On the air: KAFA continues broadcast evolution

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Raymond Hoy
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
"My roommate decided my DJ name is DJ Sparky."

That's not exactly the name most people come up for themselves when they dream of being a radio disc jockey, but for Cadet 3rd Class Cody Nelson, that's what he got.

"I honestly didn't want to christen myself; I wanted someone to give me my DJ name," DJ Sparky explained. "When I was a kid, I was a big superhero guy, so I thought I could be DJ Spider-Man or DJ Batman. But instead, I'm DJ Sparky."

Sparky, who started his DJ gig in August, is just one of 24 cadets and five permanent party volunteers currently DJing on 97.7 KAFA, the Academy's radio station.

The station got its start in the early 70s after years of petitioning from cadets who wanted the same opportunity DJ Sparky has now. It started as a small, 10-watt station that spent much of its time filled with the ever-dreaded "dead air," only capable of broadcasting when cadets found time to come into the studio.

The station has evolved much since those dark days of radio, but back then there wasn't much choice.

"At one point, the station was truly live, because that's all radio was back then," explained Dave West, the KAFA station manager since 2004. "The cadets would come in to do their show, turn on the transmitter to start broadcasting, and stay on however long they had time to. Then, when they were done, they'd shut the transmitter off and leave. So KAFA was only broadcasting when someone was actually here."

It can now be considered a premier station in the local market from a technology standpoint.

"KAFA studios, for a single station, probably has the most technically advanced radio broadcast facility in the Colorado Springs market," West boasted. "There are other stations with more studios than we have, but our technical abilities are extremely competitive. And that's what I want to do: give cadets the real-world, hands-on experience so when they walk in here they can work on the same stuff the commercial guys work with."

And that has allowed cadets to focus more on the content of their shows rather than honing their skills as a radio engineer.

"It's really an escape to just come into the studio and pick the music I want to play on the show," DJ Sparky said. "I love coming down to the studio Friday afternoons to just decompress from the week. I feel like I have the opportunity to share music with people that maybe they haven't heard before."

While Sparky has had the opportunity to share with people he's never met before, he's also able to reconnect with friends and family back home in Memphis, Tenn., via KAFA's Web stream at www.usafa.org/kafa and the Academy's mobile app, which was released in April.

"Facebook is also a huge way to get the message out about my show," he said. "A lot of people have let me know that they listen and really like it. Apparently, it's become their favorite thing to listen to while they do homework.

"At least that's what they tell me," he added with a laugh.

That connection can go a long way with cadets who are so focused on succeeding in such a demanding environment and with their families back home.

West's goal at KAFA has been to give the cadets the opportunity to do just that. To accomplish that goal, he knew he wanted a station that wasn't just an experiment for cadets in the spare time.

"For a long time I had the opinion that I should just let the cadets run everything and if they made mistakes, well that was just part of the learning process," he said. "Then I figured, 'Well, if we're gonna have a successful radio station, I'm the guy with 20 years of broadcasting experience and I'm the one who knows what to do.' So I took a more hands-on approach to running the station and I think it's benefited the cadets having a functional station that they can take part in rather than trying to run a station on their own."

The first step was bringing KAFA up to speed on its equipment. While KAFA was in its fledgling stages, cadets grew from the "dead air" phase to using its first form of automation, coming in and recording in real time on a reel-to-reel tape.

"During the day, people would cue up the reel-to-reel tapes and keep the show going," West explained. "But it was recorded in real time. If your show was three hours, you still needed to sit and record it for three hours."

But at least there wasn't as much dead air.

West made drastic improvements since his arrival seven years ago, including the installation of modern software and sound equipment and an increase in wattage to their max allowable limit.

The modern software brings a new era of automation to KAFA, allowing cadets to go about their days without having to worry about getting to the studio to do a live show.

"It allows cadets to come in and record a show to include all of the things you would normally hear like sports, traffic and weather updates," West said. "The system then takes everything and builds the show for you. That way the cadets can stay on top of their busy schedules. We prefer to do it live, but it's just not always feasible."

However, having the best equipment doesn't always make for the best radio station. West's other big decision was a change in content. In 2007, KAFA went to a primarily modern rock format.

"Having all kinds of different music is fun, but you can't have a regular audience that way; there's no consistency," He explained.

Adding that consistency was when West noticed the cadet wing starting to listen.

"I'll never forget walking by the bathrooms and hearing KAFA being played in there," West said. "That was a big day knowing the cadets preferred to listen to us while getting ready for their day."

While the cadets are an obvious target audience, the true measure of KAFA's success is the level of listenership in the local community.

"A huge portion of our listeners are just regular members of the community who have no affiliation with the Academy," West said. "It's bizarre ... and good. I mean, that's exactly what you want to hear.

"And why wouldn't they? We have commercial free, rockin' radio," he added with a smile.
Having those listeners and guiding cadets is what keeps West's passion for radio alive and keeps the cadet DJs coming back year after year.

"You can do radio with no one listening, but it's not as much fun," West said. "When cadets get feedback from people and hear things like, 'I heard you on the radio,' or 'Oh man, was that you on the radio?' that's a cool feeling. And that inspires them to want to continue to get better."

And West will continue to be there to help them get better.

"It's really rewarding to work with these cadets and see them go from shy, awkward freshmen to confident seniors who really know what they're doing," he said. "I've even had a few grads and former KAFA DJs send me a message letting me know how much fun they had doing their show while they were here and how much they miss it ... now that's cool."