS, had become an FM station, and had left the laundry room for a much needed upgrade to Lower Freeborn Hall, where it is today.

image_mini (2).jpgNow, KDVS is a thriving radio station and music scene. The main room has a relaxed, lived-in, and cozy atmosphere. The standard white walls and ceilings are covered top to bottom with band posters, old show fliers, and snapshots that create a pictorial history of KDVS. Further in, DJ booths, computer monitors, CD players and turntables are all stuffed into the small, yet inviting space. The music library is like the New York City Public Library for music. CDs, vinyl records, and cassettes span three separate rooms. Neil proudly adds, “KDVS has the second largest records collection on the West Coast.” Pausing in the midst of his tour, he notices a Radiohead record sticking out of the top row of the otherwise neatly placed albums. “Hey that’s one of my favorite bands. I didn’t know we had a copy” he exclaims and pulls it down to give it a more careful examination. KDVS, now an established member of the University of California Radio Network, has come a long way since its days in the laundry room. 

But, things are not all upbeat for KDVS. Freeform Radio peaked in the late sixties and early seventies and is quickly becoming a dying breed. Over the past few years, KDVS has been struggling to remain a non-commercial radio station as more and more independent stations are being bought out by larger corporations. In the 1980’s, a KDVS career staff member actually shut the station down for a summer in an effort to make KDVS a Top 40 Station. As a result, there was a huge student revolt and from that point on the UC Davis bylaws mandated that the General Manager would be an undergraduate student. As Neil points out, “Commercial radio’s goal is often not to represent the listener but rather to make money. This leads these stations to being run by businessmen rather than the DJs themselves. But the DJs should really be the ones in charge of their radio station.” DJ Rick, a DJ at KDVS, adamantly adds, “If you take this away, Davis is that much less in the know about music and ideas and politics that are not part of the mainstream. It really adds to the differentness of Davis.” 

image_mini (3).jpgDespite these setbacks, Neil remains confident that the station will thrive and he even has plans for the future of KDVS. Neil reveals with a big smile: “KDVS is getting a new recording studio.” This studio will be analog, which as Neil explains is on real tape and thus will have a high quality, “true acoustic sound.” 

Neil’s passion and dedication for KDVS radiates throughout the entire interview. When asked how much money he makes as General Manager, he states: “I get a weekly stipend.” But he quickly adds, “It’s not about the money. I would do this job for free. Although as a college student the money doesn’t hurt.” 

“So how could I or another student reading this article get involved?” I ask. Neil’s face lights up: “We are always looking for new and interesting people to join KDVS and the best way to get a paid job is to start by volunteering. That’s what I did and I ended up here!” he exclaims.

But don’t let his upbeat attitude about recruiting volunteers fool you into thinking that KDVS is for the lighthearted. As Neil downs the last of his coffee, he gets up to go back to Lower Freeborn Hall. I ask him if he has anything specific to do, hoping to get some cool inside information. “No,” he replies vaguely, “just doing my rounds and making sure everything is in order before I leave for the day.” 

As we walk out, the sun has long disappeared from the sky and Neil’s watch reads 7:48 PM. Heading down the stairs to Lower Freeborn Hall, Neil again blends in with his fellow students. Watching Neil from a distance, I understand the key to his success as General Manager of KDVS. Neil has perfected the art of leadership; he is not so forthright that he is dictating yet not so laid back that nothing is accomplished. He is able to provide insight while still remaining in the background. Most importantly, he has a way of connecting with his peers while simultaneously having the direction and confidence to represent them as the voice of KDVS.

Neil’s next big challenge is keeping KDVS and Freeform Radio from becoming an extinct species. Neil remains upbeat about the future of KDVS. “It is more than just a radio station. It’s an essential part of Davis and it’s entirely student run,” Ruud asserts. To this day, KDVS continues its original mission posted throughout the radio station as well as online: “To provide the university with a laboratory for learning broadcast, production and managerial skills, and to provide its listening audience with diverse, challenging, noncommercial, freeform radio” (KDVS.org). In the end, it will be Neil’s as well as the entire UC Davis community’s passion, perseverance, and optimism that will keep Freeform Radio and KDVS thriving. In regards to the threat of commercial radio stations, Neil affirms, “They may have more money but they underestimate the power of the community and our resolve to ensure the people continue to have a voice.” 

*    Photos of mixers courtesy of Angela Filigenzi; photos of Neil Rudd by the author.