“Hello everyone, this is KECG, 88.1 FM El Cerrito and 97.7 FM San Pablo, a broadcast service of West Contra Costa Unified School District.”
That greeting should be familiar if you live in or around El Cerrito and like to flip through FM radio stations. You may know where it is on the dial, but with a wide variety of music programming you never really know what you're going to hear, just that it will be well worth a listen.
The radio station operates out of and is directed by , who teaches the radio class. He also produces the "worldOne festival" that is part of the at Cerrito Vista Park.
In the morning you can hear Gregg McVicar's Undercurrents from 7-9 a.m. Then from 10 a.m. to noon, worldOne radio takes over and begins with a discussion of headlines and upcoming events from El Cerrito Patch and Richmond Confidential. International music follows and there is often an interview with a special guest.
Other DJs include Ed Vincent, a graduate of El Cerrito High who puts together a more experimental music mix, and Doug Wendt, a reggae journalist with over 30 years of experience.
The station has undergone many incarnations since it began in 1972 when Elmer Peterson, a technology teacher at El Cerrito High, was lucky enough to grab one of the last frequencies being awarded by the Federal Communications Commission at the time. Teacher John Tietjen, who retired in 1982, played a major role getting it started and training the students. At 88.1, it is the first standard FM station on the dial and broadcasts at “17 mighty watts” with a signal that reaches the fringes of Berkeley and Oakland near Ashby Avenue, and up to central Richmond.
For about 20 years the station held regular programming with filler music and blocks of public radio broadcasting before losing funding and becoming forgotten in the basement of the old high school.
In the late 1990s with a grant from the school district, the station was rekindled by Phillip Morgan, a principal who had worked with gospel radio and began making the station into what it is today. Mason came on in 1995 as a full-time volunteer and is now a part-time teacher of the elective radio course. He is also DJ worldOne Love, whose music taste knows no limits.
“The way I see and feel music is that music is music and it does flow together," Mason said. "Of course the way music is released or performed is in a genre, but for radio listening purposes, I find eclectic listening absolutely exciting." For Mason, KECG isn't just a series of radio call letters: they stand for "Kicking, Evolving, Conscious Groups," an acronym he came up with over the years.
WorldOne is world music in the true sense of the word. Yes, there is West African drumming, Brazilian Bossa Nova, and Indonesian gamelan music, but there is also country, old and new, experimental electronic music, classic rock, underground hip hop, ska, classical and bluegrass. If it's saying something and if it sounds good, it's played.
“The more you study lyricism, meta-meanings, what's said and especially what's not said – I'm getting older, and they're on the younger end of the continuum – you find there's music that reaches into the human psyche, and there's musicality that seems infinitely re-creative,” Mason said.
He acknowledges that it's a lot to take in for 17-year-old, but doesn't doubt that his students have the capacity to understand. In Mason's hands, a class in radio turns into a lesson in musical instruments of the world, the study of racism throughout history, multi-culturalism, the concept of defamation, the history of protest and any other idea worth a good discussion.
“The things you say, and how you say them, and the way you do it and the faces you make just really impresses, and then we laugh about it and talk about it," said El Cerrito High junior Eliza James, or simply “Eliza.J” on the radio. "Then we go in [the studio] and have very intellectual conversations about the thing we were just laughing about."
"So yeah, you kinda do get in there,” she concludes, lightly tapping her forehead.
Talking to Mason is like diving into a vibrant pool of big, diverse ideas. His energy is infectious, and it's easy to see why the radio class is sought-after at the high school. It's clear that Mr. Mason is one of the “cool teachers.” Many of us remember one from school, and one that many of us also know that the cool ones work you the hardest and teach you the most.
“You go in the hallways when you're a freshman — all you hear is 'Mason's class,' 'Mason's class,' 'radio,'” said “Eliza.J,” before adding with a laugh, “But sometimes Mr. Mason can be real tough, so then it's, 'Don't take Mason's class!'”
Students choose what they want to work on during a weekly discussion of upcoming interviews and guests. Time in the classroom is spent researching new topics, writing down questions, and working online with mentors from the Richmond PAL network who can give an adult's perspective on an issue and help with research. Students take turns being at the mic, first practicing in Studio B, then going on air in Studio A.
Each studio has four radio microphones, or an “octopus” as it is called in the industry, ready for talk-radio production. The walls are professionally soundproofed and the soundboard is lit up and ready. Shelves near the wall hold CDs of student-generated music projects, with about 14 songs on each. Mason discusses the poetry, profanity, power, misogyny and other issues that come up in the song selections. Meaning and context are considered, and the music is then played during the two-hour student block between 10 a.m. and noon on weekdays.
I was lucky to be in the studio during an interview with Lisa Schultz, of thewhole9.com, a key organizer for the July 4 worldOne festival. Three students asked questions from a long prepared list, but other questions came up on the spot resulting in an enlightening and even slightly controversial conversation.
When Schultz emerged from the studio, she was amazed: “I've been doing a lot of radio interviews over the past few weeks, and this [studio] is nicer than many of the ones I've seen.”
Three students conduct the interview, one controls the soundboard and another stands by the soundproofed wall to catch any problems. Meanwhile, Mason is in the classroom and looks in through the glass window every few minutes to hold up scribbled last-minute reminders for the interviewers.
KECG is staffed by one part-time teacher, Mason, and the rest work pro-bono.
Tonight, Saturday, is the as the musical guest, at the Performing Arts Theater at the high school. For Mason it's an opportunity to celebrate the radio station and to bring something different, an entire Balinese gamelan orchestra, to El Cerrito, a city that in Mason's words is “a beautiful town that celebrates a genuinely multicultural, world-loving July 4 festival.” In that way, the fundraiser is an extension of the worldOne festival. Despite limited funds, Mason is positive and energetic.
“I'm probably more excited about radio now than I've ever been, and I've been doing it for 30 years,” he said.
Soon you will be able to stream KECG radio online, but for now you can catch it at 88.1 in El Cerrito, most of Richmond and parts of Berkeley and Oakland.
You can also keep up with worldOne music and festival on their Facebook page.