My KSAN Karma
by Miles Mellough
As KSAN reached its commercial zenith, I was on-air
across the bay at Berkeley's KRE-FM --- an independently owned and operated
freeform station playing jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, reggae, salsa and the
emerging fusion. Although I was aware of KSAN for breaking new ground within the
radio broadcast industry, I was perhaps too deeply imbedded in the culture of
KRE’s own ‘KREative’ spirit to fully recognize the genius of Jive95. I
also suppose being young, naive and new to the medium may have contributed to my
oversight as well. But as my sense of history deepened and my awareness of the
alternatives broadened, I began to realize just how our (KRE) and my own on-air
freedoms were in fact directly attributable to KSAN. It was then that I
finally stood in dumbfounded awe of the vision, execution and flat-out balls of
all things Jive.
As the 70’s crawled into the 1980’s, 95.0 was by then mainstream and KRE was being purchased by a slick East Coast corporate entity who were preparing to unleash the mind-numbingly horrendous ‘Quiet Storm’ on an unsuspecting audience. It was at this point that I jumped ship for KJAZ, Pat Henry’s flagship (which was the longest running 24 hour commercial jazz station in the U.S. and operated without a formatted structure of any kind other than simply playing jazz in all its forms). However, just before this happened, I had my first encounter with a KSANer in the form of Larry Bensky who had briefly joined the KRE news team during the transition. Although I rarely saw Larry, I felt his strong presence in the short lived politically energized reporting that followed. Often during late nights in the KJAZ studios for some inexplicable reason, Jay Hansen was there working on his alternative guide to San Francisco at a desk in the sales office. As he wrote and I played records, we never spoke much but were cordial to one another, respecting each other’s space and creative process. Finally, when KJAZ succumbed to early attempts at playlisting, I left for an extended stay in Europe where I serendipitously met and was advised by none other than Johnny Walker in Bristol, Dorset on the politics of England's BBC and IBC.
Failing to gracefully break the transatlantic cultural barrier, I returned to San Francisco just as KKCY ‘The City’ was debuting under the tutelage of Tom Yates and Kate Hayes. I was hired on for weekends and fill shifts where despite not being a full-timer, I felt quite comfortable. Why? Because almost all of the day-parts were chaired by the demigods of KSAN --- the great Norman Davis, Dan Carlisle who I listened to at WABX while living in Ann Arbor, MI, the always entertaining Bobby Dale and even Stefan Ponek on occasion! The news department was headed by the illustrious Dave McQueen along with Marshall Phillips who bounded about madcap and jovial. Though by then I had logged enough radio experience to loosely consider myself a peer, how could I not help but feel entirely normalized in the presence of such broadcasting greatness? Not that anyone tried to make me feel that way mind you --- it was purely my own warped perception of balance --- for acute clinical depression which had hounded me like a hungry dog through the years and was now beginning to sink it’s teeth into nearly all aspects of my life both personally and professionally.
As a brutal form of therapy, I began simultaneously working on-air at the award winning college radio station KUSF, where I struggled to work out some kind of weird catharsis in front of several hundred thousand listeners. Meanwhile back at KKCY, I felt completely intimidated by Norman and Dan who were both extremely warm to me, but loomed so large in their magnitude. The late Bobby Dale on the other hand never failed to crack me up in his zany hipster/dufus way, but always impressed me with the enormity of his ear for music. I really felt at one though when Dave McQueen called in sick one day and I was tapped to fill his shoes. Whew...what a big shoe! Upon returning, Dave told me he thought I had done a great job and christ, that was like hearing it directly from upstairs!
My deteriorating sense of well-being aside, I sadly
concluded around this point that I’d unlikely survive outside the cocoon of
progressive radio, for I just didn’t have the obligatory ego to muscle my way
through the more commercial and competitive formats that necessitated it. As
KKCY’s short life span came to an end, I felt humbled and honored to have been
able to work side by side with many of the innovators of modern FM radio and
lamented the stations demise.
Shortly thereafter, KOFY-FM had promised to keep the spirit of ‘free’ radio alive, but it was clearly a pipe dream. For a short minute I thought about pursuing the new station if just for the opportunity of working with Thom O’Hair, but reason took the day, so I changed my name, changed my look --- essentially reinvented myself and continued on with my public purification at KUSF. It was there that I had the good fortune to meet Kate Ingram who took over the PD position around the same time. In retrospect, Kate was an enormous booster of my cathartic process and a true believer in my potential as long lasting contributor to the radio medium. I only wish I had realized what a friend I had in her at the time, but my illness prevented me from accepting this. Concurrently, I was spinning discs down at Slim’s in SF between live sets where I also encountered the ubiquitous Bonnie Simmons who was a sweetheart and the consummate professional. It seemed I was forever crossing paths with exKSANers who had contributed in their own ways to my own history, yet I still felt so far apart from them.
By the late 1980’s, I had developed my radio show at KUSF into a relatively successful nightclub act that was kind of a strange brew consisting of two parts Mose Allison mixed with one part Kenneth Patchen, a generous helping of Symphony Sid and a dash of Crazy Guggenheim thrown in for good measure. It takes a vivid imagination I know, but I had the pleasure and privilege of working with many outstanding musicians who seemingly understood me and tolerated my increasing moodiness. At about this time, Kate had initiated ‘Jive Radio’ over at KUSF and I joined on (in one last ditch attempt) to participate alongside Ben Fong-Torres, Richard Gossett, Bonnie and many others. But mental illness was still pulling me deeper into its shadowy corners until it finally drew me under and I fell off the face of the earth for several years until I met Harmony, my wife-to-be and slowly regained my footing. As fate would have it, my KSAN Karma was to continue as she herself was friends with Ben, Bob McClay, Sean Donahue, Richard G. and Terry McGovern. Although we as a group never really socialized, on occasion we would see Richard at the Anchor Steam Brewery where he would kindly keep the bar open long after the tours had left in order to entertain and inebriate us.
Sadly, I’ve lost touch with them all but in the end, I’d like to thank Tom Donahue and all of the staff at Jive95 for creating such a wonderful period of time in the history of radio, for helping to nurture my own development on the airwaves, for liberating the medium so that others could benefit and for always being at least on the periphery of my life.