By Lan Anh Le
There is a small door on the west side of Memorial Auditorium that leads down to a basement full of amplifiers, transmitters and shelves full of records, tapes and CDs. On top of the doorway resides a drawing of a red heart, whose caption reads “KZSU Stanford, 90.1 FM.”
KZSU, Stanford’s student-run radio station, has served the Farm since 1947 and is home to a mix of students, faculty, alumni and community members almost as eclectic as the music it broadcasts over the airwaves. Although many station members come and go over the quarters, a select few stick around for years, or even decades. One of them is Mark Lawrence ’67, chief engineer of KZSU for 40 years and counting.
In the engineering lair at the back of the station, Lawrence sits at his desk among myriad colorful wires, soldering tools and brightly lit screens. On his wall there are pictures of his family, Coca Cola ads, a card with a Robert Frost poem and a certificate of appreciation that the KZSU team gave him to commemorate his 40th year of service.
However, Lawrence might get a new wall decoration soon — this is Lawrence’s 50th year with the station. During his college years, Lawrence served as a member of KZSU’s engineering department and he has worked as an engineer at the station ever since he graduated in 1967 with a major in electrical engineering.
In his time at KZSU, Lawrence witnessed many of the transitions that the station has gone through over the years, from the annual change in leadership, to the bureaucratic hoops the station had to jump through to get their FM broadcasting license in 1964. Lawrence was even involved in the process of setting up the station’s FM transmitter at the Dish.
Despite his many years of service, Lawrence’s passion and curiosity for the technology at the station is as steadfast as ever.
“You would think that as the station’s longest [tenured] staffer, [Lawrence] would not be as enthusiastic about radio equipment as he is,” said Sophia Vo ’14, KZSU’s general manager. “That’s not the case. Every time I run into him, he’s tinkering with new technology, dusting off our vinyl record players or checking the emergency alert system.”
Known around the station for always being tapped into his smart phone, Lawrence talked enthusiastically about his fascination with technology, including GPS and computer chips.
“I’ve always been interested in building things,” Lawrence said. “According to my mom, I helped her rewire a pair of desk lamps when I was five.”
His love for technical things eventually led him to obtaining his first radio license as a sixth-grader and building a significant amount of radio equipment on his own in high school.
“So when I came to Stanford, electrical engineering was the obvious major,” he said.
Lawrence valued the hands-on experience of his undergraduate education as an electrical engineering major.
“I liked the practical side of EE a lot, more than the theoretical side of it,” he said. “I struggled with some of the theory classes, but I aced the labs.”
While some of his classmates had never gotten their hands on a soldering iron before, Lawrence was already adept at registering practical details and working with technical equipment. He joined KZSU as a freshman volunteer, deciding that — although he was involved in other student clubs, including the Amateur Radio Club — he preferred actively building things to discussing them.
“My job at KZSU was perfect for that,” he said. “I could spend all of my time building radio equipment.”
Among his other duties at KZSU, Mark helps repair equipment ranging from signal generators to distortion analyzers, replaces delicate needles on turntables and builds most of the equipment in the station’s three studios.
His duties, however, extend far beyond engineering. When, in the middle of his interview, a DJ manning Studio A shouted across the station: “Mark, there’s a burning smell,” Lawrence paused the session and rushed to where he was needed.
“To do this job, electronic knowledge is less important than general handyman skills,” he said after the crisis was averted. “I install new stuff and fix old stuff.”
Still, working with students is Lawrence’s favorite aspect of the job. He has worked alongside students that have gone onto impressive careers in the broadcast industry, including former news director Pete Williams ’74, an NBC News correspondent, and David Flemming ’98, an announcer for the San Francisco Giants.
According to Lawrence, however, the age difference between him and the largely student staff can sometimes be challenging, particularly when leadership of the station changes every year.
“The general manager, who is a student, is selected by the advisory board and serves for a year,” he said. “Technically, I call this person my ‘boss’, although they are an undergrad about 20 years old, and I’ve been working here for 50 years.”
Adam Pearson ’12, last year’s general manager, echoed this sentiment.
“When someone who’s the age of your grandparent is reporting to you, it is a challenging dynamic and conflict,” he said.
Both agreed, however, that a good working relationship was not hard to establish due to a mutual passion for college radio.
“Mark is engrained in the station culture, as he’s been there for so long,” Pearson said.
Moreover, not many students who work at KZSU are interested in the technical side of the radio.
“Do you call the electrical company to thank them that the lights are on?” Lawrence said. “You only think about your electrical company when something is not working.”
Nevertheless, Lawrence is thankful for the support and appreciation he has received from Pearson, Vo and many of the other staff members, whom he considers dear friends. Most importantly, however, Lawrence is most grateful for the opportunity to tinker with technology.
“I don’t do this job for love,” he said. “I do it because I like to build things.”