When the subject of UNC-Chapel Hill radio station WXYC comes up people often begin their comments with, “You know what I hate about WXYC?” or, “It’d be nice to hear some rock every once in a while.” Recently, a friend lamented, “If I hear the Langley School Project again I’ll scream!” (a compilation of school children singing such ’70s hits as “Mandy” and “I’m Into Something Good”). On the other hand, listeners have praised the station for its unpredictability and for bringing in world music like The Buena Vista Social Club. And there’s no better place to hear local music.
If you’ve been a WXYC listener at any time during the past decade, then the music you’ve come to either love (or loathe) has been largely influenced by one man: Franz Kunst. The station’s music director since 1993, Kunst is leaving WXYC to join his wife, Michelle, out in San Francisco, where he hopes to continue working in music and/or public radio. The station’s new director, David Strader, plans to continue following Kunst’s “policy of diversity and rotation.”
At the station, located in the UNC Student Union, Kunst’s office is small and crowded. Shelves of CDs and vinyl wait to be reviewed, while music that has been reviewed waits to be added to the station’s Playbox or to be filed in the station’s large library. (In addition, Kunst has a large personal vinyl collection and likes to go record shopping at flea markets and thrift stores.) The walls are covered with fliers from bands that have played local venues, sharing space with posters, stickers and other promotional items collected by past music directors (including a highly coveted ceiling mobile from The Replacements’ Please to Meet Me LP). Kunst points out a flier: Smog and Royal Trux at Rosie’s Goodtimes in Chapel Hill, a reminder of one of his favorite shows.
The station’s FCC license is there, issued July 24, 1987, along with a melange of foreign stamps and old packages. Kunst says one of the things he’ll miss most is “opening the mail. The mystery of it … postmarks from around the world. A lot of times I’m disappointed, but sometimes we get stuff I didn’t know existed. Anytime I’m surprised, it’s fuel to continue.” He points to a letter from the Japanese band Ghost, asking for airtime. They went on to become a station favorite in the mid-’90s. “We play things that you can’t hear anywhere,” he says.
Fellow DJs recall Kunst as the kind of guy who arrived at the station loaded down with crates full of mail, smelling of coffee and wearing a big smile. The door would always slam shut behind him; he never had a free hand to close it softly. He’d disappear into his office, re-emerging only to change out new CDs for old in the studio’s Playbox, a music rotation system which places music into the categories of heavy, medium and light rotation, thus determining how many times a particular band might be heard in a single day.
“I’ve had to do a lot of guess work on what’s popular and too popular,” Kunst says. “I had to gauge what DJs like and are familiar with and what they’ll overplay. Rotation is a sort of checks and balances that works against people’s inclinations and disinclinations.”
According to Kunst’s predecessor, Stacey Philpott (aka Spott), “For a DJ, the Playbox can be the savior of a bad show or the curse of a good one.” As music director, Kunst had final say about what is put into rotation.
Reflecting on some of his predecessors’ contributions, Kunst says: “Glenn Boothe (1986-89) put an emphasis on hip hop for the first time. The Randy Bullock era brought in a lot of Flying Nun (New Zealand-based indie label)–he liked Alistair Galbraith and Peter Jeffries–along with underground noisy stuff and jazz. Spott kept up the indie rock and started adding world music. I dilated [the] previously opened channels.”
Kunst, who grew up listening to punk and hardcore when few area venues were offering it, started his radio career at WXDU Durham while still in high school. Washing dishes at 7th Street Restaurant gave him the chance to see local music like The Pressure Boys and Zen Frisbee in the restaurant’s club space, Under The Street, besides exposing him to artists like Sun Ra.
While pursuing a degree in Communications and American Studies-Folklore in 1990, Kunst started at WXYC, writing record reviews and helping then-director Philpott. As Philpott’s responsibilities grew at Merge Records–he eventually became a full-time employee–Kunst took over. He describes that era as “a good time to be in college radio.
“There was lots of great local and touring music. I went out every night. Sub Pop was big and Frank [Heath, owner of the Cat’s Cradle] booked them all. Pipe played all the time … Polvo and Spatula. Then there was the Big Rock Stardom showcase in 1992 [a three-day event where important labels and people in the music industry were invited here to see local bands], and lots of world music at Duke.”
As you’d expect, the music director’s office reflects both the times and tastes of the individual director. When Kunst began at the station, he describes himself as having been “tentative and exploratory,” playing bands like Led Zeppelin, The Bad Checks and The Dead Milkmen. But in his later years, he increasingly turned to re-issues and world-music compilations. At the same time, he cataloged music for UNC and took world music classes–a class on “Women In Country Music” gave him one of his current favorites, Rose Maddox. Of late, his passion is ’70s world and dance music.
“Franz has been more diligent about getting music into the station,” Philpott says. WXYC has always had a reputation in the music industry that it could be left alone–a) because they know what they’re doing and b) because they know it’s not worth trying to sell them on just anything.
“Things were a lot different for Franz than for me. We didn’t have an answering machine at the radio station when I started. I brought mine from home. Now there’s a computer and e-mail. It helps you deal with people you might not have time for otherwise. Talking to people is a major way to get labels to send new music to the station.”
Kunst and his wife, Michelle, a baker and pastry chef who most recently worked at Elaine’s, made a striking and familiar couple around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. They usually wore ’50s garb: he in his Father Knows Best sweaters, button downs, slicked back black hair (with a spit curl) and wire-rimmed glasses; Michelle in dresses bought at Time After Time, sporting short bangs and cat-eye glasses. He drove a vintage white Ford Fairlane. At times, they’d each played in local bands: Kunst in the troubadour Squat String Trio and Michelle in H.M.S. Cervix.
Last Wednesday, Kunst arrived at the station to say a final hectic goodbye; the next morning, he was set to board a plane out to San Francisco to join his wife. He’d stopped by to drop off crates filled with extra CDs of his former band, stacks of the complete set of Zen Frisbee newsletters, Ransom Street zines and compilation tapes. “I love this stuff but I can’t take it with me and I can’t throw it away,” he explained. After posing for a quick photo, he paused to shelve a few spare CD jewel cases and accidentally knocked out a ceiling tile. Leaving his mark, so to speak.
“Goodbye WXYC, I love you,” he said, blowing a quick kiss into the air. He then let the door–one last time–slam behind him.