Ben-Fong Torres: The Radio ‘Passionates’ Do it For the Music

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By Ben Fong-Torres, San Francisco Chronicle   Sunday March 1 2015

  •                       Derk Richardson, who works Thursday nights at KPFA. Photo: Bonnie Simmons / Bonnie Simmons / ONLINE_YES
Photo: Bonnie Simmons / Derk Richardson, who works Thursday nights at KPFA.
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I’ll call them the “passionates.” They are the disc jockeys who spin music they love on any station that will have them. They usually work for no compensation, and they pay their own expenses — transportation, records, research materials — without complaint. They love to spread music on the air.

They’re all over public and community stations — on KPFA and KALW, on KPOO and KUSF (now online only). They play everything from hip-hop and new age to R&B and rock oldies.

There’s M. Dung, who raved his way onto the morning show on KFOG years ago and is still raving with his “Rock House” Saturday nights on BAM radio (at www.live365. com/stations/radiobam). Sully Roddy, a champion of rootsy Americana, pops up on KKUP in Cupertino (on “Swing Boogie”), as well as on KALW and KPFA.

The passionates date back to Al “Jazzbeaux Collins, who, with his glory years on KSFO and KGO (and WNEW in New York) behind him, did shows on KTIM in San Rafael and KCSM in San Mateo, driving himself and his crates of records to and fro, all for the love of jazz. I think of Bob Sarlatte — the comedian, musician and former PA-system voice of the 49ers — who drove almost every weekend to Napa to do an oldies show with buddy Michael O’Brien on KVYN.

On KPFA, there are Bonnie Simmons and Derk Richardson, the Thursday-night tandem. They, in turn, point to Larry Kelp (former music critic at the Oakland Trib), Larry Bensky (retired news anchor now hosting a program of piano music early Sunday mornings) and Mary Tilson, spinning Americana music at the Pacifica Foundation station in Berkeley — also,Sarah Cahill, playing classical music on KALW, Tim Lynch, spinning Americana on KPIG and KPFA, and Art Sato, with Latin jazz on KPFA.

There are so many — including, I should note, some who are full time, on commercial stations. I think of Steven Seaweedon KSAN (“The Bone”), whose love of rock music appears boundless. I think of Peter Finch, who was paid till he was let go at KGO. As a kid, he flew every weekend to Monterey for a radio gig that barely covered his transportation expenses.

But let’s focus on Sarlatte, Richardson, and Michael Coats. Coats is a public-relations vet who’s been on KSVY (91.3) in Sonoma for nine years, along with Martin Howard (“Dr. Pickles”) and “Jobsite Jeff Mills (former tour manager of the Doobie Brothers, a former client of Coats’).

Coats simply answered an on-air invite by KSVY for locals to be on the radio. He began with his son, Mike. Now, his and his buddies’ “Guys at Five” show airs Wednesdays, 5-7 p.m., and streams at KSVY.org. “We get to do whatever we want,” says Coats, “kinda circa KSAN in the mid- to late ’70s.”

“Why do we do it? It’s community service, but we like to say it gives us two hours a week of man time in the sandbox.”

Sarlatte didn’t need a radio show on KVYN (“K-Vine”). But he and O’Brien, a voice-over talent who lives in Marin County, drove to Napa almost every Sunday to do “The Bob and Michael Show” live, from 9 p.m. to midnight, from 2006 until late 2013, when the station tightened its music format.

The pair made “next to nothing,” said Sarlatte. “But they were happy to give us the time.” They also got freedom. “We were free to invent whatever we wanted.” They specialized in themes and musical segues, working in obscure hits and drawing from their own music libraries, as well as KVYN’s and the occasional track from YouTube.

“It was the reward of doing something that you say afterwards, ‘I thought of this off the top of our heads. This is as good as I’ve heard anybody do this kind of thing.’” (Sarlatte and O’Brien, needless to say, are open to a new radio home.)

Richardson, a longtime music journalist, is in his 20th year on KPFA, where he follows Simmons’ two-hour Thursday show with his own, called “Hear and Now,” beginning at 10 p.m. Actually, he has made appearances on KPFA beginning in 1989. He brings in some 100 CDs and a few vinyls and improvises.

“I get to share the wide range of music I love,” he says, noting he also does interviews with artists. “One of my great pleasures is being able to present live music over the airwaves. The station has a large, well-equipped performance room and production studio with a huge mixing board and extremely dedicated volunteer engineers.” More radio passionates.

Richardson’s day job is at Afar magazine, where he’s senior editor. But his radio program, he says, “is by far the most fun I have all week.”

Ram tough: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, it’s the Chinese New Year Parade on Saturday, and for the 15th year, Julie Haener and I will co-anchor the telecast on KTVU, and worldwide via KTVU.com. (I’ve been going lunar since 1997 with Elaine Corral and Thuy Vu, before Haener, KTVU’s evening news co-anchor, took the co-hosting reins.) Catch us if you can.

R.I.P.: The legendary broadcaster Gary Owens died Feb. 12 at age 80 from complications of diabetes. Gary — whose steppingstone to “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” was Oakland, where he became a morning star on KEWB from 1959-61 — was a tremendous influence in my life and career, and a friend. I need some more time and space to reflect on him. I’ll do that in the next two columns.<z_solid_box displayname=”z_solid_box” name=”z_solid_box”>

Ben Fong-Torres is a freelance writer. E-mail: [email protected]

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