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Tyler Russell: Ambitiously changing radio back 

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Tyler Russell, the 26 year old founder and program director of Laguna’s own (and only) radio station, KX 93.5, created his own major at Chapman University: Multi-media Journalism.  “I seriously hope someone else has used it.  I put a lot of work into making it,” he says emphatically.

And that tells you quite a bit about this young man who is passionate about an old technology.  The fact that his college major is still relevant speaks to his youth; the fact that he needed to create something to suit his own needs speaks to his ambition.

The tennis playing radio host

Russell determined radio was his future while still in high school in Tucson, AZ.  Upon graduating he went to Chapman University in Orange because it was a small school with a radio station and a tennis team.

“I loved it.  It’s not the most diverse place, but it’s close enough to LA that the opportunities are there.  I started working at the radio station on day one,” he says. That work led to internships at other stations and widened his knowledge of the inner workings of different stations.  “I thought I wanted to be on air talent,” he explains. “I was an actor when I was young.  I flew from Tucson to LA once a week for auditions.  I got a commercial when I was 10.”

But while there are a lot of aspiring actors, Russell didn’t meet a lot of aspiring radio hosts.  “They’re all old,” he says matter-of-factly.

Tyler Russell, KX 93.5 Program Director in the studio

“…too smart to be on the air.”

As he learned the business as an intern, there was a common theme that everyone he spoke with echoed.  “They were complaining that ‘radio isn’t the same’.  They were really disgruntled.  One of my mentors, Johnny K, the program director at KRTH 101, told me ‘Kid, you’re too smart just to be on the air.’ This motivated me.  You know, be the change you want to see.  My motivation went from being talent to helping an industry that’s suffering.  I hope we’re a trend in the industry.”

The FCC and Clear Channel upend an industry

When asked why he and others feel radio is “suffering” he doesn’t hesitate. “Clear Channel,” he says simply.  “In the early 1990’s the FCC made a change.  It used to be that someone could only own a few stations.  Radio used to be a mom and pop type deal.  Now, because of the Clear Channel ruling, an entity can own as many stations as they want.  Clear Channel went out and bought them all. So the stations all play the same stuff, have the same people on the air…it’s very cookie-cutter.”  

Now, according to Russell, Clear Channel is called “I Heart Media.”  

“They’ve been losing money so they’re starting to come around now,” he continues.  “About 15 years ago the FCC created the Low Power FM radio service.  This is helping to return local to radio.”  

This is also how Tyler Russell came to Laguna Beach.

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Tyler Russell working his magic in the KX 93.5 studio

A search for a station pays off

He was working as the music director for Crush 1039 in Palm Springs —a prize job for a recent college graduate —but he was becoming disenchanted with the commercial-ness of it all.  In a conversation with his father, he vented his frustration.  His father’s response?  Open your own radio station.  Just 23 years old at the time, Russell decided he would.  So he set about looking for low power FM radio stations he might be able to purchase.

“I Googled and found that The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Laguna Niguel had had an antenna for 15 years that they’d never used.  So I asked them, ‘Would you be interested in selling it?’  They were.  I got my engineers out there and we got them on the air so they could keep their license.  They were three months shy of losing it due to inactivity.  The FCC makes it easy to buy this stuff because you can only be charged what the original owners paid for (the equipment).  But you’re only allowed to move the antennae 5.6 kilometers away from the original spot.  Our current location (1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200) is exactly 5.6 kilometers away.”  And that is how KX93.5 was born.

KX 93.5 is as Laguna local as it can get at 1833 S. Coast Hwy, #200

Building blocks and smart parents

When I asked Russell if he was at all daunted by opening his own station with only two and a half years paid work experience, he shook his head. “I knew all the basics. I’d seen enough of promotions and sales so I knew the building blocks.  I had been a music director so I knew that part of it.  The rest…I have smart parents,” he says. Their advice on certain things was very helpful in the beginning.  Now, it seems, he has it all pretty well figured out.

Laguna’s geography ripe for local radio

“Laguna is a blessing and a curse,” he tells me.  “People have to remember that geographically (as far as radio transmission is concerned) it’s a nightmare. ” The same problems that make it tough for any of us to tune into the larger, more powerful stations hinders KX 93.5.  “On cloudy days the reception is good; on sunny days it’s weaker. I have no idea why.  I just know it is,” he laments.  

But this isolation is a perfect set up for a truly local radio station.  “People in Laguna love Laguna,” says Russell.  And while Russell makes no secret of his interest in developing a career in television, Laguna is home.  “It feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  It feels cool to go places and have people say they liked your show.  I feel like I’ve built the station to the point that it will always be here.  If I were ever to go somewhere else, it (KX 93.5) would stay.  Saying that, I’m less concerned with being famous than helping radio’s future,” he says.

Looking for opportunities beyond radio

How to do that with a station that on sunny days can’t even saturate its own city?  Russell is shooting a pilot for a docu-series about the station. “We think what we do is really interesting.  Whether I have sold my soul to host some music competition,” he says laughing, “I want to promote the KX 93.5 brand and this beach town. I want to keep the integrity of this place.  We really do what we say.  My hope is that we’re true to Laguna Beach, but have gained some international recognition in the process.”

On a local level, Russell’s wish list is more practical. “Maybe we can move our antennae to a higher spot.  We can’t go higher than 33 meters above the average terrain, and it has to be close to where we are now.  Ideally, it would be on private land so we don’t have to go through the city, although we have a good relationship with them.  Maybe we could find a person willing to help us.  I was told that would really help us out a lot.”  

If no one comes forward, don’t count Russell out.  “The one thing I’ve done well is get through red tape,” he explains.  “Like with the Beach Boys concert.  Everyone said ‘You can’t use the (Irvine) Bowl’.  Why not?  That’s when it’s helpful not to be from here.  I just ask questions of people who haven’t been questioned.” 

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Local musician, Jason Feddy, talking about the value of DJ’s with Tyler Russell

“Human-crafted radio” is online, too

In the meantime, if it’s a sunny day and you can’t seem to get reception, listeners can find KX 93.5 online or download the app  (I just typed in KX935, no period).  Once you tune in you can experience “human-crafted radio,” as Russell describes it.  

“We want listeners to know we don’t use algorithms; instant requests are honored…it’s free form radio.”  The station is also putting on a concert series featuring local bands on the last Thursday of every month at the Marine Room called “Sounds of the Sea.”  “We’re focusing on bands that are not your typical local bands,” explains Russell. 

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From inside the studios at KX 93.5 looking out on Coast Highway

No surprise there.   Not much regarding Tyler Russell is typical.  “We don’t really have enough power to be a big influence,” says Russell.  He is talking about the station’s wattage, of course.  And while he may be limited in terms of his antenna’s range, he doesn’t let those limits smother his ambitions.  Whether he can make an impact in radio beyond the limits of Laguna Beach, time will tell.  

In the meantime, he’d really like you to give the station a call. 

“We love interaction. Call in from time to time so it’s not always the same five people,” he says with a smile.  

If you’re trying to ignite a revolution, it’s nice to know there are people out there listening.