Sky Daniels and His Team at 88.5 FM Kick off Spring Benefit Drive on April 8.
It’s a sunny winter Friday morning, and Sky Daniels is relaxing in his office in the studios at KCSN 88.5 FM/Los Angeles. Perched on a third floor corner of California State University, Northridge’s architectural jewel, the Valley Performing Arts Center, the station’s headquarters boasts large windows and expansive studio rooms decorated with souvenirs from grateful musicians, like an album autographed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and a guitar signed by Rachael Yamagata. The place has room for plenty of people — which is a good thing, because musicians and music fans flock to Daniels’ side.
Like most people who are at least 6-feet, 5-inches tall, Daniels slouches a bit to fit himself into spaces like a studio chair or behind a desk. It’s a height that earned him a spot on the basketball teams at his Cleveland high school, and then at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. But it’s not just his stature that attracts fans, colleagues, students and disciples.
It might be Daniels’ warm radio voice, a commanding bass that gets gravelly when he’s making a point or cracking a joke, with a decided Midwestern drawl. It might be the way he talks with his hands or sprinkles his banter with words such as “sympatico.” Or it could be his laid-back nature: Daniels favors retro, Western-style button-down shirts with mother-of-pearl snaps (unbuttoned a bit at the neck), jeans and a wild pompadour.
But the main hook is Daniels’ reputation as a rock music visionary. Billboard magazine, one of the music industry’s leading publications, named Daniels as one of the top 25 “most influential” rock radio programmers in 2016. He has a proven track record in radio: He helped develop KFOG/San Francisco, WLUP/Chicago, KISW/Seattle, KMET/Los Angeles and other stations during his career.
He also has been a major record label executive at Universal Music and Sony Music, as well as national vice president for entertainment at Best Buy Corp. and general manager of the trade publication Radio & Record. In radio and the music industry, Daniels is trusted, revered.
CSUN snared him in 2012, hiring him as program director of its public radio station, KCSN 88.5 FM/Los Angeles. Since then, it has built a loyal following of 3 million listeners in and around the Los Angeles area. On this particular winter day, Daniels was taping an in-studio interview and live set with young singer-songwriter Angelica Garcia, who had played the “hallowed-ground stage” at the Troubadour the night before.
“Having worked in the record industry as long as I have, and having worked in radio before that — and [KCSN] is a return to radio for me — I learned the challenges that musicians are facing to earn a living, to get out in the marketplace, and to be able to do this as a profession,” Daniels said after wrapping the interview with Garcia. “For performing musicians, this is the most brutal time in history.
“The thing about KCSN that touched me is that the university entrusted the radio station to me,” he said. “I told them that I wanted to build a radio station that really cared about and was devoted to helping musicians make their way — both legendary artists to sustain their careers and new artists to establish their careers.
“[CSUN President Dianne F.] Harrison in particular, she understood that that was serving contemporary arts,” he added. “They’ve given me a lot of latitude in building this station with that as our mission. Our mission is to support musicians. Being in Los Angeles, I know the impact an LA radio station has on the sensibilities of the record companies, because they hear it firsthand in their home town.”
One of the major changes Daniels made when he took the helm at the public radio station in 2012 was throttling way back on the bane of public-radio listeners’ and members’ existence: pledge drives.
“A delicate balance needs to be struck,” he said. “Public radio listeners don’t want to be browbeaten with pledge drives. This isn’t the way to do it. We’ve cut our pledge drives back to four days, and we’ve heightened our sense of urgency around it. Look, we know you come here to hear this rich, nonstop plethora of music we play, so we’re going to shorten [the pledge drives] — but you need to respond.
“If you don’t pay your SiriusXM subscription bill, they cut you off. You can hear us because it is an honor system,” he continued. “I appreciate the fact that people listen. What becomes challenging is getting them to understand: So many think we’re funded by the state, by corporations and all these grants. We’re not. The money that we get from the university doesn’t come from taxpayer dollars, it comes from a [state] lottery fund.
“When I first got here, I knew we needed to become self sufficient in very short order. We’ve gotten close to self-sufficiency, but in order to grow and continue to build our engagement with artists, and our reach and influence to where we can truly nurture the career of an artist, we need to grow. In order to grow, we need funding, and we do count on the one-to-one transactional donations of our members. Every dollar you give us is directed toward art — helping these artists get established, and mentoring young people into having a belief in radio.”
With that optimism and determination, Daniels and his KCSN staff will kick off the station’s spring Benefit Drive on April 8, with the drive running through April 11.
Daniels, who also was nominated for “Best Program Director” in FMQB magazine’s 2016 annual industry poll, said he has been honored by the recognition from that magazine and from Billboard.
“We recognize we can’t be holier than thou. It’s not like we’re the musicology experts,” he said. “We’re passionate music fans, and we talk to our listeners like the friends they are, and the passionate fans they are. Much like if you went over to a friend’s house and said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this.’ That’s the same approach we take with our listeners.
“The difference between commercial radio and public radio is that the bottom line for them is the bottom line — it’s shareholder value,” Daniels continued. “Playing what they think they should play is secondary to getting ratings. Here, being a public radio station, we’re not driven by the ratings. What we are driven by is, are we inspiring our listeners enough that they would donate voluntarily to us?”
One of his goals, Daniels said, is inspiring in younger listeners (those under 35) the “sense of wonderment about radio that older listeners have.”
“The older listeners who hear us, we’re rekindling a flame that they thought went out,” he said. “We get an immediate response from people over 35, because they hear it and they’ve had [that love of radio] and it’s back. It’s going to take some time to develop that appreciation in many of the younger listeners. It doesn’t hold that high regard and emotional place in their heart. It’s up to us to develop that relationship. We need to go where they are.”
The station is planning a major signal expansion for this summer, a deal that’s been in the works for three years, according to Daniels. The station’s current signal reaches about 3 million people, he said.
“With this new partnership, our signal will cover 11 million people,” Daniels said. “Now our signal will be heard from Santa Clarita to San Clemente. Our listeners can drive farther and listen longer.”
With expanded reach north and south from his perch at CSUN, Daniels is pumped to share and discover truly authentic, solid music.
“There’s got to be a quality of emotional resonance [with music] that is immediate,” he said. “We also want to be with these artists their whole career. We’re in it for the long haul. And we’ve been rewarded — we’ve had Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Sting here,” to record live, perform and just schmooze, he noted. “Because I was there for them at the beginning of their careers. There’s a trust. They, in turn, stand by our side [at KCSN].
“There’s nothing bigger than when the two surviving Beatles (Paul McCartney, in Billboard, and Ringo Starr, in Bloomberg Businessweek) proclaim their love for this radio station in publications,” Daniels said, with a sigh. “I can’t describe how humbling, gratifying and overwhelming that is. The two Beatles say they love our radio station! We’re doing something right.”
A service of CSUN, KCSN offers a 24-hour, commercial-free blend of rock, alternative, soul, blues and Americana, featuring a wide range of artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Wilco and Beck. The station’s programming also is available on KCSN’s HD1 channel and online at KCSN.org.