KCSC Radio Alumna Reflects on Chico’s Music Scene During the ’80s
During the pre-tech boom 1980s in San Francisco, a self-proclaimed punk rocker named Toni Smith was drawn to the city’s thriving underground music scene. The more she frequented live music venues and explored new genres, the more a career as a radio DJ appealed to her.
“I wanted to turn people on to new music and change the world,” she said. “I was very much into the idea of a cultural shift.”
Smith (Communications, ’83) was a true free spirit and chose to come to Chico on a whim. She began taking classes at Chico State, where her sister was already pursuing a degree.
This was a low-pressure season of life for Smith. She just wanted to go with the flow and see what opportunities came her way—her biggest priority was simply “finding her people.”
Luckily, someone from her dorm pointed her towards a cozy little pocket on campus where music fanatics and cultural misfits came together: KCSC Radio. The student-run campus radio station was first launched in 1951, broadcasting via FM radio to the public. It was operating out of Ayres Hall, the former art building, when Smith discovered it.
“It was a place of refuge for weirdos,” Smith said, as she thought back to her first impression of the radio station. “I went down there and was like, okay, yeah, these are my people. This is where it’s all happening.”
The KCSC crew all had a similar desire to play fresh music that branched away from the alternative, new-wave trends gaining popularity at the time. Smith was able to share her passion for punk through a KCSC show she hosted alongside student Mike Smith, whose on-air name was Reggie Vomit.
“The music during that era, in my opinion, was pretty boring outside of the punk rock scene,” she said. “There was this accessibility to (punk rock) music, because you really didn’t have to be a trained musician to start a band. Being that close to sharing your thoughts and ideas and your emotions and not having to be like a studied musician, it’s like . . . you could get your poetry or your philosophy out there.”
Smith also admired the accessibility of punk rock in terms of venues. Whether people were crammed into little clubs or spread out dancing in warehouses, concerts were unpretentious and available to whoever wished to partake.
Some of the venues Smith frequented in Chico are still around today: Duffy’s Tavern and the El Rey Theater. The legendary Burro Room, a gone but not forgotten night club, was a crowd favorite and hub for KCSC alumni and Chico State students. Tim Bosquet, Associated Students president from 1990 to 1991, even reminisced in a message to the student body about being serenaded by musician Brutilicus Maximus dressed in drag at the Burro Room.
Another venue, the Blue Max, brought in talent from across the globe, including the (then) up-and-coming Nirvana, which KCSC made an advertisement for in 1990.
The music scene is what kept Smith in Chico for years after graduating with a degree in communications. While working at the downtown Tower Records she re-enrolled at Chico State for a second degree in graphic design, which led to her ultimately establishing her own creative agency, Happylucky.
Smith credits part of her success as an entrepreneur to the skills she gained while working at KCSC.
“The greatest thing that I gleaned from working there wasn’t so much about being a DJ—it was about the community working together as a collective and being in a student-run business without much oversight,” she said.
KCSC, which is now a part of the Media Arts, Design, and Technology Department in Tehama Hall, is still primarily student-run with minimal faculty guidance. Students can take on professional roles such as general manager, production manager, or events coordinator.
“I don’t even remember any adults,” Smith said. “That structure gave students the opportunity to write their own version of those jobs and do them in their own way. This allowed for a lot of both personal and group evolution.”
Running the radio station was a huge team effort, and loyalty became the foundation of the radio’s success and popularity.
“KCSC is just this really special gem,” Smith said. “It’s this thing that needs to be protected and nourished and loved, and no one wants to be the one that breaks it. When people are doing something together, as a collective, there is that desire to not let the team down—the loyalty thing is huge.”
Smith has stayed in contact with many of her peers from KCSC, keeping the band of weirdos close despite life changes and moves across state lines. In 2021 she sold her company to two of her employees and is now on the lookout for her next adventure. Even in retirement KCSC Radio is still on her mind, and Smith hopes that someday she and her fellow KCSC alumni can reunite and rock out one more time.
*All photos courtesy of Toni Smith